The ASIO response was the same as all his predecessors,not to mention Oliver Twist: more, please.
ASIO boss Nike Burgess was praised last week for his bravery in fronting the hacks of the National Press Club in Canberra – but in fact few if any beans were spilled.
There were hints of daring deeds in the murky backwaters of espionage and intrigue, teasers of close escapes from dire threats to the safety of a complacent public But no real revelations to curl the hair or raise the gorges of his eager listeners.
Hardly surprising, of course – when you live in the secret world, secrecy is always the default option.
But the urbane superspook did make what should have been an embarrassing admission: despite huge increases in funding and reams of legislation designed to help his constantly expanding staff, we have actually gone backwards. Australia now hosts more foreign agents than it did in the cold war years, infiltration and subversion is on the rise, terrorism is a greater threat than ever.
However, far from displaying remorse over the evident failures, Burgess’s reflex response was the same as all of his predecessors, not to mention Oliver Twist: more, please. He confidently demands extra resources from a willing government cowed by the fear that a refusal could be construed as being soft on security. And of course we can never have that.
But there was one take out which deserved attention. Burgess noted that right wing extremism is on the increase and needs to be watched – perhaps even countered. To most observers since the Christchurch massacre, this is a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it has taken ASIO a long time to get there.
Since its inception immediately after the second world war, the agency has almost always seen its priority – indeed, its only real task – as countering the left in the name of preventing the spread of communism. In fact this was never a serious threat – it was once noted many CPA branches included more undercover ASIO agents than genuine radicals. and the left, while it often talked of revolution, seldom if ever acted on its words.
In contrast the right wing fringe put its detonations where its mouth was: Croatian followers of the Ustasha, the fascist party founded by Ante Pavelic, an admirer and ally of Adolf Hitler, once bombed the Yugoslav consulate in the leafy Sydney suburb of Double Bay. Their apologists excused this atrocity by explaining the bombers were not terrorists, but freedom fighters.
The left, understandably, felt that their supporters were being unfairly targeted while the right was being ignored or even condoned – this was the somewhat paranoid belief that led to the notorious raid by Labor Attorney-General Lionel Murphy on ASIO headquarters in 1973.
And even now the right makes a false equivalence, often referring to Islamic terrorism as left wing, where any form of religious fundamentalism is, and always has been, a manifestation of ultra-conservatism, if not reaction.
So the fact that Burgess has belatedly got his dictionary in order is to be welcomed. Perhaps he might now tell us what, if anything, he plans to do about it. Proscribing white supremacist hate groups in the way other fringe organisations are treated might be a good start.
Just naming the ones considered dangerous would be a start. Or would that be too brave and transparent?
Mungo MacCallum was formerly a senior Canberra correspondent.