Was the Coalition’s Huawei debate just political theatre?


opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
4 November 2013
Image credit: Huawei

If you believe everything you read, over the past several weeks a ferocious debate took place between senior Government Ministers about whether Huawei should be allowed to bid for National Broadband Network contracts. But the discipline and unity historically displayed by Tony Abbott’s Cabinet hints at a more nuanced process, and one that may have all just been for show.

If there is one thing that Australian political journalists are talking about right now, it’s the fact that nobody’s talking.

In a piece for the ABC, elite deliverer of premium snark Mungo MacCallum bemoans what he calls the Coalition’s determination to keep the masses “as far as possible in the dark”. Over at the Sydney Morning Herald, in an article comically replete with photos of Ministers holding a finger to their lips, Bianca Hall points out that since winning office, the Coalition’s top Ministers have been virtually absent from the public debate. And even the Canberra bureaucracy is reportedly getting into the action, withholding ministerial briefings from reaching the public eye.

The cause of the breathtaking “silence”, in a political sector which has so often appeared to represent a cacophony of sound and fury, signifying nothing, is nothing less than a Prime Ministerial order itself. The Financial Review tells us that Abbott’s staff have ‘cracked down’ on Ministerial media appearances. Everything must be approved by head office, apparently.

The fact that Abbott is trying to forestall some of the huge levels of media hype which characterised the previous Labor Government from building up under his own administration is, on the face of it, laudable. There’s no doubt that Australians have had a gutfull of our politicians for now. With the Federal Election over and a new power in place, I think I speak for most of us when I say that I’d be happy if I didn’t see a politician mentioned in our mainstream media for at least a couple of months, unless something has gone catastrophically wrong. Let them get on with governing for a while and leave us in peace.

One consequence of all this serenity, however, is that when a legitimate political debate does pop its head up above the parapet, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s precisely what happened over the past several weeks with respect to the debate over whether the Coalition should lift Labor’s ban on Chinese networking vendor Huawei bidding for NBN contracts.

The first the public knew of the issue was an article published by the Financial Review’s China correspondent, who quoted Trade Minister Andrew Robb during a visit to the People’s Republic as stating that he “strongly supports” reviewing the Huawei ban.

It took Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull just a day to jump in with his own comments on the story. The Member for Wentworth declared the Chinese vendor a “very credible business” and noted that he would support a review of the ban. Turnbull also, somewhat sensationally for those who are aware of the secrecy around the executive, confirmed he had several times met with Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei while in Opposition.

From there the story took off like an absolute rocket, with several of the top Cabinet ministers weighing in publicly to one degree or another.

Attorney-General George Brandis issued a confused statement several days later which appeared to have a bob each way on approving Huawei for NBN contracts — or maybe not. Treasurer Joe Hockey fanned the flames the next night on national television by putting his foot firmly in the “no” camp. And finally, Abbott himself put his foot down, ruling out Huawei’s future participation in the NBN wholesale.

To an outsider’s view, it must have seemed as though the Cabinet was horribly divided on this issue. Turnbull and Robb, publicly arguing with Brandis and Abbott through the media on an issue of national security, with the Prime Minister himself forcibly separating the combatants after more than a week of debate? What an unseemly mess — worthy almost of Labor.

However, if you look a little deeper into the whole situation, it starts to seem as though the whole shebang might have been concocted for public consumption — a show, produced for a gullible media, fed by judicious and well-placed comments by senior Ministers who had agreed to be seen to be at odds in order to fulfil the needs of their own portfolios.

In short, a seasoned observer might have suspected that Australians, the Opposition, the Chinese Government and even Huawei itself were being played.

To understand why one might suspect this, it’s important to look at the chronology of events and the motivations and positions of the individual Ministers involved, as well as the Federal Cabinet as a whole.

Let’s take Andrew Robb. The naive view of the Trade Minister’s Huawei comments while in China would be that Robb actually believes in the potential of Huawei to make a difference to the cost of Australia’s NBN and also that the company has no links to China’s espionage establishment. It’s not hard to believe that Robb might feel this way — after all, the Member for Goldstein openly criticised Labor’s ban on the company while in Opposition.

However, a more suspicious political operative might feel that Robb’s Huawei comments while in China were cynically designed as the opening gambit of a wider play devised by several members of the Cabinet as a whole. It’s not hard to guess that Robb was very conscious of the fact that Huawei would never get a NBN guernsey in an Abbott administration, but gained permission to praise the company in China in order to soften the blow, as well as ensuring the Chinese believed they had a friend in Australia’s Trade Minister.

