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 had been killing babies. 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, to 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.
Corruption undermines national security far more than spying
Burgess said this week, correctly, that the biggest risk of Chinese money and influence subverting the Australian system is at the local government level. Then at state and territory level, then at national level. He means, of course, that much of the money involved - the bribes, the sweeteners, the party donations pretending to come from elsewhere - are about property development. This corrupts the system but does not In most cases compromise national security. Moreover, this sort of chicanery is practised by all sort of locals and foreigners, by no means only Russians and Chinese. ASIO should be reporting this venality to ICACs and state police, and stop pretending it's a subset of the agent-of-influence issue.
The idea of registration is that Australians should always know when foreigners, or people speaking for them, are seeking to influence government decision-making. I'm for that. Likewise Australians should always be allowed to know, if they can be bothered to find out, who is purveying propaganda on behalf of foreign countries. This is in the interests of "transparency", apparently a core value in national security policy.
But Australian governments are not greatly in favour of similar transparency when one asks about the influence of corporations, foreign and domestic, on ministers determining economic or social policy - even defence and foreign affairs policy. It is not usually difficult to see who is parroting a line friendly to another nation's interests - America's say, or Taiwan's or Israel's. Though China is sometimes drowned out in the clamour of interests.
We don't know which oil companies, foreign and domestic, and sometimes foreign masquerading as domestic, got a seat at the table when a big decision was made. Nor, usually, about which disgraced banker was treated as a wise statesman when it suited. In principle, of course, all supplicants should get a hearing, but the door is not always open to players without the vested interest. Or the record of political donations. More and more, it's becoming a scandal.
Australia is by now one of the last of the western democratic countries - and the federal government virtually the last among the governments in the Australian federation - to flatly refuse to make diaries of ministerial meetings open to public examination.
Indeed, under the Morrison government, and increasingly under state governments, on both sides of politics, the problem is not only one of transparency. It is equally one of regularity, process, respect for the law, for proper procedure and a want of that value Scott Morrison pretends to espouse: a fair go for all. Our own corrupted system is doing far more damage than any foreign agents of influence.
It was a problem enough before the Coronavirus pandemic. And before the bushfire crisis. One has only to look at sports rorts to see lawlessness in government. Conventions were trashed. The law and procedures laid down for the proper and impartial distribution of grants were disrespected. We saw the complete subversion of the minds of supposedly independent senior bureaucrats, and the replacement of a democratic ideal by arbitrary, partial and unaccountable administration. Money was for the politically chosen few with conscious disregard for the public interest.
This is far worse than a common or garden rort of the routine National Party variety, deplorable as those are. This was one seemingly directed, inter alia, to manipulate an election. It was controlled through the prime minister's office. It was sanctioned by the Minister for Finance, the Attorney-General and the notional head of the public service. A gutless police force, albeit without power to investigate Commonwealth administrative crimes not formally referred to it, sits around doing nothing, pretending the main game is about bringing leakers and whistleblowers before the courts.
Even with an active memory of WA Inc, the Fitzgerald inquiry, sundry NSW scandals, and Victorian and South Australian royal commissions, this has the appearance of high-class corruption of government. I cannot think of all-of-government apparent corruption, or systemic scandals as great in the past 50 years of state or territory administrations.
A fair dinkum anti-corruption body, run by a fair dinkum commissioner, would be exposing crooks by the score, not least among those preventing just such an inquiry.
But the Sports Rorts affair is but an example of a fundamental rottenness in federal government. Similar scandals are routinely batted away, without political consequences. There are procurement scandals, with mates, cronies and party donors "getting a go for having a go" as a shameless Morrison put in parliament last week. There is possible bureaucratic corruption with the purchase of airport land. There are serious questions, unanswered, about water purchases, river management and the use of forged documents. Police curiosity is, of course, independently minimal. There's incompetence, mismanagement and clear neglect of duty over aged care, the robo-debt crisis, and the way that Border Force managed crowds at airports. There are seriously deficient processes, under cover of bureaucratic management, by which mates of the government are hired to investigate dodgy practices. There is the open contempt of the courts - and possible criminality - by senior ministers.
The heavy elephants are splashing most of the water out of the pool. Stewards of public money are selectively muting their hearing aids, and closing the window so they can't be seen.
The crisis of honest government and honest public stewardship is much magnified by the pandemic, with government spending now increased by tens of billions of dollars, a very large amount to big business. This is without the accountability or probity requirements that should normally prevail, and, seemingly, not even any ministerial will for demanding proper accountability.
We will never know if we got value for money, because the urge to get the money out - as well as the pretend-urge to "cut red-tape" - has reduced central scrutiny and control, the accountability of spending, or, damningly, the processes by which the money is doled out. Surely, if the Hayne royal commission has taught us anything, it is that big business, especially when it has friends in cabinet, will steal anything it can lay hands on. It's a process aggravated by the accountability black hole called the National Cabinet, and by significant rorting by the states and territories, themselves major recipients and distributors of cash. Morrison's approach to conflict of interest and accountability was demonstrated by the way he created a commission of mates and cronies, many in the gas industry, to give him independent advice on getting the economy moving. This privileged cabal is getting insider access to cabinet papers and able to participate in the distribution of spoils among some of themselves.
One cannot, yet, say, that it is a government in a crisis of legitimacy and authority in the same way as the government of Donald Trump, or even a government in the chaos of Boris Johnson. But a government with so little respect for propriety, process and the public interest, and so naked a belief that public money can be spent as it likes, without any obligation to answer questions or come to account, is fashioning its own noose.
ASIO, which has done more than any public body other than the semi-public Strategic Policy Institute, to stir up conflict with China, should be much more concerned with terror domestic.
It's not my point here that the notion of agents of influence is a joke. There are all sort of agents working on the minds of this government, seeking, sometimes buying, favours for themselves, dispensations, public money and public rights. Their influence is too pervasive. No one is watching to prevent plunder of the public purse. That plunder is happening.
These are the big threat to Australia's future, not the invasion some of the Cassandras seem actually to want. As ASIO and others deliberately poke sticks in Chinese eyes in the hope of causing the reactions now happening, I think, we can assume the danger that reactive Chinese propaganda will be accorded too much weight.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times