A member of the Parliamentary body that oversees intelligence agencies lends support to anti-China campaign

Oct 26, 2021
china embassy canberra australia
Australia's relationship with China has rapidly declined. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The compromised parliamentary intelligence committee illustrates the need for a standing royal commission to oversee Australia intelligence agencies.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) has arguably the weightiest responsibility of any parliamentary committee. It constitutes the only democratic oversight of the secretive operations of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the nation’s other intelligence agencies.

The importance of oversight is evidenced by such intelligence scandals as the false claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the 2004 bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet offices by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

Given the seriousness of the PJCIS’s oversight responsibility, a mostly ignored revelation from the current hearings of Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) is disturbing, to say the least. On October 12, Remy van de Wiel QC, representing former state Labor Party politician Adem Somyurek, read into evidence a December 2018 text message to Somyurek from his former factional ally, federal Labor Member for Holt Anthony Byrne.

The message was about NSW Labor Party General Secretary Kaila Murnain: “If she mucks you up,” Byrne texted, “I will make sure she guest stars on the next Four Corners hatchet job on China, which I’ll be on.” When Somyurek replied, “She appears to be OK”, Byrne texted back: “OK. Watch her — she’s a rat-fucker.”

The abhorrent language is not the disturbing part of this message.

Byrne is a long-serving member of the PJCIS: except for a brief stint in 2007–10 as Parliamentary secretary to then-prime minister Kevin Rudd, he has served on the PJCIS since 2005, including three years as chair in 2010–2013, and two stints as deputy chair, most recently from 2019 until his resignation last week.

In his SMS, this senior member of the PJCIS admitted, even boasted, of involvement in media attacks on China that he described as “hatchet jobs”. Moreover, he identified Four Corners, Australia’s premier television current affairs program, as the purveyor of those hatchet jobs.

Byrne’s text sheds light on the influences behind the rapid deterioration of Australia’s relationship with China, and the parallel shift in Australian public opinion against China, since 2017–18. The annual Lowy Institute poll records that the proportion of Australians who see China as a security threat has soared in just a few years, from 12 per cent in 2018 to 60 per cent in 2021.

This shift followed the similar turn in the United States that started during the Obama administration and escalated dramatically under the Trump administration, which named China as America’s “greatest threat”.

In Australia, the most obvious sources of the stream of negative China-related reports in the media that have influenced public opinion are two organisations tied to the US security apparatus: ASIO, which works closely with US intelligence through the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership; and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which receives funding from the US State Department, NATO and major US arms manufacturers.

From other text messages Byrne sent to Somyurek, reported in The Australian on June 19 2020, he revealed he was in contact with Nick McKenzie, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age journalist who also worked on Four Corners programs before shifting to 60 Minutes following the Nine-Fairfax merger in late 2018.

The following example demonstrates how ASIO, the Australian media, and the PJCIS have contributed to the far-reaching foreign interference laws that have negatively impacted Australia’s relationship with China.

On May 26 2017, ASIO chief Duncan Lewis testified before a Senate Estimates hearing that espionage and foreign interference were occurring on an “unprecedented” scale, without naming any specific countries.

On June 5, the ABC aired an episode of Four Corners reported by Nick McKenzie and entitled “Power and Influence”. It claimed that “China’s Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia”. The story named two Australian-Chinese businessmen, Dr Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo, who were large donors to both major parties.

McKenzie reported that in 2015 Duncan Lewis named the two businessmen in secret briefings to the heads of Australia’s major political parties to warn them of foreign influence. The Four Corners episode included details of Huang Xiangmo’s donations to the Labor Party arranged by then-Labor senator Sam Dastyari. (McKenzie continued to pursue Huang Xiangmo’s relationship with Dastyari in follow-up reports that led to Dastyari’s resignation in 2017, and the infamous “Aldi bag” of cash scandal in 2019 that claimed the Murnain’s job.)

The “Power and Influence” program prompted a review of Australia’s espionage and foreign interference laws.

This produced the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill 2017, which the PJCIS reviewed in an inquiry that reported in June 2018. On May 22 2018, just a few weeks before that inquiry concluded, then-PJCIS chair Andrew Hastie set off diplomatic and media shock waves when he used Parliamentary privilege to repeat accusations McKenzie’s former colleague John Garnaut had reported against Chau Chak Wing, which Hastie claimed had been confirmed by confidential information from US intelligence agencies.

Curiously, Hastie’s stunt was reported as having blindsided then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull; however, Hastie had forewarned ASIO boss Duncan Lewis, as Lewis revealed in Estimates two days later. In other words, Hastie, the chair of the committee that ASIO reports to, was in fact reporting to ASIO, but not his own PM.

Hastie’s stunt highlights the role of the PJCIS in Australia’s tensions with China. It has lent credibility to the blizzard of anti-China media reports through its various inquiries, including into claims of Chinese espionage, and national security threats to critical infrastructure. As well as advocating the foreign interference laws in 2018, that year the PJCIS’s inquiry also advocated restrictions on Chinese foreign investment and the ban on Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE from participating in the rollout of Australia’s 5G network. These specific measures were at the top of China’s list of 14 grievances against Australia that its embassy released to Nine media in November 2020.

Byrne’s crude text message is the latest evidence the PJCIS has compromised its oversight responsibilities by becoming a participant in intelligence activities.

It has been captured by the intelligence agencies and zealots: the February 15 2020 Sydney Morning Herald revealed Australia’s security agencies see Byrne as “one of their own”; and former PJCIS chair Hastie, current chair James Paterson, and Byrne are all “Wolverines”, a small, bipartisan group of China hawks in federal Parliament.

Under their oversight, Australia has suddenly lurched towards contemplating war against China. Australia urgently needs a standing royal commission to permanently scrutinise intelligence activities, as John Menadue called for in Pearls and Irritations on August 31 2020.

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