It’s possible that Turnbull, who had also openly canvassed the prospect of overturning the Huawei ban prior to the election, also gained support to back the company publicly due to the need to hold something of a blade to the throat of Alcatel-Lucent, the French vendor who has won the lion’s share of NBN fibre equipment contracts almost unopposed and is now virtually a shoe-in to win any Fibre to the Node contracts on offer. There is no doubt that Turnbull would like to introduce some competitive pressure to keep Alcatel-Lucent’s bid honest.

(Alcatel-Lucent has actually already won the contract for a national FTTN rollout in Australia once before — in 2005, under the watch of then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo)

Knowing that Brandis would eventually put the kibosh on Huawei’s NBN hopes, it would have been easy for Robb and Turnbull to cook a little media storm between them that would allow the Coalition to control the timing of the Huawei ban by having different Ministers express different sentiments on the company that would be useful in each of their portfolios.

The various comments allowed Robb to look like a supporter of China, Turnbull to look like financially prudent manager of the NBN and the international tech sector, Brandis to look like the upholder of national security, and Abbott to look like the stern father taking all views into account before making a sensible decision. And Hockey? Well, he merely looked like he normally does — cheerfully bombastic, tempered a little these days by the weight of the Treasury.

There are several signals that this version of events was the order of the day.

Firstly, despite Turnbull’s protestations to the contrary, it is very unlikely that he or Robb have ever been privy to the full intelligence agency briefing on Huawei.

Both would have been aware that the ultimate decision regarding Huawei’s participation was not up to them. It was, in fact, up to the National Security Committee of Cabinet, the nation’s peak-decision-making body on national security matters. This sub-division of Cabinet is chaired by the PM, and both the Treasurer and the Attorney-General sit on it, alongside others such as the Defence Minister. But neither the Trade Minister nor the Communications Minister are invited.

It is the members of that Committee that have been fully briefed on Huawei and who would have been involved in the decision to uphold or overturn Labor’s ban on the company. Turnbull, especially, may have been consulted — but the decision was never his to make, as the Member for Wentworth himself explicitly confirmed in no uncertain terms yesterday. National security concerns trump network equipment costs.

Secondly, there is the remarkable fact that the debate took place at all. Robb and Turnbull, to say nothing of Brandis and Hockey (although Hockey may have been speaking off the cuff), would have had to gain permission from Abbott’s office to do interviews or comment specifically on the Huawei situation.

I’ve followed Turnbull’s media appearances religiously over the past three years that he’s been Shadow Minister — and to say that the Member for Wentworth is a media junkie is not an exaggeration. Since the clampdown on Ministerial media appearances came into force, Turnbull’s public comments have been cut down by 90 percent. I have no doubt that Abbott’s office, at the very least, knew that Turnbull was planning to make comments on the issue.

Why would Abbott allow this debate between several senior Cabinet Ministers — a debate he would ultimately need to step in to settle? Because it allowed the PM to intelligently use his media-savvy Ministers to defuse a potentially explosive situation before it became a bigger issue.

The Chinese Government would obviously be unhappy with a continued ban on Huawei — so Andrew Robb mentions the issue while in the country, to show our Asian friends they have a friend in the Cabinet. Turnbull needs to keep Alcatel-Lucent in line, while Brandis needs to shore up his national security credentials. The ultimate decision around Huawei was probably set in stone the moment Abbott and his team got the ASIO briefing on the company. But it seems likely that the Cabinet exploited its different aspects in order to get the best possible result from the handling of that information release.

In Opposition, and in Government, Tony Abbott’s Coalition has been extraordinarily disciplined. The Coalition, especially its senior figures, tend to row in the same direction, following the leader, and we don’t typically see the same internal dissension from this side of politics spilling into the open the way it has for years with Labor. There probably was a well-argued Cabinet discussion about Huawei. But it’s unlikely that the Coalition’s front bench is undisciplined enough to allow that discussion to take place through the media.

That’s why, when we do see the kind of spectacle we saw over the past several weeks with respect to Huawei, it leads the logical thinker to suspect that we’re being taken for a ride. When it comes to national security, the Coalition is normally even more hardline than Labor, and it is much more disciplined in its approach to the media. Don’t believe everything you read. Because sometimes everything you read has been decided far in advance by some of the smartest and most experienced political operatives in Australia — and sometimes even the journalists writing the articles don’t quite understand the wider significance of what they’re reporting.

New Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare labelled the events of the past week a “humiliating slap down for Malcolm Turnbull”, claiming that the Coalition was divided on “this important national security issue”. But perhaps the joke was on Clare himself — for not understanding that the Coalition’s unity is its greatest strength.

It is, of course, quite possible that there was no conspiracy — that Robb, Turnbull, Brandis, Hockey and Abbott were merely all acting independently and welcoming open debate on the Huawei issue. However, history suggests there is at least a little more to the story than we are being told. As the author William S. Burroughs once wrote: “A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on.”