opinion It doesn’t matter at all whether Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was or was not briefed about the Federal Government’s security concerns about Huawei. What matters is whether those concerns are actually objectively grounded in hard evidence. Because all indications so far support the argument that they are not.
This morning The Australian newspaper made a huge song and dance about the fact that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull may not have told the whole truth when he said in August that the Opposition had not been privy to the same advice as the Federal Government had with respect to its still-controversial decision to blackball Chinese networking vendor Huawei from competing for telecommunications contracts with the National Broadband Network Company.
The newspaper’s national security correspondent Cameron Stewart brought to light the fact that Turnbull was, in fact, briefed about the situation by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in May, alongside Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop. So presumably, the Liberal leadership knows more about the Huawei ban than it has let on so far.
And Stewart’s article has already provoked a response from Turnbull this morning. In a statement published on his website, Turnbull acknowledged that he had been briefed by ASIO on the situation – but that his original comments on the matter remained technically correct, as ASIO didn’t see fit to provide the Opposition with the same advice it gave to the Government on the matter.
“This was not surprising,” said Turnbull. “Opposition briefings are very rarely, if ever, as complete as those given to the Government of the day and as a consequence the responsible approach for us to take was simply to state that if we formed a Government we would review the decision in the light of the complete advice and intelligence material that is inevitably only available to the Government of the day.”
Throughout today, there will doubtless be dozens of articles published in the media analysing this situation. Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt has already chimed in with his thoughts in brief this morning (he doesn’t think ‘politics should be played’ with respect to such matters), and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before The Australian’s news and Turnbull’s explanatory statement hits the airwaves through the usual shock jock mechanisms.
All kinds of highly fascinating issues will be examined. What precisely did ASIO tell Turnbull? To what degree did Turnbull mislead the public about his briefing? What does this say about Turnbull’s character? What does that say about his ability to deal with national security issues if he was to become Opposition Leader again, and even potentially Prime Minister? And so on. The media circus will ride around and around a glorious golden ring, cracking its whip and cackling at the scandal of it all.
However, upon reading the coverage of this issue and Turnbull’s response this morning, I was struck by how farcical this entire situation is.
After all, who the hell cares what Turnbull knew, or when he knew it? The Liberal MP has been disingenuous on so many matters relating to national telecommunications policy in recent months that it hardly matters whether he adds one more small item to his tally. In addition, it’s not likely that a Coalition Government would change its approach to the Huawei issue based on briefings from ASIO. Both sides of politics have a long-running history of simply swallowing whatever the nation’s security agencies have to offer wholesale.
In fact, I don’t even care what the current crop of Labor Government ministers involved in the situation – Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and so on – know about ASIO’s concerns about Huawei, or when they knew it.
What matters in this situation is the hard question of whether ASIO or any other Australian security or law enforcement agency actually has any objective hard evidence that supports the proposition that Huawei’s networking equipment and personnel represents a security risk to Australia. Because the Australian Government is virtually alone globally in holding that view. The issue has been continually raised internationally in the UK and US, but has been knocked back every time due to a lack of evidence. A growing consensus is emerging globally that Huawei has nothing to hide and perhaps never really did.
If the Australian Government does have any hard evidence that Huawei is a front for Chinese espionage interests, then that is an issue which would be of immediate interest to the hundreds of Australian and international telecommunications companies which use its hardware.
In Australia, Huawei is an absolutely key supplier of networking equipment to major Australian telcos such as Optus and Vodafone (in fact, Huawei’s hardware will be the fundamental platform underpinning almost all of Vodafone’s 3G network rebuild), and the company has also conducted trials of its equipment with Telstra. Other Australian telcos it works with include AAPT, vividwireless, Primus and TPG.
Internationally, Huawei’s customer list is also as impressive. It’s helping to build BT’s next generation network in the UK; in Norway it build a LTE mobile network for TeliaSonera. It’s received global approval to supply solutions to the Vodafone Group, and it’s working with TELUS and Bell Canada in North America. In Holland the company built a 4G network for Dutch mobile operator Telfort in 2004.
