Malcolm Turnbull and the great Huawei farce


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


  1. Typo in last paragraph – “Just because someone says something, that does make it true” should be “…doesnt make it true”

  2. Let’s do it ourselves. We don’t need a parasite corporation that rapes workers and the taxpayer to be a useless middle man.

  3. Isn’t that just great that showing some PR related stuff and not actually answering the important questions coming from the huawei PR department.

    To me, it just sounds like they were able to outbid everyone else to be a big player.

  4. and just because someone says something, does not make it untrue either.
    The U.S. intelligence agencies amongst others also have grave concerns.

    The crap already happens, as has been in media very recently with international crime gangs already hijacking and infiltrating certain hardware component manufacturers and making them part of their arsenal of command and control, which incidentally at least one of them is stated to call home in China.
    Of course that could still be a Romanian or Russian hijacked front, who knows, intelligence factoring is never black and white, its all kinds of shades of colours.

    • “The U.S. intelligence agencies amongst others also have grave concerns.”

      None of which has ever been aired in public …

      I believe in evidence-based policy. I have yet to see any evidence that Huawei is different from the Ciscos, Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks of this world. When I do, I will change my opinion. But I’m not going to believe ASIO or the Attorney-General’s Department just because they say so … that’s the same approach they’re trying to pull with the data retention and surveillance proposal they’re trying to push through at the moment.

          • I agree the Foxconn situation is not ideal, but it’s one negative aspect, compared to a great deal of positive aspects to manufacturing in China. The reality is that in mid-2012, large consumer electronics manufacturers need to manufacture in such areas to be competitive. If they all agreed to manufacture, for example, in the US and in Australia, it might be possible to stop manufacturing in China — but realistically that’s not going to happen ;)

          • Well I didn’t say stop but I think not allowing Huawei to bid for NBN is a good thing for competitive world.

            The whole manufacturing debate is partly our fault (along with UK and US and rest of EURO) because they all want to move manufacturing to China.

          • To use one simple example. something like 85% of the worlds zippers are made in just one Chinese factory.

            Lot of influence over the lucrative zipper industry…

            Seriously though, there are so many industries where the vast majority of a product can be traced back to just one factory in rural China. My tin hat is out being repaired so I’m not subscribing to any conspiracy theories, but any situation where there is a monopoly, natural or not, has an inherent risk of going sour at some point.

            What if China suddenly decreed a 100% increase in minimum wage? That zipper factory suddenly charges double for its zippers, raising the manufacturing costs of every zipper using product in the world.

            Total chaos ensues!!

          • I can see written in the book ‘History of the World’ an entry for 2015 about the ‘Zipper crisis’ leading to global unrest and the ‘Zipper wars’. ;-/

      • [i]None of which has ever been aired in public …[/i]

        it’s about to be aired in public according to Reuters.
        [i]WASHINGTON/HONG KONG, Oct 8 (Reuters) – China’s top telecoms gear makers should be shut out of the U.S. market as potential Chinese state influence on them poses a security threat, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee said in a draft of a report to be released on Monday.[/i]

  5. I agree and disagree Renai.

    I agree it will be trotting out the old ‘look MT is lying!’ card….but then he DID actually lie this time. He could’ve said ‘we have been partly briefed, but it is unclear and we would like a full briefing to decide’ but he didn’t. He said they hadn’t been briefed. I think that is important and shouldn’t be overlooked just because he has been misleading of late. He outright lied this time.

    On Huawei……look, I’ve been to Hong Kong several times and worked directly with engineering firms there. The Chinese are a different people to ours. Not worse, just different. They have no concept of IP and little concept of privacy. I truly believe that IF (and I stress if) Huawei WERE intercepting data and feeding it back, it would be just as likely to be sifted through for intelligence as it would to be used for ‘optimization’ like Google asks when you sign on for its services. And Huawei China would struggle to understand why we thought the latter was a problem even though they didn’t tell us.

    The problem is, the Western world doesn’t understand Eastern culture. Not even Westerners who WORK there always understand them. They copied every engineering drawing we showed them when we were over there and were truly bewildered when we asked for the copies before leaving as they could be used to copy our equipment- that was a given to them.

    I don’t know if Huawei is a security concern. As you say, there has been little (public) evidence displayed. You, as a journalist, inherently mistrust secrecy from departments. I don’t inherently. That’s not to say if shown evidence that secrecy was being abused I wouldn’t. But I haven’t been shown much evidence.

