Australia’s domestic spy chief, Mike Burgess, has declared the weaponisation of national security is “not helpful to us” after extraordinary scenes in federal parliament where Scott Morrison labelled a senior Labor frontbencher a “Manchurian candidate”.
With Morrison ramping up the partisan rhetoric about risks to Australia’s sovereignty, the Asio director general told the ABC on Wednesday night the risk of foreign interference was “equal opportunity”. These risks affected all members of parliament, he told the 7.30 program, “so it doesn’t go after one particular party or the other”.
Asked whether the current politicisation of national security was helpful to Asio’s work, Burgess said: “I’ll leave the politics to the politicians. But I’m very clear with everyone that I need to be that that’s not helpful for us.”
The second forthright public intervention by Burgess in three days followed an ugly partisan confrontation in question time, with the prime minister branding the deputy Labor leader, Richard Marles, a “Manchurian candidate” before withdrawing the slur, and declaring the Chinese government had “picked their horse” in the coming election.
The phrase “Manchurian candidate” refers to a politician being used as a puppet by an enemy power. Before using the insult, Morrison cited a speech by Marles in Beijing in 2019 calling for Australia and China to seek to build their relationship “not just in economic terms, but also through exploring political cooperation and even defence cooperation”.
While Morrison and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, are attempting to use the penultimate sitting week of the current parliament to paint Labor as weak on national security and at risk of capture by the authoritarian regime in Beijing, the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has struck a noticeably different tone over the past 48 hours.
As the partisan rhetoric escalated in the House of Representatives, Payne used an appearance before a Senate estimates committee to deliver a nuanced message. She noted bipartisanship on foreign policy was “overwhelmingly preferable” and noted the parliament is united in support of Ukraine.
The government has this week attempted to wedge Labor by reviving legislation to strengthen the character test – a proposal that gives the immigration minister more power to cancel visas. Labor on Wednesday attempted to defuse the fight by signalling it would pass the bill in the House of Representatives despite its concerns about the proposal.
Asio ‘not here to be politicised’ says spy agency chief after Peter Dutton’s accusations – video
There are only a handful of Senate sitting days left before the federal election. The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was attempting to move the bill to the Senate “when you know we have run out of time to pass the bill” – an observation begging the question why the Coalition had revived a measure it didn’t have time to legislate.
Morrison said candidly in Tuesday’s regular Coalition party room meeting the character test bill presented the best point of contrast with Labor in the government’s legislative arsenal. It highlighted the “risks” associated with any change of government.
Morrison told parliament on Wednesday he would “never be the preferred partner” of a foreign government that had sought to intimidate and threaten Australia. The escalating attacks on Labor came hours after a senior foreign affairs official warned that Beijing would seek to sow divisions among Australians.
Morrison said there was only one side of politics that had demonstrated its resolve to deal strongly with China. “And I can tell you the arbiter of that is the Chinese government themselves who has picked their horse and he’s sitting right there,” he said, pointing to Albanese.
Albanese sought to suspend standing orders to trigger an immediate debate on “the national security of Australia” in which the prime minister would make a 10-minute statement followed by a reply from the opposition leader.
The government blocked the idea, with the leader of the house, Peter Dutton, saying he would not indulge “stunts”.
Dutton had also used a question time appearance to cast doubt over Labor’s stated support for the Aukus partnership, in which the US and the UK have pledged to help Australia acquire nuclear-propelled submarines and to cooperate on security more broadly.
The prime minister and other Coalition MPs seized on op-ed published by the Chinese Communist party-controlled Global Times newspaper, in which a retired Australian diplomat said Albanese would be a “safe” but not “charismatic” leader who “positively shines” in comparison with Morrison.
Morrison said the Australian government had “earned the respect of nations around the world” for its “resolve” and “resistance”.
He said China would “not find a fellow traveller when it comes to threats and coercion against Australia in my government”.
“I will never be their candidate.”
The febrile tone of the political attacks contrasted with evidence given in a Senate estimates committee hearing on Wednesday.
Justin Hayhurst, a senior official at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said: “I think, senator, it’s fair to say that the Chinese system seeks to exploit social and other divisions in countries to pursue its interests – that’s very apparent.”
Payne – who has not repeated Morrison’s claims that a Labor government would “appease” China – said she always assured Australia’s allies and partners “of Australia’s strength and resilience and of the basic positions and values that we hold”.
Asked if she assured those partners about bipartisan foreign policy settings, Payne said she was “pleased” that Albanese and the shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, had met with the US secretary of state and the foreign ministers of Japan and India in Melbourne last week.
“I’m sure that that message was strongly delivered,” Payne said.
Under questioning from the Labor senator Kristina Keneally, Payne agreed that national security should normally be outside the “rough and tumble” of politics, but she said the government was entitled to raise questions about Labor’s lack of consistency on policy issues over the past few years.
Payne said “the entire parliament, frankly, to the best of my knowledge, is united on respecting, acknowledging and emphasising the importance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine amid threats from Russia.
Keneally said she was “heartened” by Payne’s answers because they indicated the minister retained “a commitment to bipartisanship on national security and foreign policy matters”.
The government frontbencher Stuart Robert declined two opportunities on Wednesday to repeat Morrison’s claim that Labor would “appease” China.
Robert said he thought the prime minister “has made it very clear that if you look at Labor’s track record, it is appalling”.