It is secret government, not Chinese subversion, we have most to fear

Nov 25, 2019

Paul Barratt has put the country on notice that, as currently practiced by government, Australia could find itself at war before it knew it – see  

Since and including the Vietnam war, decisions purporting to have been taken pursuant to the Prerogative Power, exercisable by the Governor-General in Council, have in fact been exercised at Ministerial level only and can in effect be exercised by any junior defence minister should s/he close to do so.

As Prime Minister Morrison might say: “How easy is that?”

Given that Prime Minister Morrison relies for advice in this area  exclusively on powerful elements in the military/intelligence complex, the incentive for militarising politics has been far too tempting. A series of articles in Pearls and Irritations, led by convenor John Menadue, have critically examined the influence of this cohort and the factors that motivate them and impel their thinking.

Anyone with experience of Australian politics over the past century will be aware how governments create security risks in order to achieve ulterior purposes. Before it was communists under the bed; now it would be Chinese communists in the bed.

In the past week we have seen a recent head of ASIO and former head of the Defence Department, Duncan Lewis, now retired – in an interview with The Age newspaper – seriously warning Australia and Australians that China was seeking to “take over” our political system through insidious, secretive interference. This he asserts is an “existential threat” to Australia. One assumes he uses that expression in the sense used by its originator, the Danish philosopher, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, which in addition to everything else would seek to take over our minds, bodies and souls. At the least, it implies that we are all at risk to succumbing to the fate or condition of the former Labor Senator, Sam Dastyari. That should not been seen as representative of most Australians.

More specifically Mr Lewis warns that as well as targeting politicians in this respect the Chinese are working to win influence in social, business and media circles. To quote: “Espionage and foreign interference is insidious. It’s effects might not present for decades and by that time it’s too late. You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country.” Basically, the Chinese would have taken us over, pulling strings from offshore.

But really! We now have the most educated, plugged in, and aware generation in Australia’s history. A few cases of individual vulnerability doesn’t represent a nation. But if a nation is to save itself from what Mr Lewis fears, it must be fully informed about the realities of its situation, at home and abroad, and not fed spurious scenarios for undisclosed purposes. As a free and open society we should not be encased in a plethora of secrecy laws, be subject to secret court proceedings or unreasonable constraints on free speech. More of this and the people will lose confidence in government generally.

Since Vietnam we have been drafted into US wars that have not succeeded in their purpose nor can be shown to have been in Australia’s interests. These wars – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – have resulted in millions of deaths, life changing injuries and the spread of illness and disease. While Australian casualties may have been relatively modest, the fall out here in terms of shattered families, mental illness and suicides is not insignificant. Overall, globally, the consequences of these wars have been devastating and are the main cause of the unsettled state of the world today. Until now we have too readily accepted this as the way things are. To go on doing so will be our undoing.

The fact is, as Paul Barratt has pointed out, that we could be in armed conflict overseas at the press of a button. The Defence Powers as currently exercised are illegitimate, unregulated, open ended, and available to any government without checks and balances beyond the narrow focussing of the National Security Committee. What proportion of the electorate would identify with that Committee’s views on anything, let alone war and peace? How is it that the views of highly informed opinion on China as found in open independent sources differ so much from those held in the Canberra ‘bubble’. How much are people like Mr Lewis captives of their own Canberra bubble?

There are no effective checks and balances in this area apart from political heft which is absent in both major parties. Not only is the initial commitment to conflict not subject to the primary defence power, neither is ‘mission creep’ following an initial deployment, as has occurred in all recent conflicts. Just now what is the reason for troops remaining in Iraq after the ‘training mission’ has concluded? Where might the deployment of our naval vessel or aircraft in and around the Straits of Hormuz lead to if Donald Trump gets his way with Iran?

Avoidance of such pitfalls in future will depend on an informed public and sensible international diplomacy – which means not going out of our way, as do defence/intelligence spokespeople, to brand gratuitously neighbouring powers as enemies of the state. As one-time head of Defence Mr Lewis would surely know that in any foreseeable period or beyond, a serious military conflict with China, with or without the US, would be suicidal for Australia. So why provoke it? History and geography has determined that we, an already half Asian country, must learn to live with Chinese and Asian cultures, whether determined by Beijing or otherwise. Much water will flow under the bridge meanwhile but, for our part, let it flow. As a nation we can cope.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and international trade policy adviser. He is a former Treasurer of Australians for War Powers Reform and currently a committee member.

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