The view from Billinudgel

The ASIO chief’s opaque transparency
Last week, Mike Burgess said a lot while revealing little

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess

ASIO boss Mike Burgess was praised last week for his bravery in making his first Annual Threat Assessment address to an audience including the media in Canberra – but in fact few if any beans were spilled.

There were hints of daring deeds in the murky backwaters of espionage and intrigue, teasers of close escapes from dire threats to the safety of a complacent public. But no revelations to curl the hair of his eager listeners were made.

Hardly surprising, of course – when you live in the secret world, secrecy is always the default option.

But the urbane superspook did make what should have been an embarrassing admission: despite huge increases in funding and reams of legislation designed to help his constantly expanding staff, we have actually gone backwards. There are now more foreign agents operating in Australia than there were in the Cold War years, infiltration and subversion is on the rise, terrorism is a greater threat than ever.

However, far from displaying remorse over the evident failures, Burgess’s reflex response was the same as that of all of his predecessors, not to mention Oliver Twist: more, please. He confidently demands extra resources from a willing government cowed by the fear that a refusal could be construed as being soft on security. And, of course, we can never have that.

But there was one take-out that deserved attention. Burgess noted that right-wing extremism is on the increase and needs to be watched – perhaps even countered. To most observers since the Christchurch massacre, this is a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it has taken ASIO a long time to get there.

Since its inception immediately after World War Two, the agency has almost always seen its priority – indeed, its only real task – as countering the left in the name of preventing the spread of communism. In fact this was never a serious threat – it has been suggested that many Communist Party of Australia branches included more undercover ASIO agents than genuine radicals. And while the left often talked of revolution, it seldom if ever acted on its words.

In contrast, the right-wing fringe put its detonations where its mouth was: Croatian followers of the Ustashe, the fascist party founded by Ante Pavelić, an admirer and ally of Adolf Hitler, once bombed the Yugoslav consulate in the leafy Sydney suburb of Double Bay. Their apologists excused this atrocity by explaining that the bombers were not terrorists, but freedom fighters.

The left, understandably, felt that its supporters were being unfairly targeted while the right was being ignored or even condoned. It was this somewhat paranoid belief that prompted Labor attorney-general Lionel Murphy to raid ASIO headquarters in 1973.

And even now the right makes a false equivalence, referring to Islamic terrorism as left wing, where any form of religious fundamentalism is, and always has been, a manifestation of ultra-conservatism.

So the fact that Burgess has belatedly got his dictionary in order is to be welcomed. Perhaps he might now tell us what, if anything, he plans to do about it. Proscribing white supremacist hate groups might be a start. Even just naming the ones considered dangerous would be good. Or would that be too brave and transparent?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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