Political turmoil in Brazil and South Africa; Vale Liu Xiaobo; Extra voters in PNG poll. By Hamish McDonald.

Intel report nothing to write Home about

A march for the late Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong on July 15.
A march for the late Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong on July 15.
Credit: DALE DE LA REY / AFP / Getty Images

Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant are two of the most experienced and tough-minded characters to have inhabited Canberra’s corridors of power in recent decades, with security clearances taking them into the innermost sanctums.

Schooled partly in the hawkish milieu of Washington’s Georgetown University, L’Estrange had worked for the Liberal Party and its Menzies Research Centre before John Howard yanked him into senior policy roles, leading to secretaryship of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Merchant is a former chief of what is now the Australian Signals Directorate, our player in the Five Eyes electronic intelligence swapping arrangement with the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

The pair’s report on Australia’s intelligence services, commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull and released by him on Tuesday, completely blows away the rationale the prime minister put up for the creation of a new Home Affairs ministry responsible for all the domestic security agencies as well as immigration and border protection.

It argues for a greatly expanded version of the current Office of National Assessments (ONA), to be known as the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), headed by a director-general with the status of a department head who reports to the prime minister, with the authority to supervise and co-ordinate all 10 agencies with intelligence roles – including border protection in its relevant sections. Better performance against terrorism is an aim pervading this “independent review” as well as meeting other new challenges such as cyber espionage and sabotage.

Nowhere is the suggestion that domestic security agencies – the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), border protection – be put in another corral under a new portfolio. Yet Turnbull has approved both the creation of the new ONI and the new home ministry. In effect, this creates two new power centres in Canberra’s intelligence community, defeating the point of achieving better co-ordination.

The rumblings from the intelligence agencies are hostile to the home ministry idea. Former ASIO chief Dennis Richardson queries the dual ministerial responsibility whereby the home minister would sign off on an agency’s operations but the agency would need to seek a warrant from the attorney-general. Australian National University professor Michael Wesley, who has worked in ONA, sees it as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

As much as Turnbull and his nominated choice as home minister, Peter Dutton, protest that rather than fixing something broken it’s improving on it, the new ministry looks like what most observers think it is – a sop to the Liberal Party’s right wing. Even without the potential rivalry with the new ONI, the conflation of border protection and domestic security – with immigration and citizenship officials pushed further to the sidelines − could have a dreadful impact on ASIO’s ability to win the confidence and co-operation of Muslim and other communities. Nor is it clear that border protection and its current minister have great credentials, apart from maintaining the cruel deterrence against asylum seekers started four years ago by Kevin Rudd. The country is awash with smuggled amphetamines and illegal workers.

BRICS and rorters

Political turmoil is sweeping many of the countries known as the BRICS, with Brazil showing a commendable willingness to tackle alleged corruption and misgovernance at the top.

Ten days ago a judge jailed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for nine-and-a-half years for accepting a free apartment from a contractor to the state oil firm. He is appealing but his prospects of running for the presidency again seem remote. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached last August. Her successor, Michel Temer, may soon face trial for allegedly accepting a bribe.

Not so in South Africa – the final letter in the BRICS acronym – where President Jacob Zuma faces a crucial no-confidence vote in the national assembly on August 8. Dogged by bribery and rape accusations during his career, Zuma has faced mounting public anger over his closeness to a large business house and his dismissal of finance ministers who queried deals resulting from this relationship.

The leaders of Russia and China don’t have to worry about independent judges and impeachment proceedings. India’s Narendra Modi is the only one still riding high, with annual growth still about 7 per cent, despite the bizarre North Korean-style exercise last November of de-monetising most of the country’s cash to hit the black economy.

Vale Liu Xiaobo

Vale Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer who took on the Communist Party’s dictatorship with the online Charter 08, which called for a transition to a more democratic system, and got an 11-year jail term for “subverting state power” as a result.

He came across as serious, highly intelligent and unpretentious when your world editor interviewed him in a coffee shop near his modest Beijing apartment in 2005. As with Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who took on the dreadful Chechnya abuses on which Vladimir Putin consolidated power and visited Sydney shortly before she was shot dead, there was a complete acceptance of the consequences of confronting China’s ruling party.

The Chinese don’t use the crude Russian method of assassinating their critics, but a version of death by a thousand cuts through spurious prosecutions and information blackouts in the hope they will eventually take themselves off to irrelevant exile. Liu, I suspect, would never have left China even if the option of overseas treatment of his liver cancer was open.

That the party feared him even in death was shown by its insistence on his ashes being buried at sea, rather than in an accessible place of memorial. Only criticism of Liu was allowed on the Chinese internet, but some of his admirers found creative ways to get around the Great Firewall, and thousands marched in Hong Kong to commemorate him. Maybe the sea itself, connecting China with the world, will become a symbol of the universal values Liu hoped China would adopt.

Vote PNC, vote often

In Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has won re-election in his own seat and his People’s National Congress (PNC) party is leading in the seats declared so far.

Yet there are some strange numbers, according to former Australian and PNG treasury economist Paul Flanagan, who notes the electoral rolls have about 300,000 more people than the latest census would suggest exist in the voting age population. Even more strangely, these extra voters seem to be concentrated in electorates held by the PNC, on average 5682 per seat, while those held by opposition parties had only an extra 507 of these mystery voters on average. In the electorate retained by Finance Minister James Marape of the PNC, at least 7000 more votes were cast than there were names on the electoral roll.

Towering Trump

Donald Trump’s first six months in office passed on Thursday with efforts to replace Obamacare collapsing and more information suggesting the Trump campaign was ready to use past links with the Russian kleptocracy to gain Moscow’s help in last year’s election.

The June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton included a former Russian intelligence official who’d help put $US230  million from tax fraud in Russia into high-end real estate in the US. On taking office, Trump fired the US federal attorney, Preet Bharara, who was pressing charges in the case, since settled for $US6 million.

In an interview with The New York Times, Trump expressed unhappiness with Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, his deputy Rod Rosenstein, dismissed FBI director James Comey, acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe and former FBI director Robert Mueller over Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2017 as "Intel report nothing to write Home about".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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