NOTES ON THE NEWS: It was good to see the foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr, being given a proper interview on Sky News’ Australian Agenda on Sunday morning. By ‘proper’ I mean one in which the minister is given time to explain his position, rather than the 15 second sound-bite that so often prevails on network news programs, or the political point scoring that has become a sad feature of current affairs.
Senator Carr had 45 minutes, the whole program, to field questions about cyber attacks, Syria, the cuts in the foreign aid budget, asylum seekers, 457 visas and relations with Indonesia, and, for the most part, he handled it well.
The panel questioning him – all from The Australian newspaper – were robust but fair, avoiding the kind of aggression we often witness on many current affairs programs.
Bob Carr dealt also with a number of domestic issues, and insisted he would not be a one-term senator, whatever the outcome of the September election.
On Syria, he articulated well the dilemma facing the United States and the European Union in supporting the anti-al Assad front. For far too long this issue has been over simplified. Providing help to the rebels to rid the country of al Assad does not work if the arms end up in the hands of Al Q’aeda or other Islamist extremist groups, or Hezbollah.
As Senator Carr explained, the key to solving the Syrian crisis – and the catastrophic human suffering that has spilled over to refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere – is Putin’s Russia. A negotiated ceasefire and settlement involving Russia is the only way out of this mess.
Senator Carr was less impressive when questioned about cyber attacks on Australian government institutions and corporations. He retreated behind that old chestnut of national security, saying he had been briefed by Australian intelligence agencies and the Office of National Assessments, and therefore could not discuss whether or not China was involved in the cyber attacks that have been given prominence by programs such as ABC’s Four Corners, and other media.
Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan tried, without success, to press this point, suggesting that Australia might be reluctant to confront its biggest customer, China, on such matters.
Carr would have none of it, but he looked and sounded evasive – and not a little self-righteous. We know that China is working hard to prise Australia away from its close strategic alliance with the United States – helped by not a few academics – but I would have expected something more robust from Senator Carr. It was a pity, too, that Kelly and Sheridan were not more persistent with their questioning.
After all, Chuck Hagel, Carr’s counterpart as United States secretary of state, has been quite open in declaring that China has been responsible for cyber attacks on America, and we know that Australian intelligence agencies have identified China as the origin of attacks on us. So why not admit it?
President Barack Obama’s national security adviser has said publicly that Chinese cyber attacks were jeopardising China-US ties. And, at a security conference in Singapore last week, Secretary Hagel publicly rebuked China for its cyber espionage operations. On his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, Hagel spoke in the wake of revelations that China hacked into sensitive U.S. weapons systems designs.
So why is Senator Carr so reticent? If Australia were to be threatened by a foreign power using conventional or nuclear weapons, we would all be told about it, and would be prepared for it.
But cyber attacks are hardly less dangerous. They can damage not only our national security, but also our banking and trading systems, and compromise the prospects for our leading commercial companies.
These “secrets” are not something that should be bottled up in ASIO, ASIS, or the higher reaches of DFAT. The public has a right to know, especially in the spirit of the prime minister’s so called new open dialogue with Beijing.
Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW).