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How open should Australia be about the China challenge?

Andrew Robb wants Australian officials to say more about China’s alleged behaviour.

Andrew Robb (Photo: Australian Business Week/ Flickr)
Andrew Robb (Photo: Australian Business Week/ Flickr)
Published 13 Mar 2019   Follow @SamRoggeveen

Former trade minister Andrew Robb made news yesterday when he criticised former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, for the “toxic” state of Australia’s relations with China.

It’s just the latest skirmish in a heated and occasionally quite hostile debate in Australia about China’s true intentions as a major power, and about whether Australia is hurting its future prosperity by hyping the “China threat”.

It can be hard for Australians to really appreciate how febrile our China debate is right now. Last week my colleague Richard McGregor was part of a panel session on China at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival – apparently, 600 people showed up. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else in the world right now?

Robb’s comments about the Australian intelligence agencies also deserve attention:

We see a lot of nose touching by the security people — if you only knew what I know, you’d be horrified ... Well tell us. Let us know. I was in the National Security Committee and I’ve gotta say I didn’t learn much more than I was reading in the papers for three years.

For those who don’t immediately understand his reference to “nose touching”, think of the wink-wink, we-know-more-than-we-can-say variety.

The first thing to note in response is that it would be in the interests of the intelligence agencies themselves, and indeed of the whole government, to find ways to increase transparency of their operations and assessments. These agencies are ultimately doing a job for the public. To maintain legitimacy and a sense of authority, they occasionally need to share more with the public than they might be comfortable doing.

In 2013, Australia suffered a huge intelligence leak when Edward Snowden released documents revealing, among other things, that Australia had bugged the phone of the Indonesian president’s spouse. The leaks did substantial diplomatic damage but Lowy Institute polling in 2014 showed public support for the spy agencies was high: 70% of Australians judged it “acceptable” that its government spies on countries with which Australia does not have good relations; 62% thought it was acceptable to spy on Indonesia.

In other words, a little transparency (even if inadvertent) did not seem to harm the spy agencies’ standing with the public and may have done them some good.

Andrew Robb’s beef should not be with the agencies but with their political masters.

Ultimately, it is the job of far-sighted politicians to push the spy agencies in this direction. So Andrew Robb’s beef should not be with the agencies but with their political masters. They need to recognise that, if they truly believe China is a risk to Australian sovereignty and to the independence of our political institutions, they need to take the public with them in the struggle against that influence.

The trouble for Robb is that if politicians do say more and persuade the spy agencies to be more transparent, he might not want to hear it. Responding to claims that China was trying to infiltrate Australia’s political system, Robb said, “Look, we’re all engaged in soft power … they’ve found one student that stood up in a classroom and tried to influence the lecturer — and was unsuccessful, by the way.”

But I get the opposite impression from my conversations around Canberra. I’m familiar with the “nose touching” Robb refers to in his interview. My sense is that there is frustration about how relatively little our politicians are saying about the way China pushes its weight around in pursuit of its interests. The public would be shocked at the routine bluntness, rudeness even, of China’s behaviour in diplomatic circles.

Robb wants Australian officials to be more open about China’s alleged behaviour. I would argue that this is ultimately the job of politicians. Either way, Robb might not like what they have to say.

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