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National security is not an issue Labor needs right now

Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has denied the ASIO building went through an expensive rebuild because plans were stolen by hackers. AAP/Lukas Coch

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.

But the two have been easily conflated by the opposition, which also drew a link between the funding argument and the large numbers of boat people, whom it said are in the community without adequate security checks.

And in the background is a heightened awareness of danger, with chief of the Australian Defence Force David Hurley sending ADF members a warning to be vigilant, in the wake of the appalling murder in London of the British soldier, and a high-profile arrest in Sydney this week by officers of the counter-terrorism team of a man who allegedly threatened a public official.

The government, unsurprisingly, is trying to say as little as possible about the hacking claim, which alleged the Chinese had detail of the “communications cabling and server locations” of the ASIO building.

But Gillard did try to cast doubt on the story, saying that there were a number of “unsubstantiated” allegations of hacking in the report. That, of course, just led to calls for more detail.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus insisted that the building – which has had its share of more mundane problems, including falling glass panels – was not compromised and would open later this year.

Former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon – who had to resign as whip in the wake of the leadership fiasco – fuelled the security debate, saying that China was “extremely busy” with its cyber activities and the question was “are we investing enough” to protect ourselves.

Unless it is denied, the allegation that the Chinese know vital information about what should be the most secure building in the country can be used to suggest national security is not being administered properly. And here’s the political segue the opposition makes to Byrne’s comments.

In his tough speech, Byrne quoted ASIO and the Office of National Assessments about the financial pressures they were feeling.

Byne told Parliament it was “completely unacceptable” that the efficiency dividend extracted by government was affecting the operations of the intelligence agencies.

“The agencies are tasked to protect our national security and I, frankly, find it astonishing that these agencies would have been effectively sequestered from funding to perform their tasks. I think it is disgraceful and it should be addressed.”

It was grist for a Question Time attack by an opposition that hasn’t been able to make much of the recent budget cuts that it is swallowing holus-bolus (even if agreeing to the abolition of the baby bonus has caused a few internal burps).

When Abbott asked, “Does the Prime Minister seriously maintain that her government’s cuts to our security agencies have had no impact on their ability to carry out security checks on illegal boat arrivals, when Member for Holt clearly doesn’t believe her”, she accused him of “fear mongering” and “despicable politics”.

Gillard pointed out that the committee’s review dealt with the 2010-11 budget. In the just-delivered 2013-14 budget, there was a 10% rise in ASIO funding, she said, while since 2007-08 ASIO had had a 27% increase in funding, and 32% increase in staff.

When Abbott asked whether Byrne was right or wrong in his claims about the effect of the efficiency dividend and if he was wrong, would she remove him as committee chairman, Gillard said he was inviting her to engage in some of his own “bully boy” conduct.

“No, I don’t agree with the Member for Holt”, she said. “But this is the nation’s parliament and what happens in the nation’s parliament is people should be free to come and put a view.

“It doesn’t mean that I will agree with all of the views put. … The Leader of the Opposition is asking me to thug the member for Holt and I won’t do so. I’m not that kind of person”.

One’s impression is that the security and intelligence organisations have had a very good financial deal in recent years. Anyway, it is unlikely that money was the problem if the Chinese hacking did indeed occur.

If that story is true, it’s not just a national security worry – it’s a downright embarrassment for ASIO, which has had a few of those in its time. And if correct, it would warrant an inquiry - done with the appropriate security of course - to inject some accountability into the system.

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Steve Davis

    Brian Surgeon

    Maybe the Chinese just wanted to quote on the carpeting.

  2. Hardy Gosch


    "National security is not an issue Labor needs right now"

    Without even going further into the predictable core of the text let us just analyse this headline it for a moment!

    In this instance linking a potential breach of "National Security" with "Party Brand L" and a time-line is a typical well practiced traditional subliminal indoctrination procedure.

    Desired outcome: "Party Brand L" is again seen as incompetent, floundering, dysfunctional. In other words "unelectable"!

    Get the drift? The steady drop, well you know?

    Question: Could this be regarded as "political spin" under TC rules?


    1. Hardy Gosch


      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      It would be worthwhile to find out how often the same technique is applied across the “traditional” media spectrum.
      News Limited journalists especially are known to be extremely proficient.

  3. Geoff Taylor


    If the report is true, one can understand Mark Dreyfus and Bob Carr not commenting. $160 m in taxpayers money spent to date for an apparently greatly compromised new building.
    Whose responsibility was it to run checks on the IT security of suppliers for the building, David Irvine or the Commonwealth's works authority?
    I seem to remember a government building previously compromised during building or renovations, with straw microphones in the walls.

  4. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    So now on top of politicising border security Michelle and her LNP mates want to politicise national security as well. These have in the past been and should be bi-partisan issues, not political wedging ones!

  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Some of the reports I've been hearing about ASIO for many years is that it is at times comparable to the Keystone Cops and is long overdue for a major overhaul and management review. This is not casting a negative view on either political party for the problems have been there for a long while. The O.N.A. on the other hand has seemingly been operating quite efficiently and it needs all the support it can garner to meet its obligations.

    Australia needs to maintain a strong security and military presence if only to discourage avaricious eyes. Doesnt mean we should be venturing into wars so frequently on questionable motives such as with Iraq and Afghanistan, but we need to know we are secure and can hold our own should conflict develop in our local neighbourhood.

  7. chris

    logged in via Twitter

    I would commend the article in Tuesday's edition of Crikey on the alleged hacking of security data and the asio building plans. It really lays bare the naive assumptions jumped to by 4 Corners.

    That Grattan and the LNP seek to make political mileage out of it without seriously checking the facts is of course to be expected.

  8. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    On the national security front the punters have had their alarm and alert sensors oversaturated to the inevitable point where they are no longer reacting.
    Get thee to a remedial biology class on the workings of the human nervous system.
    There is a natural limit to the application of fear in the community.
    Abbott's political proxies in the media have long overdone the fear factor.
    People are just not listening anymore.

  9. Wilson Lockheed

    Fraud Investigator

    Please refrain by calling the computer people who bust secure systems as hackers, hackers are the more benevolent manifestation I suppose you could call it, of people who interrogate systems for security etc and advise on remedies. The criminal element of computer crime driven access to systems is known as cracking and the culprits called crackers. Hackers loathe them and have no wish to be associated with them, so use the terminology the computer community uses and call it for what it is. Cracking = criminal, Hacking = security problem mitigation.

  10. Geoff Taylor


    Thank you to Chris of this blog. Actual cost so far for the new ASIO HQ $630 m.

    While we are on security, The Salisbury Affair describes a situation where the SA police chief in Premier Don Dunstan's time, Harold Salisbury, believed he answered ultimately to the Queen (whatever that meant in practice) not the elected government of SA, and so didn't have to account for everything to the Dunstan government, including the activities of the SA Special Branch.

    Now forty years ago this year, ASIS…

    Read more
  11. Jason Walters

    Researcher & perennial student

    I am not sure that National Security issues "play well" for anyone any longer - unless there is plenty of budget to throw at it and very clear simple outcomes.

    In any event this is in itself an unsurprising event and while some "righteous indignation" is appropriate, it is an event that should have been expected and covered in the risk assessment. The drawings (and the rest of the building documentation) should have been secured.
    In reality it should also mean that some other organisation (with…

    Read more
  12. Dalit Prawasi

    Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

    DId ABC 4 cornered say Chinese stole ASIO plans or building plans? Chinese have to check the ASIO building is built accordingnto the plan as North Korean satelite must have recoded the progress of the ASIO building in its stages. Then Chinese international students here study computers (ABC asked RMIT lecturerer) and go home. They have to practice what they learned on something and what is better than where they learned. Then comes the author I am suere worked with agents of the Third Eye in previous life. I have heard ABC the voice and sight of Fairfux workers love to work in South Asian region; there must be some attractions there.

    Pleaae leave this.