This week’s Four Corners reported that somebody, possibly the Chinese government, stole the plans for ASIO’s new headquarters. For what it’s worth, I don’t doubt for a moment that Chinese intelligence would like a copy of the building plans for ASIO’s new Taj Mahal; they’d be crazy not to want them. And stealing them is espionage, an often juvenile game that nation-states have been playing against each other essentially forever. Heck, it’d only be returning the favour for what we did to the Chinese embassy in Canberra in the 1980s.
But Michelle Grattan seems to think that like everything else that has happened since, oh, I dunno, 2007, is “bad for Labor”, so is cyberespionage:
National security issues don’t play well for Labor, so to have two controversies erupting simultaneously is a fresh blow for a government already on the ropes.
Four Corners’ allegation that Chinese hackers have obtained the blueprint of Canberra’s huge new ASIO building was separate from complaints on Monday from Anthony Byrne, Labor chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversights the intelligence organisations, that agencies are struggling under belt tightening.
The piece, taken as a whole, is yet another exhibit for the sad decline of a (reportedly) once-great journalist, but that first sentence is interesting enough to get a closer examination.
Historically, of course, the Cold War and the closely related Split kept Labor out of office for decades. And when “national security” in the public mind is defined as inflicting additional suffering on the victims of developing-world turmoil for the purposes of scaring off any more, Labor has been hopelessly conflicted. But on the questions of nation-state conflict and defence policy, the intra-party squabbles in Labor over defence policy are largely muted. The pacifist left, such that it still exists, lives on outside Labor. And, as far as I can tell, the possibility of an actual threat from a nation-state simply hasn’t entered the public mind since glasnost. The Russians aren’t enemies any more, and nothing has replaced them in the same way. It’s arguably the absence of actual threats that has focused so much attention on things that pose trivial (see terrorism) or entirely illusory (asylum seekers) ones. Nor can Labor be plausibly accused of having any enthusiasm for China’s political ideology, mostly because it no longer has one, and in any case the supposed “far left” of Australian electoral politics, The Greens, is far blunter about China’s political leadership than either major party is prepared to be in public.
Australia’s national security establishment, of course, is busily debating China’s military buildup, and have quietly convinced Australia’s government to spend gargantuan amounts on Collins Class, The Next Generation (100% waterproof, this time – we promise). But, as best I can tell, the broader public hasn’t bought into it at all, and the conservative side of politcs – for whatever reason – have largely avoided fanning the flames of paranoia. Even in the United States, most of the concern (outside the national security establishment) about China is focused on its growing economic influence, rather than its increasing military capabilities – a rerun of the “OMG the Japanese are outcompeting us” of the 1980s, rather than the existential threat the Soviet Union and the Cold War represented.
As such, I really don’t see how a little bit of Chinese espionage, in the context of a largely bipartisan defence policy, has any implications for Labor at all, and I’m not convinced that it’s going to automatically favour one side or the other of politics into the future.