MICHAEL McKINLEY. Australia’s China policy: who rules, who governs and the SAS connection

Australia’s China policy in recent days has moved from being a subject of heated and understandable debate and controversy based on argument and evidence, to a target of bureaucratic and organisational guerrilla warfare.  From within the state and parliamentary system, attacks of one type or another come without warning, raising questions about who is ruling and who is merely governing.   

Recent events concerning the threat, real or imagined, posed by China to Australia, raise five vexing questions.

The FIRST  emerges in the wake of Andrew Hastie’s use of parliamentary privilege to make allegations (of bribing a senior United Nations official) against a wealthy Chinese businessman who is also accused of being an agent of the Chinese Government. The Liberal Party Member for Canning’s source, apparently, was privileged intelligence he had received in his capacity as Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The PJCIS’s main functions  are administrative and expenditure review and oversight of Australia’s primary intelligence agencies including importantly, ASIO.

Prior to making his allegation he is reported to have contacted a junior officer of one of the agencies under his committee’s oversight, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This  had the effect of alerting that organisation’s Director-General, Major-General (retired) Duncan Lewis, of what was to proceed. It is also reported that, on this matter of extraordinary significance and sensitivity to Australia’s foreign policy, neither the Prime Minister, nor the Foreign Minister, nor the ten other members of the PJCIS were given any advanced notice.

If these reports are true (and there has so far been no attempt to correct the record), the first question then is, why did Hastie not communicate his intentions with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and the members of the PJCIS? Within the ambit of this inquiry it would be prudent to ask whether Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop were aware of the intelligence on the Chinese businessman before Hastie’s speech.

Equally and SECONDLY within the ambit is this question: did the Director-General of  ASIO, having been made aware that Hastie had not only  contacted his organisation on a significant matter of foreign policy, but also that his intentions were to make allegations bases on privileged information which would confound that policy, communicated this in real time to the Prime Minister? In the absence of Hastie and the others responding, an urgent inquiry surely cannot be waived.

For the present it is appropriate to ask a THIRD  major question: what is Hastie’s overall relationship with ASIO in general, and the Director-General of ASIO in particular? What follows, it must be emphasised, is based on the public record and therefore speculative but, again in the absence of explanations which should have been provided, it is all we have and, thus, is both legitimate and warranted given the seriousness of what transpired.

To begin, both Andrew Hastie and Duncan Lewis share not only a military background in the Australian Army, but also service in that elite fighting force which is the Special Air Service (SAS); the former served in it for five years, the latter for eleven years within a career that was both successful and distinguished. The same can be said of Lewis’ post-military career which has taken him to the higher reaches of the public service – Ambassador, to Belgium, Luxembourg, European Union, and NATO, Secretary of Defence, and now head of ASIO.

The public record does not include any mention of a close formal or professional relationship between Hastie and Lewis. But that is not necessarily the end of such an inquiry. It would be reasonable to assume that there is at least a residual bond between them as a result of common military service in the Army; this, indeed, is widely heralded among ex-servicemen and servicewomen and would be natural. Equally, it would be reasonable to assume that such a bond would be far stronger between ex-members of the SAS. Its very selection processes, structure, and the operations it undertakes, make the forging of such bonds natural and imperative.

In this light Hastie’s decision to contact ASIO exclusively prior to his speech – whether for permission/ advice – can be read as follows: as a former junior officer to a former senior officer; as a former SAS officer to another who commanded both the SAS and Special Operations, and as junior politician in possession of privileged, US-sourced intelligence seeking to give notice to a senior intelligence official.

In the context outlined, furthermore, Hastie’s actions are consistent with his idiosyncratic disposition to the relevant chain-of-command, an inclination made apparent in 2016.   Then, as a member of the Standby Reserve, he refused an ADF direction to him (based on Defence policy) to remove election campaign photos of himself in military uniform on the grounds that it was politicising the ADF. The Department of Defence then terminated his service.

This was not the end of it, however. He  had accused the recently retired Chief of Army and 2016 Australian of the Year, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, under whom he had just served for four years, of politicising the ADF far more than he himself had. Further, Morrison was then held to be a significant contributory cause for Hastie deciding to resign his commission and enter politics. Inferentially, Morrison’s disqualification from the bonds of ex-service comradeship was the result of his espousal of, inter alia, republicanism, gender equality and diversity.

The explanation for these positions is Andrew Hastie’s religious convictions which arise from his commitment to a form of Christian conservatism which emphasises a dualistic philosophy dividing the world between good and evil. To say the least, it is intolerant of ambiguity and prone to the proclamation of absolutes though these can be confusing to follow at times.

When he defied the ADF direction on photographs, his claim was that he was answering to a higher authority than Defence – “the people of Canning.” When making the allegations in Parliament, his appeal was to “the national interest,” “the Australian people,” and the “ideals and democratic traditions of our Commonwealth.” There appears to be no recognition that, as worthy as these principles are, had he cited them in defence of (by way of example only) charges that by refusing the chain of command in the ADF he was acting contrary to good order and military discipline.

