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

Jun 9, 2018

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.  


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