In March, as security concerns were being raised about its Australian operations, Huawei responded by issuing a transcript of an interview its director of corporate & public affairs, Jeremy Mitchell (a former executive with Telstra) gave with Sky News.
Mitchell stated that internationally, Huawei was “the global leader in building national broadband networks”, and in fact the second-largest supplier of telecommunications technology in general. “Of the 9 NBN’s being built around the world we are delivering 8 of them, and that also includes the United Kingdom where for the last 6 years we have been the sole supplier of the technology we would like to put in the Australian NBN,” he said. “So we are clearly the world leader, we have the best technology, so we do believe we can play a role in the Australian NBN.” Huawei, he added, worked with 45 out of the top 50 telecommunications companies globally.
Mitchell said Huawei understood that the issue of cyber-security was a sensitive one for governments, and was becoming one of the biggest threats governments were facing. However, he pointed out that Huawei wouldn’t be able to obtain the level of customer interest it had from the top telcos globally if those customers didn’t trust the company, its workers and its equipment. To further defray any concerns Australia’s Government might have, Mitchell said, Huawei was happy to supply the Government with the source code to its equipment and to have its products audited by Australian citizens who had received security clearances. In fact, he noted, Huawei had gone through this same process with the UK Government.
A number of other major networking hardware suppliers from diverse international countries, such as Nokia Siemens Networks (Finland), Ericsson (Sweden), Cisco (the United States), Alcatel-Lucent (France) and others have won major contracts with NBN Co over the past several years. However, none of those firms have had their foreign interests questioned in public by NBN Co or the Government.
When you consider all of this, it starts to become apparent that any security concerns which ASIO has about Huawei would have significantly greater global impact with respect to the company, beyond the contextually minor contracts which Huawei might win with respect to the NBN.
If Huawei truly is interested in siphoning information back to shadowy Chinese overlords, then it seems clear that ASIO has a public duty to disclose that information not just to the Federal Government, but to the millions of Australians who use the 3G networks of Vodafone and Optus, for example, as well as major telcos and governments in virtually every other country globally. In an age where all of our global communication absolutely relies on the security and stability of networking equipment from Huawei, any serious question undercutting our perception of that security and stability must be fully explained and justified. If ASIO has evidence about Huawei – backdoors in its networking gear, or concrete connections to Chinese espionage — it must present that evidence for global examination.
The fact that ASIO and the Attorney-General’s Department has not done this, strongly points to the fact that it does not have such evidence.
In addition, the argument that Huawei has nothing to hide from security agencies such as ASIO is strengthened by the fact that the company has done its best to fully open its kimono to such agencies. Huawei has constantly offered over the past several years in Australia to have its technology security audited, it has taken politician after politician and journalist after journalist to tour its manufacturing facilities in Shenzen, it has appointed a local board of highly senior Australian politicians and former Defence personnel to oversee its operations, and it is even considering listing locally on the Australian Stock Exchange, in order to provide even more transparency.
At this point, one has to ask oneself, what more could Huawei possibly do, to demonstrate that it is not the technology arm of the Chinese espionage community which so many people seem to believe it to be?
The farce of this week’s debate about Huawei is that it will be solely political. Polite Australian society will debate endless point after endless point about what Malcolm Turnbull should be doing and how he should be doing it. But personally, I would like to see the discussion move to an evidence basis. While ASIO and the Federal Government play politics, a major technology supplier’s name is being constantly dragged through the mud, without a shred of evidence being presented to justify it. We would be outraged if China accused major Australian companies of espionage — in fact, I seem to recall that we were outraged, when Rio Tinto executives in China were accused of espionage.
I will say it again: It matters not when, where or by whom Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon or anyone else was briefed about security concerns regarding Chinese networking vendor Huawei. What matters is whether those concerns are accurate. Just because someone says something, that doesn’t make it true. If ASIO has evidence about Huawei, let it present that evidence in the cold hard light of day, to be evaluated by the global security community. Because so far the evidence presented against the company publicly has turned out to be little more than rampant conspiracy theory in action.
Image credit: Huawei