Labor leader Anthony Albanese has hit back at claims he is the Chinese government's preferred prime ministerial candidate at the upcoming election.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton made the original allegation in federal parliament on Thursday, claiming there was "evidence" about the Chinese decision.
He then doubled down on his comments, telling the ABC on Friday: "There needs to be a greater awareness, frankly, particularly from the Labor Party about the engagement of people who don't have our national interest".
Mr Albanese says the head of Australia's counter-espionage and intelligence agency has never raised concerns with him and accused the government of being "desperate for distractions".
"I spoke with (ASIO director-general Mike) Burgess today and he has reaffirmed that he has not raised concern about any of my candidates. I cannot be clearer than that," he told reporters in Melbourne on Friday.
"National security is too important to engage in game playing such as what we saw on the floor of the parliament, however much the government needs a distraction."
The opposition leader's comments came after the Sydney Morning Herald revealed a Chinese spy ring attempted to install Labor candidates in NSW to get sympathetic MPs elected to parliament.
The plot was foiled by ASIO.
Mr Dutton referred to "open source information" ahead of the newspaper's revelation when asked for evidence to support his claim Mr Albanese was China's preferred prime minister.
Despite the comments drawing criticism as being inflammatory or unfounded, Mr Dutton said the situation with China had changed in the past decade.
"If you look at the facts in this case, I think certainly from what I see, both open source and other intelligence, that I see it's a statement of the obvious," he said.
"We're dealing with a very different China, the Chinese government or the Communist Party now than they were five or 10 years ago."
Labor deputy leader Richard Marles branded the remarks as shameful.
"This has been a disgraceful attempt to politicise our national security," he told the Nine Network.
"There is no one who takes national security more seriously than Anthony Albanese, in relation to the threat that China represents for the country."
Condemnation followed from former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who labelled the comments as a "reds under the bed" sledge.
"I think it's really reckless, I think it undermines Australian security, it uses matters of grave national security purely for crass political advantage," he told ABC radio.
"I'm worried (the election) is going to get uglier ... (Prime Minister Scott) Morrison should try to pull Dutton back in on that, it has no basis in fact."
Talks about China are on the agenda for discussions at Friday's Quad meeting of foreign ministers in Melbourne.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne will meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese and Indian counterparts.
When asked about Mr Dutton's comments, Senator Payne said making tough decisions on national security was a priority for the government.
"It does require a consistent and measured approach at all times," she told ABC radio.
"I think the point the prime minister and defence minister were making is that that hasn't always been demonstrated by the opposition."
Australian Associated Press
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