At this stage a FOURTH question proceeds logically: how can Duncan Lewis be so confident that no harm whatsoever was done to Australia’s intelligence relationship with the US, unless, of course Andrew Hastie’s undermining of the relationship with China was an intended result?

The FIFTH is quite stark and is effectively a series of questions. How did an untried, inexperienced politician get appointed to the PJCIS – one of the most important committees of the Parliament – after just one year in parliament. How did he get to be appointed Chair of the PJCIS after just another year and despite a mindset obvious to his colleagues?

This is not to denigrate Hastie’ military service or his religious beliefs; rather it is to ask how and why someone who finds ambiguity intolerable should be in a position of authority and sensitivity in an area in which the subject matter is necessarily ambiguous and qualified. It is also to ask how and why the Prime Minister was denied timely advice to which he was entitled by the combination of one of his own caucus members and the Director-General of ASIO.  

From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy international relations and strategy in the department of Politics, at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.  


Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University. Formerly he taught International Relations (Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict) at the University of Western Australia and the ANU.

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5 Responses to MICHAEL McKINLEY. Australia’s China policy: who rules, who governs and the SAS connection

  1. R. N. England says:

    Its involvement in probable murders in Afganistan, and the subsequent cover-up (reported in today’s Guardian) indicate that the SAS tends to select violent, xenophobic, and dishonest men. Few are more likely to drag Australia down to pariah status in the eyes of civilised nations than these. Yet the government has put them in a position of power over it.

  2. Michael Hart says:

    Well despite all the possible mutual bonds of service etc. what is clear is that there is no respect for the Ministerial Responsibility, Organisational chain of command nor any respect for liberal democratic values nor any indication of intellectual rigour.

    Politicians using junior staffers with whom they have contact or are contacted by to obtain salacious titbits is nothing new, our current Prime Minister did it himself with a poor chap from Treasury, so what can he say? This is what happens when you politicise the public service and fragment policy across organisations based on erroneous ideological views that create mistrust between politicians and their servants. This is what happens when you become value free obsessed with metrics and optics but fail to understand substance, ambiguity or contrary perspectives.

    There is no doubt contrary views about what China is about or what China does within and across various Departments including ASIO and Foreign Affairs. The fact that it seems impossible for Government to arrive at a sane and balanced view of things Asian, which it has not been capable of for a long time will cause us considerable grief, considerable!

    We are on the wrong side of history. We continue to view and form policy and behave with respect to matters Asian and Chinese with the myopia of American exceptionalism, once a great liberal democracy now whose political soul and institutions are perverse and corrupt. Action and policy based on the anti-social and nihilistic fundamentalist epistemology and ideology of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism.

    Hardly surprising. Seems the Turnbull Government is in freefall. Cannot manage, do not know what they are managing, cannot govern, bereft of ideas and faced with the reality that what they believed in they don’t and what they thought they believed in did not work.

    Our capacity as the Russian saying goes, for ‘standing on your rake’ never seems to amaze me.

  3. Sandra Hey says:

    Great article, very informative and thought provoking, what a worry?

  4. tim woodruff says:

    ‘it is to ask how and why someone who finds ambiguity intolerable should be in a position of authority and sensitivity’

    Sadly, the answer to that question would be apparent from the positions Peter Dutton holds. Intolerance of ambiguity has become an asset for success in the current political climate.

  5. Simon Warriner says:

    “The FIFTH is quite stark and is effectively a series of questions. How did an untried, inexperienced politician get appointed to the PJCIS – one of the most important committees of the Parliament – after just one year in parliament. How did he get to be appointed Chair of the PJCIS after just another year and despite a mindset obvious to his colleagues?”

    I offer this by way of an answer/explanation: Our party politicians of all stripes have one notable flaw, the demonstrably fail to understand conflicted interest. The formative requirement for the position is conflicting allegiance to party with the duty to represent ALL their constituents. That flaw washes through everything they do in their public lives from that point forward and colours their judgement on matters where the greatest possible common good should be placed to the fore in decision making. The interests of sound public administration were conflicted with some other, more compelling, interest in the case of Hastie. Religion, factional, who knows?

    This requirement of party politics has and is deterring our best and brightest minds from putting themselves forward to lead the nation and the states and territories that comprise it, and the process is inexorably compounding. It is rapidly looking like we are reaching the nasty end of that compounding process, where the next iteration will land us in what most tradesmen refer to as “cluster f..k” territory. In the case of China it will involve an end to trade and military action, with devastating economic and human consequences. Clearly not in Australia’s national interest.

    A cluster f..ck, for the uninitiated, is a situation where the outcome is undesirable and every attempt to improve the situation renders the outcome worse, often by orders of magnitude. The usual solution when confronting such a situation is to withdraw to a safe distance and avoid flying debris, while waiting for the forces driving the event to deplete themselves .

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