Commentary |
11 February 2022

Australian intelligence should not be used for political goals. The US is still recovering from Trump doing just that

The political consensus on China is a dead end. Australia should harness political debate to produce smarter policies. Originally published in The Guardian.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott

Australia’s political consensus on the fundamental nature of the challenge posed by a rising China is extraordinary – but not entirely healthy.

Meeting core national challenges clearly needs a degree of bipartisanship. Unity is vital in times of war.

Although Australia is not on the verge of war, nor are we entirely at peace. As the 2020 Defence Strategic Update made clear, Australia’s security environment is increasingly characterised by “grey zone” competition – state behaviour that is aggressive but often covert or at least deniable, and falls short of acts of war.

It includes cyber intrusions and foreign interference.

Maintaining unity in the face of the China challenge is especially important because China seeks to sow division in countries like Australia. Between the business community and the security bureaucracy, between different levels of government, and ominously, between Australians of Chinese ancestry and the rest of the community. It’s not hard to imagine how, if successful, that effort could provoke various populist and counterproductive debates.

The fact that much of what Canberra knows about this and other grey zone activities comes from classified intelligence adds to the challenge. It is imperative to ensure that both sides of politics are properly briefed and refrain from disclosing this intelligence or using it for partisan political goals.

The US intelligence community is still recovering from the Trump administration’s effort to do exactly this, especially towards the end of his term.

The director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, was extremely careful not to interfere in Australia’s politics or to inflame populist debate as he delivered his annual threat assessment. Mere months before a federal election, he could have been excused from shying away from the issue of foreign interference. He should instead be commended for providing a very carefully worded description of the efforts of a foreign “agent of influence” to “secretly shape” the political scene.

By contrast, the defence minister, Peter Dutton’s invocation of classified intelligence to back his claim that China wants the ALP to win the next election was damaging to bipartisanship on the China challenge and the delicate role of intelligence agencies.

A bad China debate could take many forms. A few years ago it seemed like it would be characterised by pressure on the government to concede on security and sovereignty issues in the interests of short-term economic gain.

There is also the ever-present danger of inflaming anti-Asian racism, which Burgess also addressed, warning that allowing fear of foreign interference to stoke racism in the community would “perversely have the same corrosive impact on our democracy as foreign interference itself”.

But the current consensus on China is not getting us far either. A political competition to appear “tough on China” – which Dutton’s comments both assume and feed – is another dead end road. Again, the US provides a salutary negative example.

Despite the US bipartisan consensus on the importance of meeting the challenge, the Biden administration is yet to produce a China strategy or even agree on an objective. That’s partly because of US polarisation and a fear of looking weak on both sides. But it’s also because the China challenge is so large, complex and in many ways unprecedented.

Australia can and should be more creative. If both sides of Australian politics agree on the nature of the challenge, then it’s reasonable to expect that they should be advocating and debating goals and solutions. Political debate is a strength that Australia should harness to produce smarter policies. The appropriate metric for Australian (and US) policies should be effectiveness, not toughness.

Australia’s China debate currently has the worst of both worlds. In place of unity on the core challenges we have a stultifying consensus on the need to hang tough. In place of productive debate about how to meet the challenges we have pointless competition over who can appear toughest.

The next government should aim to reverse this picture by making two reforms.

First, it should aim to ensure that the intelligence basis for policymaking and debate is bipartisan. The parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security should be strengthened. Because Australia will almost certainly be countering more Chinese grey zone activity, the government should approve the modest proposal to allow the joint committee to request the inspector general of intelligence and security to inquire into the legality and propriety of operational activities.

Second, to build a consensus on the central issues, the government should establish a national security advisory council that includes key ministers and their opposition counterparts. Modelled on the advisory war council established in the second world war, this body could review classified information and operational proposals in a secure, apolitical environment and make discreet recommendations to cabinet. It could issue public statements that defined areas of bipartisan consensus.

Defining the consensus would also make clear what policies were still up for debate. Our leaders should be more confident in the Australian public’s appetite for serious debate.

That debate may even lead China to prefer one side of politics to the other. But in a healthy democracy Beijing’s preference would be irrelevant.

In meeting the China challenge, Australia’s democracy is a key advantage. We should make the most of it.