Mike Burgess warns espionage is one of the biggest threats to Australia. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

PM backs spy chief keeping politician turncoat secret

March 1, 2024

The prime minister has defended the chief spy’s decision to not name a former Australian politician who betrayed the nation after being recruited by foreign spies.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess revealed an ex-politician had been caught up in a spy ring and “sold out their country, party and former colleagues”.

He has since come under intense pressure to name the individual. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
 Anthony Albanese says he doesn’t know the identity of a former MP mentioned by ASIO. Image by Morgan Hancock/AAP PHOTOS 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says he has confidence in the intelligence organisation. 

“The idea that any minister in my government will just go out against the wishes of the ASIO director-general I find quite extraordinary,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Friday.

Mr Burgess made an independent decision to not name the person, with Mr Albanese saying the director-general’s speeches aren’t run by his office.

He revealed he was not aware of who the person was but “what we know is that it was wrong”.

“One of the things that we need to do as a nation is to build confidence in our agencies, not engage in short term politics or speculation like some have done – that’s not responsible,” he said.

“I will support our national security agencies and I think that all sides of politics should do that.”

ASIO chief Mike Burgess
 ASIO chief Mike Burgess has reiterated the name of the former politician will not be revealed. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Burgess said the spy agency was sticking to its long-standing practice of not publicly discussing operational details.

“There are multiple reasons for this, including the need to protect our sources and capabilities,” he said in a statement on Thursday night.

“In this case, while we want the foreign intelligence service to know its cover is blown, we do not want it to unpick how we discovered its activities.”

Mr Burgess said it was a “historic matter that was appropriately dealt with at the time” and the person was no longer a security concern.

Foreign interference laws came into effect in late 2018.

International law expert Professor Don Rothwell said it could be devised the former politician was active before that time or authorities didn’t have enough evidence to support a prosecution.

Australian Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.
 Peter Dutton has expressed support for a discussion about retrofitting foreign interference laws. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

Multiple MPs across party lines, speaking to AAP on the condition of anonymity, expressed reservations about retroactively applying the 2018 law despite being outraged at the person’s conduct.

Reasons for this included it was legally dubious to retrofit laws and a person shouldn’t be targeted for following the laws of the land at that time. 

But another wanted all levers to be used to ensure the person faced justice and didn’t get away with “betraying their country”.

“There’s a line and this crosses party politics,” they said. 

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton supports discussion about retrofitting the laws as “the most egregious act is from somebody in public office who betrays their country”.

In the same speech that outed the former politician and exposed Australian academics and a political party insider caught up in the foreign spy network’s web, Mr Burgess flagged previous actions would be covered by current laws. 

“Several individuals should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective,” Mr Burgess said.

Di Sanh Duong.
 The first person found guilty under foreign interference laws was Di Sanh Duong. Image by Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS 

It was also difficult to prosecute anyone under foreign interference or espionage laws, including because it required the use of classified material agencies didn’t want in the public domain, opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie said.

The first person found guilty under the 2018 foreign interference laws was former Liberal Party candidate Di Sanh Duong on Thursday.

He will spend 12 months behind bars after he cultivated a relationship with the then-federal multicultural affairs minister, Alan Tudge, on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.