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Solomons failure reveals a government and intelligence service way out of their depth

Crikey logo Crikey 26/04/2022 Bernard Keane
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Scott Morrison’s failure in the Solomon Islands, opening the way for a major strategic advance by China on our doorstep, has been, note for note, a perfect replay of his failures in so many other areas.

There’s been the bluster and the media announcements, the vaunted “Pacific step-up”, a phrase repeated over and over for the cameras, followed by a lack of substance, and a failure both by his government and Morrison personally.

Taken by surprise by China and the government of Manasseh Sogavare, Morrison neither felt it worthwhile to interrupt Marise Payne’s electioneering to dispatch her to Honiara — preferring to send Canberra work experience kid Zed Seselja — nor to bother contacting Sogavare himself. Phones it seems are for leaking confidential texts, not calling.

As has happened so frequently under Morrison, the moment any complexity of response is required from his government, it fails miserably — at even the basics.

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As the magnitude of Morrison’s failure became obvious, and he faced the unusual situation of a prime minister having to field foreign policy questions during an election campaign, the bluster and announcements returned: Australia shared a “red line” with the US in relation to China establishing a military base in the Solomon Islands, he said yesterday: “We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep.”

When challenged on how exactly that would be prevented, Morrison fell back on Sogavare’s guarantee that that would be the case: “He clearly shares our red line.” So this is a voluntary red line, enforceable only by the subject of the red line itself. This nonsense was shredded even at News Corp, where Greg Sheridan has been openly mocking Morrison’s national security credentials.

Morrison’s national security failings were previously limited to the longer term — the alienation of France, a major Pacific power, and the decision to abandon the Naval Group submarine contract five years in, in exchange for a vague idea of a study to buy US or British nuclear submarines some time in the 2040s, leaving a major gap in Australia’s submarine capability. Now his failings extend to the here-and-now, with a Chinese strategic presence 2000 kilometres from our shores.

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National security is supposed to be adults-in-the-room stuff, where the stakes are too high for political games. And national security is supposed to be at the very core of the Coalition’s claim to being a superior party of government. But Morrison has botched it in a way that no previous government ever has, by applying the same Morrison method of administration: announcements, incompetence, evasion of blame. The gap between the performance of Morrison and his idol John Howard is stark.

The problem of an incompetent government, however, is a temporary one: Morrison might lose in May, or his party might dump him thereafter, and he may be replaced with someone more competent at basic administration. It certainly seems the case that Labor has thought through what a genuine “step-up” in the Pacific would look like — though being captured by fossil fuel companies like the Coalition augurs poorly for a genuine attempt to address the concerns of island states about our climate inaction (’twas ever thus, by the way).

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What is of arguably equal or greater seriousness is the culpability and attempts to evade responsibility of our intelligence agencies. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) — the least accountable of our major intelligence agencies — clearly failed to keep the government apprised of developments between China and the Sogavare government. That is, it failed in its core business in a region where Australia is the dominant economic, diplomatic and military power — and where our Five Eyes partners rely on us to keep across events.

But if Morrison is notorious for ducking responsibility, our spies are no slouches either. Last week senior intelligence figures approached friendly press gallery journalists — journalists with a history of running what intelligence agencies tell them to — with the story that not merely were our spies aware of the pending China-Solomons deal, but facilitated its unofficial release.

In doing so, they both contradicted the government itself — which had made clear it learnt of the deal at the same time as the rest of us — and in effect throwing Morrison and co under a bus by suggesting the government had failed to heed their warnings.

The truth can easily be determined, as Clinton Fernandes has argued — the intelligence, if it exists, can be declassified. There’s a strong public interest case — and even a political case for the interests of the Coalition — for that to happen.

It is hard to overstate just how wildly inappropriate and potentially dangerous this leaking is. First is the obvious point that, yet again, we see how there are two types of leaks in Canberra: those that serve the powerful, which are never investigated, and those that embarrass the powerful, which lead to prosecutions, secret trials and jail.

But second, no matter what you think of the Morrison government, it is democratically elected. Secretive intelligence bureaucrats — who naturally won’t put their name to the stuff they feed stenographers — are certainly not elected. But the latter feel they can undermine elected officials to escape scrutiny for their own failures. All with the cooperation of a powerful media organisation.

Morrison badly bungled the issue. But however inept, he never had a chance if ASIS and the Australian Signals Directorate failed to do their jobs. The case for an inquiry both into the failure of our intelligence services and their attempt to undermine elected officials is compelling.

The Chinese government must be unable to believe its luck that our government — spies and politicians alike — has been so incompetent.

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