Former Australian Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Paul Keating applaud Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at last weekend’s Labor election campaign launch. Picture: AAP
More than a decade ago a man pressed the security intercom at my Phillip Street office in Sydney and asked to see me. I received the message on the second floor of the heritage terrace building and asked the unannounced visitor to identify himself.
The reply was: “Just let me in, I want to speak to Gerard.” I responded: “Who is it?” The exchange went on for a while and, exasperated, I eventually unlocked the front door and headed down the stairs to meet the anonymous visitor.
I had not gone very far when a voice called out up the stairs: “Hello, Gerard, it’s Paul Keating.” Somewhat surprised, I responded: “Sorry, Paul, I thought it was some kind of nutter.” He replied: “Mate, I am some kind of nutter.”
After Bill Shorten’s launch of the Labor Party’s election campaign in Brisbane last Sunday, Keating cast the first (nutter) stone at others. He told ABC TV that “the nutters are in charge” of Australian intelligence services and called on Shorten, if elected to office, to “clean them out”.
Keating was referring to some or all of the following: ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Office of National Intelligence and the Foreign Investment Review Board.
It seems that Keating wants a Labor prime minister to at least sack some or all of the leaders of Australia’s intelligence agencies: respectively, Duncan Lewis, Paul Symon, Mike Burgess, Nick Warner and David Irvine — all of whom have reputations for high intelligence and considerable professionalism.
Australia has had 30 prime ministers, including the incumbent Scott Morrison. It’s quite an achievement to be elected to high office and former prime ministers deserve respect. In return, it’s proper that they speak and write in a responsible manner.
In late 2017 Keating threw the switch to abuse concerning Robert Menzies (who led Australia briefly between 1939 and 1941 before returning for a 16-year term in December 1949). He called Menzies a “vagabond” and a “wilful coward”.
This despite the fact, in 1940, Menzies deployed Australian forces to the war against Nazi Germany contrary to the wishes of Labor leader John Curtin, one of Keating’s faves, who was then something of an isolationist. Also, when opposition leader, Curtin opposed all decisions by the government to increase defence spending in the late 1930s and early 40s.
It is damaging when a former prime minister of Keating’s standing demeans an Australian wartime leader as a “wilful coward”. I have expressed this view personally to Keating. And now Australia’s 24th prime minister is fanging Australia’s intelligence chiefs as “nutters”. Fortunately, Shorten distanced himself and Labor from the remarks.
It seems that Keating’s gripe is the decision announced by the Coalition in the final days of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, in August last year, to ban the Chinese firm Huawei from participating in the rollout of Australia’s 5G mobile network.
Without question, Australia’s intelligence agencies would have proffered advice in the lead-up to the Turnbull government’s decision. But the judgment was taken, quite properly, by our elected leaders.
Moreover, opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus has indicated that a Shorten government would not overturn this decision.
Here Australia is in line with its partners in the “Five Eyes” group of Western democracies that share intelligence information: the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Theresa May’s government in London is said to have decided to give Huawei some access to the 5G network but not without considerable opposition in British defence and security circles.
Keating told ABC TV that Australia’s intelligence organisations have “lost their strategic bearings”. But Australia’s concern about Chinese cyber activity along with its military conduct in the South China Sea is shared by Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and India.
In a debate in Adelaide on Wednesday, opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong clashed with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Wong took umbrage at Birmingham’s claim that Keating “is not an isolated figure” on China within the Labor Party. Wong described this comment as “not appropriate”.
Here Birmingham touched a raw nerve within the ALP on security. In the 50s, 60s and into the 70s, some prominent Labor figures expressed a hostility to ASIO. The list includes Bert Evatt, Jim Cairns, Gough Whitlam and Lionel Murphy.
The relationship was repaired during Bob Hawke’s government in the 80s. However, there are some figures within contemporary Labor — and many in the Greens — who remain suspicious of Australia’s intelligence agencies.
Sure, through the years ASIO has made some errors. This is conceded in the recently published three-volume The Official History of ASIO.
However, despite the claims of former Labor leader Evatt and his supporters, ASIO was correct in believing the Soviet Union had agents in Australia during the Cold War — including within the labour movement.
This is documented in David Horner’s official history, The Spy Catchers, 1949-1963, along with Mark Aarons’s The Family File and Red Professor: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose by Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt.
During the Cold War, the Australian Left regarded ASIO and the like as — in Keating’s terminology — nutters.
Keating is a product of the NSW Labor right wing. But suspicion of ASIO was shared by a few members of Labor’s Right because they believed Evatt had been robbed of victory over Menzies in the 1954 election because of an ASIO beat-up.
The fact is that the Menzies-led Coalition was recovering in the lead-up to the 1954 election and its narrow victory was not a surprise. In any event, the defection of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov from the Soviet embassy in Canberra in early 1954, which ASIO was (falsely) alleged to have manipulated, played little role in the election campaign.
Australia’s security agencies have been broadly successful in protecting the nation from foreign subversion and domestic terrorism.
To suggest that they should be “cleaned out” today based on the claim that they have lost strategic bearings with respect to China is, well, nuts.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.