The patriot

Peter Dutton says ASIO has ‘besmirched’ all politicians, as the Coalition uses a national security warning to score political points

Spy chief Mike Burgess has achieved his aim: everyone in Canberra is talking about espionage, and who the unnamed former politician recruited by a foreign spy ring might be. As the ASIO director-general revealed in last night’s annual threat assessment, the former pollie was successfully cultivated by a group of spies targeting Australia several years ago, and even once suggested introducing a PM’s family member to their foreign handlers. Burgess did not give details, other than to say that the threat had been “neutralised”; his intention seems to have been to remind politicians that they are being watched, both by foreign spies and by Australian intelligence. The government has backed his decision to highlight the case without naming names, saying the public needs to be aware of such interference. But the accusation has outraged certain conservatives, who claim that all politicians have been smeared, as they draw their own inferences about who it might be.

Former treasurer Joe Hockey quickly became the main spokesperson for this outrage, furious that the target was allowed to “walk off into the sunset”. Speaking on RN Breakfast, an incensed Hockey labelled the former politician a “traitor”, adding that it was “absurd” for the ASIO boss to not name them. “He shouldn’t go out there and besmirch everyone that serves in parliament,” the former US ambassador argued, claiming that former politicians like himself had been “personally smeared” (no small irony, notes Guardian Australia’s Amy Remeikis). Opposition Leader Peter Dutton also had “besmirch” in his talking points, telling 2GB that it was “pretty rough to besmirch former politicians when he’s talking about one”. Dutton, however, went a little further than self-defence, suggesting the target was likely from a particular party and state, and suggesting foreign interference laws should be made retrospective in order to punish them for this “most egregious act”.

It’s rich, of course, for Dutton to complain about politicians being besmirched, only to go forth and immediately try to besmirch another, more select group of representatives. There is a wide range of people this could refer to, according to Crikey. (And, as Bernard Keane argues, it’s difficult to besmirch a group of people who have so thoroughly besmirched themselves.) Malcolm Turnbull’s son Alex has today revealed that he was the target of suspected Chinese agents, while a Chinese community leader and former Liberal candidate has today been found guilty of planning an act of foreign interference. Other leaders say it is unhelpful to speculate on the person’s identity, noting that Burgess has done it this way for a reason. But that hasn’t stopped Dutton, who clearly sees this as an opportunity to bang his patriot drum.

This isn’t the first time that Dutton has disagreed with the intelligence experts he claims to revere. After Burgess’ 2020 threat assessment, in which he warned of a rise in right-wing extremism, the then home affairs minister caused a stir by saying it was important for security agencies to deal with threats from both left and right, suggesting “left-wing terrorism” included Islamist extremism. In 2022, meanwhile, Burgess and other intelligence experts were forced to intervene against Dutton’s sinister politicking, as he and Scott Morrision repeatedly suggested Labor was China’s “pick” for the federal election. It’s all part of his schtick, pretending he cares about national security more than anyone else, even as experts say he is undermining that very thing.

As is to be expected, there is a wide range of views on whether Burgess did the right thing. Dr Malcolm Davis, a defence analyst with the hawkish Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the name should be released, while hawkish shadow home affairs minister James Paterson took the opposite view, noting Burgess would have made the decision for “understandable reasons”. Former senator turned transparency advocate Rex Patrick wants it out there, unsurprisingly, as do many journalists. But Dutton’s claim to be concerned about the reputation of politicians is laughable, as he does his darndest to smear the ones he doesn’t like.

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