The arrest of a British parliamentary aide on suspicion of spying for China is a reminder that open democratic societies and systems are more susceptible to external infiltration, influence and manipulation than closed authoritarian alternatives.
Putting to one side the guilt or innocence of the accused, as the allegations have yet to be tested in a court, the revelations that Chris Cash works directly with Conservative members of parliament further plays on our sense of vulnerability. If it can happen in Britain, is not the Australian Westminster parliamentary system at risk?
In 2020, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess wrote to MPs to caution them that they were attractive targets for foreign intelligence services. Presciently, here minded them that political staff also have been targeted.
On Monday, Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil repeated the warning. Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson subsequently reminded the public that the Chinese Communist Party had the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities among hostile nations and relied heavily on agents and human intelligence.
There are those who might be tempted to dismiss the seriousness of the allegations against Cash and the likelihood that it could happen in our system of government. They should reconsider. The threat is not exaggerated on either of these two counts.
O’Neil and Paterson are correct in their response to this incident halfway across the world. As the latter said of the arrest, it must serve as a “major wake-up call” for Australia.
Everyday information is valuable intelligence
When one thinks about intelligence, we tend to be drawn to what we read in spy novels or watch in the movies. It might be stealing the blueprints for a new weapon, the exposure of names of agents in a foreign country or the war plans of a hostile nation. That leads to dismissal of the allegations as farcical and unimportant in some quarters.
As British columnist and broadcaster Simon Jenkins argues in dismissing the allegations, the claim that a Chinese spy in his 20s cruising the Westminster drinks circuit might pose a threat to the British state is absurd.
Dismissive comments such as these are founded on the above dramatic view of what useful intelligence must be. True, Cash is not being accused of passing over to the Chinese detailed blueprints or of revealing plans and operations of the MI5 or MI6. But that doesn’t mean the accused did not have access to valuable information that could serve Chinese interests at Britain’s expense.
From what is known, Cash was hired by House of Commons foreign affairs committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns. In addition to conducting research activities asked of him, he became the primary liaison for the China Research Group set up by Tom Tugendhat. Tugendhat subsequently was promoted to Minister of State for Security.
It is not yet clear what kind of classified information and documents Cash would have had access to. Regardless, seemingly mundane, everyday information and observations he would have had inside the working environment of the Conservatives in Parliament House are valuable to foreign governments.
For starters, there is intelligence about key MPs and the interaction between them. Who are the leaders rather than followers in key debates and the shaping of agendas?
Of the leaders, who within and outside parliament enjoys influence over them? Information about the constitution and operation of informal but highly important sub-groupings of MPs within the ruling Conservative Party also would be of high interest to a foreign entity. The psychological, temperamental and intellectual profiles of individual MPs are important but difficult to acquire insights to be exploited by foreign entities. Who is strong-willed and likely to stand their ground compared with those who may be more susceptible to persuasion and influence? Regarding China, what narratives do they buy into or what issues are they motivated by?
When working in the closed environment of a Parliament House bubble, political aides and staff find themselves in a unique and privileged position to observe decision-making from the inside.
Even though such information will be incomplete, it nevertheless is of high interest to foreign intelligence services.
Armed with it, foreign entities can better conceive pathways and avenues to acquire and exercise leverage over elected individuals, identify which individuals are most susceptible to influence and what the most effective form of influence might be.
As mentioned, it has not been revealed what information Cash is being accused of passing on to China. But the notion that a parliamentary aide or staff member is irrelevant or of low interest to foreign intelligence services is plainly wrong.
That Cash was intimately involved with the China Research Group, which was setup by Conservative MPs concerned about Chinese influence on British politics, means he is in contact with the people about whom Chinese intelligence services would want to know more. That the group regularly held events and discussions with academics and businesspeople on these issues meant Cash was further exposed to British voices outside the government of high relevance and interest to foreign intelligence entities.
The passing of top-secret classified documents to a hostile entity is not the only way to compromise one’s national interest.
Wake-up call for Australia
The CCP is obsessed with gaining more information and intelligence on the US and its allies and to influence decision-makers, including shaping the latter’s beliefs and preferred options. Members of the Five Eyes network, which includes Britain and Australia, are especially important targets.
Australia has similar political institutions and processes to Britain and therefore similar vulnerabilities. In both countries it is relatively easy for foreign intelligence entities informally to engage aides and staff to MPs with the purpose of co-opting them or simply extracting information. After all, they are easily reachable, and it is often the job of staff members to engage with a wide array of individuals and organisations outside government.
Paterson has made the pertinent point that while staff to ministers must undergo security vetting, those working for backbenchers and shadow ministers do not. Bear in mind that while the security vetting regime is a robust and necessary one, the process mainly involves discovering current or past red flags such as suspicious interactions and behaviours. It is not as comprehensive or effective a vetting regime against those who have already been cleared and might engage in wrongdoing after receiving a clearance.
Moreover, as argued earlier, everyday information possessed by staff regarding MPs might seem trivial or be considered more gossip than intelligence. But it is information that is of immense interest to those seeking to influence elected decision-makers.
For this reason, seemingly innocent interactions by an unsuspecting staff member with a foreign agent may not be so innocent after all.
The good news is that Australia has one hard-earned advantage over Britain and others. The passing of legislation targeting foreign interference and covert influence in our institutions by the Turnbull government was accompanied by a genuine national conversation about the need for such provisions due to the activities of the CCP.
That robust national conversation, which included investigations by several of the country’s leading journalists into Chinese influence activities, was a factor in the deterioration of diplomatic relations with China. Our exporters, among others, paid a price.
However, the shining of a bright light into such activities adds a level of resilience to our system. The widespread awareness of extensive Chinese infiltration and influence activity means the public, including government employees, have less excuse or reason to claim they were unaware that individuals seeking information could be linked to Chinese foreign intelligence entities. Indeed, and after that public conversation more onus is being placed on the individual’s responsibility to avoid or reject compromising interactions. Pleading ignorance is less and less a reasonable or acceptable defence.
Regardless of whether the accusations against Cash are subsequently upheld or thrown out, we are in no less danger. Intelligence agencies from virtually the entire network of our allies are saying similar things about the relentless attempts by Chinese intelligence services to infiltrate, influence, and manipulate our politicians and institutions of decision-making. It is not a grand conspiracy among multiple countries to slander China. The more seriously we take the threat, the better we become at defending ourselves against it.