The first and most obvious point about the Joel Fitzgibbon affair is that defence department employees spying on a democratically elected minister should be sacked. On that, there can be no compromise. It’s fundamental to democratic politics that civil servants do as they’re told, no matter what they think of the minister or his friends. If Fitzgibbon wants to meet with Satan himself, it’s the job of his departmental officials to sacrifice the goat. If they can’t or if they won’t, they should get out of the way.

There is, after all, a context to this debate. Throughout most of the twentieth century, each incoming Labor administration encountered more-or-less organized resistance by defence and security bureaucrats concerned that these Labor wallahs weren’t quite pukka. It seems the bad old days are back again. Paul Daley, writing for the Age notes:

Fitzgibbon has polarised Defence in pursuit of his reform objectives, where a string of ministers before him have effectively surrendered. He has also upset those his allies call the “visiting fellows” — the many strategic studies and defence academics, journalists and think-tank commentators who are close to the generals but whose views Fitzgibbon has largely dismissed.

The “visiting fellows” would be the braniacs who cheered Howard on into Iraq and Afghanistan, a crew who unfailingly wrecked everything they touched and yet still feel entitled to run the country without any democratic mandate whatsoever.

If the defence department can’t cope with Fitzgibbon, how would it handle someone from an entirely different political culture? What would happen, say, if Bob Brown took over the ministry? Unless Fitzgibbon wins this particular face-off, there’s a real risk that the bureaucrats will continue to see anyone other than the bluest of Tories as interlopers to be driven out.

The second point is that politicians shouldn’t accept undeclared gifts. It’s true that Fitzgibbon’s trips took place before he was a minister and that if that were a hanging offense, there’d be lots of others dangling with him from the lampposts. But still, Nick Xenophon is right: if there’s nothing wrong with taking a freebie, there’s nothing wrong with declaring it so the public can make up its own mind.

The third point is that there’s now an urgent need for an open and wide-ranging discussion about Australia’s relationship with China, a topic about which political attitudes seem entirely schizophrenic. Until recently, both parties talked up our links to the Chinese powerhouse as the best chance of staving off the GFC. Over the last week, however, China’s become the Brian Burke of nations, a country that tars you just by association.

Where’s this coming from?

In the twenty-first century, China represents the only credible economic and military challenge to American hegemony. The infamous Project for a New American Century made that clear in the late nineties and the neoconservative agenda for the Middle East was always, at least in part, about firing a shot across Chinese bows.

Naturally, the “visiting fellows” who prospered so splendidly from the “War on Terror” hysteria would want to gin up anxiety over China as the leader of a New Axis of Scary. But where, for instance, Malcolm Turnbull stand on the notion of China as looming threat? Will he come out and say what he really thinks?

Evidently not, which brings us to point number four.

Behind this debate — and not very far behind it — lurks the spectre of the Yellow Peril. The SMH today, for instance, casually refers to Helen Liu as a “Chinese businesswoman”. Actually, she’s nothing of the sort — she’s an Australian citizen. A trivial subediting error? Perhaps, but it reflects the underlying assumption permeating throughout this whole business — that people of Chinese origin remain innately foreign, no matter what their passports say. Have a look at the comments threads beneath the online coverage of the Fitzgerald scandal, where the discussion slips seamlessly from Beijing’s foreign policy to the innate clannishness of Orientals.

Finally, in the shameful treatment of Ms Liu, we can see the cumulative damage done over the last decade to the most basic of judicial norms. If Helen Liu has committed a crime, then she should be charged. Until that happens, she should be presumed as innocent as anyone else.

Instead, though, she now exists in the twilight state inhabited by Jack Thomas, Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks: neither innocent nor guilty but subject to all manner of casual insinuations from the press and politicians. Britain’s Independent, for instance, heads its coverage “Australian minister fights honey-trap investigation”, a banner that scandalously implies Liu has been trading s-xual favours for information.

Again, we saw all this during the Cold War. It was wrong then and it’s wrong still.

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now