June 15th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Anthony Albanese: NSW left factional warlord takes charge

EDITORIAL Religious freedom: the political and legislative challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED Will Bill Shorten emerge from the shadows again?

FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Keating's 'nutters': Don't blame the messenger

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Health policy is not immune from neoliberal infection

HUMAN RIGHTS Canada accepts Asia Bibi and family as refugees

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Families keeping the faith: the Benedict and other options

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 1: The context

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 3: More on science and ancient cultures

LIFE ISSUES Families, youth boost crowd at WA Rally for Life

MUSIC Muse of delight: The laugh ascending

CINEMA Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

BOOK REVIEW Pioneering aviator's flights and fancies

BOOK REVIEW Catholic resistance in a forgotten war

BOOK REVIEW AFA patron's long life of public service


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal, June 5-6, 2019: An account from the live streaming

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Keating's 'nutters': Don't blame the messenger

by Dr John Fahey

News Weekly, June 15, 2019

The comments made by Paul Keating in relation to the activities of the heads of Australia’s intelligence agencies attempting to influence the opinions of MPs in an anti-China crusade have been read in some places as being intemperate and even “colourful”.

However, we must remain clear minded in listening to and considering these comments, particularly as Keating has in the past shown a capacity for effective management of international affairs and indeed the effective use of intelligence in the service of good policy outcomes.

A quick look at his record as Prime Minister of Australia provides evidence of this.

If what Keating said is true, that is, that the heads of Australia’s intelligence agencies are going around and privately briefing MPs on China, then I share his concern and, indeed, his outrage. However, the question that both Keating and the follow-up commentators have left unanswered is whether this has indeed been happening. I have my doubts.

The usual process for enabling the head of an intelligence agency, usually ASIO, to provide background briefings to anyone is that the government has identified that the individual or group concerned has a “need to know”.

“When the security agencies are running foreign policy, the nutters are in charge,” Former Prime Minister Paul Keating said on May 5. “You’d clean them out. [When] you have the ASIO chief knocking on MPs’ doors, you know something’s wrong.” Keating said security agencies had gone “berko” and lost their “strategic bearings”. He made the comments in the context of remarking on Australia’s relationship with China.

This need is not something an agency head can unilaterally raise and approve. Indeed, given the way in which Australian and allied intelligence is interwoven in assessments, validating a “need to know” may extend beyond the Australian government and involve getting the approval of foreign governments for the disclosure of their intelligence to the target audience.

To obtain this approval entails liaison at both agency-to-agency level and cabinet-to-cabinet level, because this is a policy decision that only government leaderships can approve. The agencies involved only advise their governments and carry out the orders they are given.

In Australia, the highest decision-making body on intelligence matters is the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC), a subcommittee of the full Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister and comprised of the PM, the Attorney-General, the Minister for Defence, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Home Affairs, and, on an ad hoc basis, other ministers holding specific responsibilities.

The NSCC normally acts upon the advice of the relevant government depart­ments, whose collective and sometimes divergent views are passed on via the Secretaries Committee on National Security supported by the advice of the Office of National Assessments and a range of committees operating at lower levels.

If an agency head briefs anyone or any group, it is the NSCC that authorises this action after considering the advice it receives. Did the intelligence agency head concerned have this authority or not? That is the question. If they did not, then Keating’s attack was not as loud, aggressive and insistent as it should have been. However, if the agency head concerned was acting with the authority of the NSCC, then any criticisms of the content and tone of the briefings should have been directed to where it belongs: to the NSCC, and not at the messenger, the agency head involved. Keating knows this.

Even if this intelligence head had not obtained the authority to approach people, Keating’s criticism is still misdirected because, if this individual did what is alleged and the NSCC has not taken disciplinary action against that individual, then it is the politicians on the NSCC who are still to blame.

The issue at the heart of Keating’s concern is, of course, the attitude of the Australian Government towards the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The rise of the PRC as an international power has drawn Australia into a bi-polar conflict much closer to home than that which occurred between 1939 and 1989, when the old Soviet Union squared off against Western democracy, first as an ally, and then as a victim, of Nazi Germany’s grotesque ambitions at world domination.

The Cold War that resulted petered out when the great socialist experiment imploded in failure and collapse. The PRC, once part of that great socialist experiment, survived the implosion and, by cherry-picking the best of liberal democracy and capitalism, managed to re-establish itself as a world power – and a world power on Australia’s doorstep.

The rise of the PRC was always going to result in conflict between its ambitions and those of the United States, and Keating is right to trumpet this.

For Australia, there is no escaping the reality of the problem. On the one hand, we have our strategic, cultural and poli­tical attachments to the United States, as well as a debt of honour for the services of the U.S. in defending Australia between 1942 and 1945. On the other, we have the reality of the power of our largest economic partner. The question for all Australians is, whose side should we take as the conflict between these two superpowers increases?

Anyone who thinks that this conflict is avoidable is allowing optimism to displace reality in their thinking. Keating knows this and he is rightfully warning us, although he may have mangled the message.

The reality of our situation is that the United States will not surrender its position in the Pacific voluntarily and thus, if the PRC wants to become the power in the Pacific, it will only achieve that through the geopolitical defeat of the U.S. For Australia, the question remains: who do we back?

In the real world of hard decision-making, our calculations would involve a rational appreciation of which superpower is most likely to win. At present, that is easy. The United States would overwhelm the PRC, and Australia should stay on the side of the big battalions.

The basis of this assessment is that real power does not lie in the forces and resources you have at hand, but in the amount of latent forces and resources that you can rapidly mobilise in pursuit of your geopolitical ambition. At this level, U.S.’s latent power is many times greater than that of any other country and will remain so for some time to come.

Thus, on the face of it, Australia should back the U.S. But then, if we do this, can we be sure of the support of the U.S. if the PRC should target the weak ally rather than the major superpower? From a policy perspective, this presents quite a challenge.

We could, of course, withdraw from all allegiances, which is one of those dreamlike ideas proffered by those who practise politics as mysticism. However, to stand aside in the hope that you will be left alone only works for nations who have nothing to offer, and that is most definitely not us.

In the strategic struggle for the Paci­fic, the Australian continent is key terrain. Staying out of a regional conflict involving two superpowers looking to dominate oceanic chokepoints is going to be highly problematic. No! Make that impossible.

In the end, the decision as to which side we support will come down to a decision as to the level to which we are prepared to abase ourselves to our chosen more powerful ally. In making this decision, we cannot dispense with the strong appeal of the history of the United States, which shows a nation that minimises the level of abasement it demands of allies. This is not the case for the PRC or, indeed, Imperial China.

Alliance with the PRC will demand complete abasement. No hard words, no outward show of disloyalty or disrespect, and learning how to bend your knee when you approach the heavenly throne will be required of the PRC’s allies!

On top of this, Australians would have to overlook the toll in blood that the Americans shed to defend this nation between 1942 and 1945. This is a blood debt owed beyond that bound up in the ties of family, nation and shared origin. Being entirely rational includes these right-brain considerations and, I suspect, that, when the conflict comes, Australians will support the United States.

Whatever is decided, though, it will be policy made by government and enacted by the agencies of executive government.

Keating’s criticism may be an argument against this outcome, but he errs in blaming intelligence agency heads for causing problems that are created by governments making decisions on national self-interest.

Dr John Fahey worked at Defence Signals Directorate (1988–96). He is currently an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University, and author of the book, Australia’s First Spies, which was reviewed in the May 4 edition of News Weekly.

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