    I’m of the opinion also that anything that allows greater competition is a good thing. (Except infrastructure competition obviously) Removing Huawei from tendering doesn’t appear to do that. Although as someone has already pointed out, it does stop moving further towards what is fast becoming a Chinese monopoly in technology manufacturing.

    I don’t think we’re going to see evidence from ASIO about Huawei and the NBN. That is both good and bad. I’ve struggled with this ban from day 1 and I still don’t know which is right. I do mistrust the Chinese but not for espionage directly. I mistrust how they treat their people and lie to them. ( not that MT appears to do much better….) And that makes me mistrust what they say publicly- if they aren’t honest with their own people, why would thy be with us, outsiders?…

  6. Renai said: 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.”

    ASIO’s position would be directly from the US security establishments. Our government (either party) is generally more than happy to concede almost anything to the US, and have often even over-reacts to what the US wants by giving it what it asks for and more.

    I have no doubt the US see’s China as a major (future?) threat, hence the strengthening of their presence here (the base in NT, which Australian departments can’t rule out having missiles/drones that could reach China), and the discussions about allowing US nuclear strike group in WA (

    The Huawei stuffs just a collateral/peripheral issues in that context.

    • This is especially troublesome considering that it’s easily demonstrated that there a strong links between the US ‘Intelligence’ Services and US corporate interests. The Megaupload fiasco is a perfect example of this.

      • Yeah, I prefer it when my nations intelligence & law enforcement services don’t support my nations corporte interests…

        • Which would be fine if you:

          A: Realised ut’s US interests only, not ours (or New Zealand’s in this case)
          B: Didn’t realise that dictionary definition of fascism was integration of government and corporate interests.

          Business interests are rarely the majority of the populations interests, governments actual job is to regulate them.

  7. I’m surprised that this is even news at this point.

    Turnbull is so incredibly fluid with facts, and rather fond of expressing “fact”, that at a later date becomes “opinion”.

    That and the ever present pre-occupation with Turnbull being leader – those bridges have been burnt already. He’s almost certainly never to be leader again. Please, folks, move on. L/NP has continued to support Abbott, despite any sanity concerns this might raise.

    Finally, there will be valid, and entirely knee-jerk reactions to Huwaei from Intelligence circles. Paranoia means that that will continue to be the case, for as long as China remains a communist state.

    Huwaei is a Chinese based corporation. And whether intentioned or not,or even likely or not, it is still at risk of having to comply with the Chinese Government and any mandate they make. That said government has and for all intents and purposes seems to continue to be involved in cyber-attacks against western governments won’t be helping.

    This is always a concern. China is still a communist country; which means that they can still dictate terms which would be at the very least impractical, if not outright unlawful in a democratic state. It may have become rather driven by economic growth, but that doesn’t change the underlying political climate.

    Is this “fair” for Huawei. Nope. Politics is never fair. Or even honest.

    And this is a political standpoint that the Government has taken, as much as anything else. Turnbull can sit there and distort facts as much as he likes, the probability is overwhelmingly strong that the L/NP party would have faced the same decision, and likely made the same decision – had they decided to implement an NBN in the same fashion.

    But, since they have no intention of an equivalent NBN, and do not appear to be considering any form of state-sponsored deployment, then one imagines this isn’t an issue they need to be concerned of.

    • @Brendan

      Agree wholeheartedly.

      There’s no question there is still high suspicions of the Chinese government. AND they’ve been PROVEN to be spying in some circumstances. This notches up very much a big cross for Huawei.

      As you say, is it fair? No. But neither is life. And we ALL have to put up with that inconvenience for nigh on a century if we’re unlucky……

  8. The “technically correct” comment makes me think of Hermes Conrad:

    “Bureaucrat Conrad, you are technically correct — the best kind of correct.”

  9. “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.”
    So compromise the source of information? If the government released surreptiously obtained info – who dies? How do we get more from the same source?
    Some Intel cpu’s have hardware flaws that can be exploited by a determined adversary.
    How do you not just audit the hardware design and sourcecode – but each piece of silicon & the binaries under a wide variety of scenarios? Who pays?

    Not sure trusting a US firm is any better, and a completely open sourced hardware and software design would be better, built in a secure monitored facility. Like the US military does for its gnarly hardware.

    Australia is building infrastructure for the future. Can we be paranoid enough?


    Perhaps Huawai is getting more out of the dollars they are paying to buy Liberal politicians and sponsor Canberra sporting events than whoever is buying Cubbie Farm is doing.

    Australia should have the same relationship with China as the Middle East countries have with the US. We’ll take all your money then buy out your failing economy using your own cash, stay away from our own culture and economy.

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