‘Threat’: Barnaby’s China call after spy reveal

A former MP working with spies was serving either a state, territory or federal parliament at the time. Picture: NewsWire/Gary Ramage

Barnaby Joyce says Australia should take a “tough” stance after it emerged that China was behind an aggressive espionage campaign that successfully recruited a politician.

ASIO chief Mike Burgess divulged that a former Australian politician was serving in either state, territory or federal parliament at the time they were recruited by a foreign intelligence service “several years ago”.

While Mr Burgess refused to reveal the identity of the ex-leader or name the nation behind the effort, he detailed in his annual threat assessment last week that China’s own secret police agency, The Ministry of State Security, was involved what he called the “A-Team” – a network of spies that have been actively targeting leaders.

Speaking on Monday, the Nationals frontbencher said the federal government needed to deal with the “evident threat” of foreign espionage as soon as possible.

“There is an active spy or has been within our government and what we do know is that China is behind it,” Mr Joyce told Today.

“Australia (must be) as strong as possible as quickly as possible.”

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Additional Estima
Mike Burgess shared new details in a series of exclusive interviews on the weekend. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Mr Burgess revealed in his annual threat assessment address on Wednesday night that a dedicated unit within a foreign spy service was “aggressively” targeting Australia.

A mad game of guess-who then ensued after he said that one former politician had been “successfully cultivated and recruited” by an “A-team” of spies to “advance the interests” of an unnamed foreign regime.

While Mr Burgess gave no new information about the person’s age, gender or political affiliation, he confirmed that the individual had been recruited before 2018 and before current espionage legislation was in place.

Mr Burgess said the politician “knew what they were doing”.

“They let down their country, absolutely,” Mr Burgess told 60 Minutes.

“They sold out Australia.

“The law’s the law, and in this case, that’s a reality. It has been dealt with.”

When asked whether naming the politician would quash concerns about ongoing national security, Mr Burgess said since the discovery of the espionage, “the harm” has since been reduced.

“This is slightly different, this is not access to classified information. This is the clandestine, deceptive actions of a nation-state and an individual supporting them so they can be recruited to be extracted,” he said.

“The good thing, though, is that behaviour was stopped. The harm is reduced

“Foreign interference against the political system happens at all levels of government in this country.”

Mr Burgess said ASIO is busier than ever and the country continues to “face a deadly dilemma”.

However, he told 60 Minutes he also wouldn’t be commenting on which country was behind the “A-team”.

“I call out these examples so Australians are alert (of what) suspicious behaviour looks like because that improves our defences,” he said.

“The world is complex.

“In terms of calling out a country, I think me mentioning their name emboldens them. I can assure you of that, with them they knew what they were doing.”

He said by that time, the “A-team” spy network operating within a “particular foreign intelligence service” had been active for many years.

Anthony Albanese has supported Mr Burgess’ decision to not name the individual. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

In a separate interview with Guardian Australia, Mr Burgess said the former politician was asked to carry out a range of activities by the so-called A-team, and was fully aware of what they were doing.

He said the person was no longer deemed to be a security threat.

According to Mr Burgess, the former politician was asked to help to select and invite people to attend an all-expenses paid overseas conference hosted by the members of a foreign intelligence service posing as “bureaucrats”, who planned to use the event as an opportunity to establish relationships with individuals with access to sensitive information.

After the Prime Minister slammed speculation from some leaders over the person’s identity as “incredibly irresponsible”, Labor frontbencher Jason Clare urged against further questions and said it was evidence espionage was a real threat.

“The point is that there’s evidence here from the head of ASIO that says another country has interfered in Australian politics, contacting a politician,” he told Sky News

“This is not a game of guess who, this is about keeping the country safe – the fact that this happened in the first place is deadly serious.”