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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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29 February 2024

SUBJECTS: ASIO Threat Assessment, Red Sea

HOST, NATALIE BARR: Well, Australia's top spy has issued an urgent warning overnight over the growing danger of espionage and foreign interference. In his annual threat assessment, ASIO boss Mike Burgess even revealed a former politician had, quote, sold out their country to a foreign spy ring in order to advance the interests of that foreign regime. Mr. Burgess says these threats are real, these threats are now, and they go deeper than we may think. It was pretty strong, wasn't it? For more, let's bring in Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles. Good morning to you. Gee, Mike Burgess, the ASIO boss, did not mince his words. How concerned should we be about our national security? Do you know who this spy is?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Well, look, I don't know the facts which underpin the situation that Mike Burgess outlined, but we certainly are very aware of the threat that exists from foreign espionage in Australia. And I think it really highlights the importance of all of us who are involved in government. That includes politicians, obviously, but not just politicians. People working in the public service, critical agencies, really, anyone engaged in public administration. Our job is to act in the interests of the Australian people. That's why we're here. And there are actors out there who are seeking to influence what we are doing, not in Australia's national interests, but in the interests of other countries. And protecting our sovereignty as a nation is all about making sure that we don't let that occur. It is a really timely reminder to hear this story because we really need to be vigilant in all that we do.

BARR: Exactly. So, you're the Deputy Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, and we've just got the ASIO boss stand up there and say a former politician, quote, ‘sold out their country to spies’ and he is not telling you who it is.

MARLES: Well, I think what's important here is that we- there are two things that are important here. One is that we understand this scenario happened. And the second thing is that we had an agency which was able to disrupt it, which is what's occurred here. And I think this is the other point to be clear about. Australians shouldn't overreact to this in the sense that we should go about our lives with a sense of confidence-

BARR: It sounds pretty bad, it is a former politician. So, what happened to the former politician? Where is he or she now?

MARLES: Well can I just finish my point. What matters here is that we have some of the best agencies in the world which are able to disrupt this, and people should have confidence in that. But at the same time, there is the threat of espionage, and we need to be very vigilant about it, and that needs to be at the forefront of our minds in terms of the way in which we go about our business. I don't know the specific answer to your question as to what has been the outcome, because I don't know the people which underpin this scenario. But what is really important is that it was disrupted.

BARR: Okay, so when the boss of ASIO announces this, do you go and knock on his door and say, who was it?

MARLES: What I seek to know is that this situation is in hand and that ASIO has done everything in its power to make sure that Australians are being kept safe. And I'm really confident about that. And that is the great work that ASIO does. It also obviously highlights the importance of having ASIO-

BARR: You're right, they are amazing and we thank them. And you're right, we all want to know. But if there was a former politician in the last few years acting as a spy on our country, first of all, we all want to know who he or she is- and we accept that you don't know and you haven't asked- but this person may be now in the private sector, maybe doing other things. What happened to him or her? Are they allowed to just sort of go free form around the country, taking corporate gigs?

MARLES: I don't know the answers to those questions- 

BARR: Should you?

MARLES: The other point here is the circumstances of the evidentiary base behind them. What can or can't be done? I mean, there's a whole lot of questions there that exist as well. What matters here is that we know that this has been disrupted and that we know that the threat exists and that those of us doing our roles are really vigilant about it. But also that Australians have a sense of confidence in the work that ASIO does.

BARR: Yep, you're right there. Look, in breaking news, more Australian troops will be deployed to the Middle East to help target those rebels terrorising the Red Sea. Can you tell us how many personnel we're talking about and exactly how they're going to serve?

MARLES: So, it's an additional six people who will be going in the next couple of days to the Middle East to operate in the headquarters which specifically direct the strikes that are being made by the United States and the United Kingdom on the Houthi positions within Yemen. And so just to make that clear, there has been the Combined Maritime Force, which is a headquarters, which exists in Bahrain that we've contributed to for a long time, that last year we announced a significant increase in terms of our contribution to that. This is separate to that, although both efforts are directed about maintaining freedom of navigation, freedom of shipping in the Red Sea. But clearly, the strikes on the Houthi bases is a step up in action, but one that we believe is very important, which is why we're making sure that we are participating in supporting the US and the UK in that action.

BARR: Right. Okay. Thank you very much for your time. And if you find out who that spy is, he or she, let us know.

MARLES: I probably won't, but-

BARR: Okay. We'll be here. Thank you.

MARLES: Thanks, Nat.


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