1 March 2024

Lots of speculation but no name (or prosecution likely) of former political agent

| Chris Johnson
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ASIO has long been kept busy watching our federal politicians. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

The corridors of Parliament House are rife with murmurs over who the former federal politician who supposedly “sold out” their country might actually be.

In his annual threat assessment speech this week, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess declared a one-time Australian politician to have been “cultivated and recruited” by savvy foreign government operatives to work against the national interest.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime,” Mr Burgess said.

“At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a Prime Minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit.”

The ASIO boss named neither the former politician nor the foreign government who successfully groomed them – ensuring his speech was widely reported and that speculation skyrocketed.

While there was plenty of commentary and even the odd “we all know who it is” comment being cast about, the truth is the list of potentials is pretty long.

That’s because some behaviour from our politicians has attracted the attention of our spy agencies, and also been used to score domestic political points.

Without suggesting that any of the following is the former politician Mr Burgess says ASIO has identified, here’s just a sample of what’s been reported in recent years.

READ ALSO ASIO director shines ‘a disinfecting light’ on security threats, including a former Australian politician

In 2014, concerns were raised among Australia’s spy agencies over potential breaches of official secrecy exposed in former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr’s published diary.

Carr, while foreign minister, appeared to disclose the location of an ASIO post in the United Arab Emirates.

He also allegedly revealed in the book intelligence material shared with Australia by the CIA.

In 2016, former Liberal trade minister Andrew Robb was outed for not letting then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull know that he had taken on a role as an economic consultant with a Chinese company controversially operating the Darwin port.

In 2017, Labor’s Sam Dastyari had to quit the Senate following weeks of controversy over his links to Chinese donors who, in turn, had connections to China’s ruling communist regime.

Dastyari had already been demoted from his shadow portfolio positions the year before due to a scandal over payments and gifts from Chinese companies.

Bring on 2019 and media reports place Liberal MP Gladys Liu in the vicinity of an alleged Chinese spy.

Scott Morrison, as PM, stood by her but Liu lost her seat at the 2022 election.

It was also reported that between 2003 and 2015, Liu was a member of the Guangdong provincial chapter of the China Overseas Exchange Association, part of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

ASIO reportedly vetted guests at a 2018 meet-and-greet hosted by Liu and advised then-PM Turnbull not to attend.

Those examples lend weight to the concerns of Joe Hockey, a former treasurer and former US ambassador, that by not naming the culprit, the ASIO boss has cast a dark shadow over all former and current politicians.

“For a start, the former politician is a traitor,” Mr Hockey said.

“It wasn’t an allegation by the head of our intelligence agency. It was a statement of fact.

“It is absolutely inconceivable that you would have a former politician representing their community, representing the country, who then goes and engages with a foreign adversary, and somehow they’re allowed to walk off into the sunset without having their name or their reputation revealed.

“It makes us all question as representatives in the parliament who we can trust, who of our current and former colleagues can we trust? And that’s ridiculous.”

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Australian National University international law expert Don Rothwell said the ASIO boss’s words helped narrow the list of potential offenders.

Professor Rothwell said Australian law does not recognise the criminal offence of ‘traitor’ and that Mr Burgess had made specific reference to Australia’s foreign interference legislation and that the unnamed individual should be grateful changes to it are not retrospective.

Australian law recognises the crimes of ‘treason’ and ‘espionage’, but Mr Burgess did not suggest those acts have occurred.

“[Traitor] is a more generic term used in public discourse to reflect the actions of a citizen or national who engages in certain acts that undermine the security interests of a state,” Professor Rothwell said.

“The term has special meaning during time of war.

“ASIO’s head Mike Burgess gives some clue as to when the alleged acts took place. Those laws were operative as of 10 December 2018.

“Any conduct that may be committed by a citizen or national today could fall afoul of the foreign interference laws under the Criminal Code Act. An important aspect of those laws relates to actions that ‘support the intelligence agencies of a foreign government’.

“On the basis of the statements made by Mike Burgess, it can be concluded that the alleged conduct of the retired politician took place before 10 December 2018.

“Or ASIO, on the basis of advice from the Australian Federal Police, have determined there is not a strong enough case to support a prosecution. The result is that the conduct of the politician has been revealed in the public domain, but no criminal charges will be laid.”

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ASIO – we don’t want to expose our sources of information, but it’s an ex politician. Genius

It is absurd that supposedly experienced politicians are calling for ASIO to release the name of an alleged offender. To do so would expose ASIO’s sources and methods and alert the adversary to what they are up to. Mike Burgess has done exactly the right thing by alerting Australians to the ever present espionage threat without revealing sources, methods and targets.

Murray Williamson2:54 pm 01 Mar 24

Before the politicians and ex politicians hang this person on suspicion of treason, let’s tread carefully. It is not unknown for the spooks to get things disastrously wrong. Does anyone remember WMD and the Iraq War? The person whom the pollies want ASIO to name has not been charged with any offence, and if named, whether or not he or she did whatever is alleged, would have no way to defend himself or herself.

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