We, and ASIO, should fear our own agents of influence

The Director General of ASIO, Mike Burgess, is proposing to write a letter to all parliamentarians warning them of the risk that some of the people blowing in their  ear may be agents of a foreign power (ASIO code for China) or acting at the direction of spymasters in a foreign government (ditto).

Golly, I hope our politicians can understand this complicated stuff. Most have never had their arm improperly twisted in their lives.

But right now, the nation’s security might be better protected by warning politicians of the risk of being improperly influenced  by mates, cronies, spivs, urgers, property developers, and weapons suppliers, foreign and domestic, especially those with service and political backgrounds.  Some, but only a few, of these lobbyists may be acting at the instance of foreign governments, but, whether in it for themselves or alien taskmasters, a lot are doing far more to subvert national security than all of the busloads of sinister foreigners allegedly involved in ASIO’s latest security obsession.

The fantasy is not, of itself, about the theory of the agent of influence  — the  evil fairy who spreads propaganda and disinformation as the paid, but undisclosed agent of a foreign power. Whether such fairies exist at all is highly contentious inside and outside security intelligence circles, because no actual specimen has ever been captured. Security agencies have never found a persuasive way of distinguishing between earnestly held opinions happening to align with thinking by a government abroad, and the pretend adoption of views not honestly held.

But to have some doubts about the theory cannot be to deny that governments, and people within them, are influenced by those to whom they listen or read. People with views. Opinions. Interests. People inviting decision makers to prefer their side of an argument. It is the stuff of politics, and of political choice. Most of those trying to exert influence are local. Only a few are from abroad, let alone from potentially hostile countries.

Right now Australians badly need to have a good look at people exerting influence over our government. In terms of the evident dangers, the risk that a secret agent is seeking to misrepresent herself is trifling compared with the clear and present dangers from the lack of control and scrutiny of people trying to influence the exercise of power and the dispensation of public cash.

Sincerity might be a false measure. We don’t expect advertising agents to actually believe in the virtues of their soap. Nor should anyone think too-recently-retired military officers are honest in pushing, on behalf of a client, some military hardware to their former colleagues. After Iraq invaded Kuwait 30 years ago, Kuwait hired Hill and Knowlton, an international PR outfit with an Australian arm to pretend that Iraqi soldiers were slitting babies’ throats. This was bullshit, as the PR firm knew, but helped whip up enthusiasm for the war. ASIO theologians of agent-of-influence manifested no concern. Indeed I have never known ASIO, in 70 years, or Burgess, in his public career, show any concern about fake news, American propaganda or foreign efforts to manipulate Australian public opinion if the manipulation is being done by white-folk, particularly Anglophones.

The professional, but open liars in the public opinion game — from diplomats down to lobbyists  exercise  a good deal more influence than the secret agent or covert lobbyist. Even the advocate  pretending to be independent is usually an academic, without the clout or access to power of the big boys and girls.

Nor does a flow of money from abroad prove much. It does not prove one’s opinions are bought, or that they tend to subvert our system. Australia enacted foreign-influence legislation a few years ago, requiring people in receipt of such money to put their names in a register. A recipient may commit a serious offence by failing to do so. But the offence is of not registering, not of being in thrall to a foreign power or ideology. Intention or effect, as Monty Python might say, don’t enter into it.

One must register — and then submit oneself to the scrutiny of one’s being, one’s motives and one’s opportunities, from an impartial but unaccountable committee of wallopers, spooks and indoctrinated diplomats, and others with a high respect for scholarship. Under the kindly guidance of high officials in Home affairs, a telling consideration will be the extent to which thoughts and deeds deviate from the opinions of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison.

This all started when it became evident that a few Chinese millionaires and billionaires were cosying up to — and giving big wads of cash to — politicians and political operators on both sides of politics. There were any number of eager recipients. We could see what was sold — primarily integrity — but not what was bought. The businessmen, sometimes philanthropists, were wanting to become trusted best friends — likely, as Sam Dastyari found, to pick up one’s bills. These new mates might bend your ears over a fine lunch, with Chinese perspectives on the world. They might ask for your help in pushing through the paperwork — on, for example, a development application. They might ask for small favours, trivial in value compared with their tokens of friendship, but not, on the face of it involving anything improper. Sometimes, more favours put one on the hook, as the trade puts it. But helping a rich Chinese businessman advance his investments by using one’s influence is not necessarily promoting the interests of the Chinese government.

One can more or less take it as read that rich Chinese entrepreneurs have  good connections within the Chinese government. They might, sometimes, do things, including the recruitment of agents, when told to. (In a similar manner, Australian, British and American businessmen often provide cover for our spies, at Australian government request). But Chinese business is cutthroat, and most business activity is focused on becoming richer. By the theory of the great Chinese economist, Adam Smith, the scrabble is not usually cooperative.

One could see some political folk compromised, usually by their own greed. Some even parroted Chinese propaganda, at odds with their party’s position. But had they been “turned”? On the evidence, at best rented. That party leaders were hypocrites about this venality and set a pragmatic example in soliciting donations, or selling seats at the big boys’ table, did not help.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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