Remember the Stasi who ran East Germany’s government

The question taxing many, and one to be answered, is why are our security services and not the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade running our relationship with China?

The answer is complex and begins with what I will term the onset of the Howard era in 1996 and continues in all of the era’s perniciousness to this day.

Howard ran into the arms of the AFP after the Port Arthur massacre and stayed there for the rest of his time as Prime Minister. The embrace became closer and more intimate after 9/11, with hysteria generated around Islamic terrorism and the demonisation of Muslims, which saw the AFP manufacture ‘evidence’ around ‘suspects’ such as the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef; it was called out as a result.

Nonetheless, Howard and the LNP remained star struck with their perception of the power, skill and reach of intelligence agencies. Relishing their elevated status within the Canberra circus, security agencies, including the AFP, put forward ambitious funding proposals and were rewarded with their claims and more. Their power and influence were on the ascendancy at a time when Australian leadership was declining, in politics, public service, defence, business, church and education.

Increasingly operating in a vacuum, with few institutional checks and balances, the agencies took advantage. Interpreting data morphed into analysis and then projections based on intelligence data. It wasn’t long before these projections addressed options for action. On this trajectory and within this framework, it was a ‘logical’ next step for agencies to provide policy advice.

From climate change, energy, telecommunications, infrastructure and foreign policy, particularly relating to Iran and China, agencies, associated think tanks such as ASPI and defence industry lobbyists have become not only involved in the provision of policy advice but in the case of ASIO, ASIS, AFP and ASPI, driving and implementing policy contained in the advice they have provided government.

ASIO has been making political judgments and recommendations since it spied on the Australian Communist Party in the 1950s. At the time of the Vietnam War it spied on anti-war demonstrators. It regarded them as enemies of the state. It created files on activists that were used to prevent them getting jobs with government departments. It also spied on anti-apartheid activists and members of the ANC and PAC resident in Australia.

In 2011 ASIO made adverse security findings against 60 Tamils from Sri Lanka who were found to be refugees. The decision had the effect of keeping them in indefinite detention. ASIO apparently had obtained information indicating that the Tamils were former members of the Tamil Tigers and were likely to seek to re-activate that organisation, which the Sri Lankan and Australian governments had declared to be terrorists. The Tigers were Tamil soldiers who fought against Sinhalese soldiers in a civil war from 1983 – 2009 that ended in a massacre of thousands of unarmed Tamils.

Writing in The Canberra Times on 3 March, 2012, I said, ‘The only source of information available to ASIO to maintain its intransigence … is the Sri Lankan Government. It is unconscionable that the Australian Government allows one of its agencies to be beholden to the Sri Lankan Government in this way … The head of ASIO, David Irvine, has unfettered authority in this matter. He has made a poor call.’ This unfortunate travesty of justice and humanity took place under the umbrella of the war on terror.

Australian security organisations have always been close to their American counterparts as have Australian governments to successive American administrations. In Australia it is an article of fundamental belief by both the LNP and ALP that America, if and when push comes to shove, will come to our assistance. This belief stems from WWII when America used Australia as a base and stepping off point for its Pacific campaign to defeat Japan. Australia has chosen to interpret American self-interest as a selfless gesture of support. Fear of losing this support has led to a craven history of engagement with the US in military defeats in a number of theatres over the past 55 years.

Australian foreign policy has followed the moral and intellectual dependency on the US in relation to defence policy and planning. An unfortunate prism with which to view the world was provided by the so-called war on terror; it was accepted by the US and adopted by Australia.

President Trump has consistently vilified China. His rhetoric, such as it is, has been to cast China as a threat to America and an aggressive rogue state intent on destroying world order. He used the possible break out of Covid-19 in China to further demonise and isolate China. Joe Hockey, a former Coalition minister and ambassador to the US, now living in Washington, said on 22 September that it was essential that Trump be re-elected. That is the position of the LNP and ASPI and presumably Australian security agencies. They have convinced themselves of the threat posed by China and incredibly see Trump as the person best placed to contain that threat. Many in the media in Australia have bought into that.

Morrison, Dutton and Payne chose to single China out as the Covid culprit; rightly, through their thick-headed choice of words, invoking the justified ire of China. It was very much a case of fools rush in where angels fear to tread. None of this worries ASPI and the other Australian security agencies who seek confrontation with China believing that America has their backs. Not so.

The most incredible situation has arisen as a result of their naivety, skewed ideology and complete misreading of the situation. China has reacted with trade sanctions on beef, barley, meat and wine, probably worth annually around $80 billion. That is chicken feed to our newly powerful security agencies. They don’t care. Where is the money coming from to replace this loss? Not our problem.

The issue is to teach China a lesson, no matter the cost. America can dictate to Australia, spy on all our citizens but not China. China for them is the enemy. It is also our biggest trading partner. I asked Trade Minister Scott Birmingham’s office to supply details of approaches made to his Chinese counterparts to resume normal trade. They refused to provide details. Subsequent exchanges convinced me that despite his office claiming approaches had been made, I became convinced none had. Birmingham is not attending the Shanghai Trade Fair in November.

What is going on? Australian foreign policy, particularly with respect to China but also with Iran, has been taken over by the security establishment. They are telling the government what to do with respect to China. They are directing ministers. They don’t care about the loss in trade which they see as inevitable and collateral damage. China is about to impose further trade sanctions. It does not need us, we need it. Who will and what will replace this lost trade revenue? This is the stuff of cloud cuckoo land. Morrison has lost the plot. He has been white anted from within.

And who gains? Dutton. Using the so-called threat of China, agencies under his control have infiltrated the political process and are bypassing or marginalising the bureaucracy. Dutton still has his eye on the top job. He and Morrison are well matched. Both cunning, conniving and immoral, but Dutton has a right-wing, ideologically driven Department of Home Affairs at his disposal and he is using it. The cost to the country will not worry Dutton. His concerns about the human condition are reflected with the Tamil family incarcerated on Christmas Island.

What if Biden wins? A temporary reprieve for Morrison. An unholy scramble to try to retrieve something from the shell of the China relationship, but in the absence of a courageously led ALP, an ALP reformed and reconstructed to win elections against an evil and corrupt LNP, Dutton has the day using his security agencies to gain him power. Remember the Stasi?

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Bruce Douglas Haigh is an Australian political commentator and former diplomat.

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