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Bipartisan Consensus as Myth: The Manchurian Candidate in Australian Politics

A few dragons have been breathing fire of late, and these need to be slayed. One is the notion that Australia has had some miraculous sense of bipartisan understanding about national security, its politicians well briefed, cooperative and objective on the subject. The second is that politicising intelligence and national security are aberrations.

The Morrison government has made its own modest contribution to sinking these assumptions. It is, after all, an election year. There is a schoolboy simplicity to the effort: scream various words such as “appeasement” often enough, and it will take hold. Reiterate the term “Manchurian Candidate”, and hope it cakes opponents.

In the Australian Parliament, Prime Minister Scott Morrison demonstrated this month that accusation as politics without evidence governs his operating rationale. As he has done previously in attempting to paint the Labor opposition as stacked with pro-China stooges, he told the chamber that the Labor Deputy Opposition leader Richard Marles was a “Manchurian Candidate”.

Ever helpful, the Defence Minister Peter Dutton went one position higher with his claim that the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was well favoured in Beijing. “We now see evidence that the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government has also made a decision about who they will back in the next federal election, and that is open and obvious.”

Not exactly a masterpiece of literary narrative (a “wild, vigorous, curiously readable melange,” was a description offered by Frederic Morton), the 1959 novel by Richard Condon of that same name captured the Cold War zeitgeist of paranoia. It features the deeds of a sleeper agent, one Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who returns from service in the Korean War. With ten other men, Shaw served in an Intelligence and Reconnaissance patrol subsequently captured and brainwashed by the Chinese. On their release, they are convinced that Shaw saved them, bare two. The seed is laid.

The brainwashed Shaw becomes, in effect, a manipulable assassin, his mind able to be triggered by a game of solitaire and the queen of diamonds. The chief brainwasher explains the reason for picking this stepson of a US Senator. “Although the paranoiacs make the great leaders, it is the resenters who make their best instruments because the resenters, those men with cancer of the psyche, make the great assassins.”

Shaw also has the misfortune of being controlled by his devilishly scheming mother Eleanor Iselin, intent on seeing the US morph into an authoritarian state even as she pushes the vice-presidential aspirations of her husband, Shaw’s lacklustre stepfather.

John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film adaptation of the book, featuring Lawrence Harvey as Shaw, Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, with Angela Lansbury in the role of Eleanor Iselin, has been considered a classic despite failing at the box office. A preposterous plotline is rendered seductive through aesthetic sequences and visualisation. Film historian David Thomson saw the link between pulp and celluloid; Condon’s book was “written so that an idiot could film it.”

Even if most Australian politicians would have only a nodding acquaintance with the work and its filmography, the cultural, denigrative baggage of the term remains. Morrison’s resort to it even smoked out the chief of ASIO, the Australian domestic intelligence service. “I’ll leave the politics to the politicians,” Mike Burgess observed in his interview with the 7.30 Report, “but I am very clear with everyone that I need to be, that that is not helpful for us.”

Former senior diplomat and head of the Office of National Assessments, Allan Gyngell, is dismissive about any significant differences between the Labor opposition and the governing Coalition on China. “An effective wedge has to be made out of something more than wishful thinking,” he surmises. “The language will differ person to person, but on the key policy issues, which is what matters – the Quad, foreign interference, 5G – I think it’s clear.”

Gyngell arcs up at the use of the word “appeasement” in current debates, given that “it has a very specific meaning in international relations, and none in which it is being used here seem applicable.”

Former ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson, in reproaching any effort to create “artificial” differences between the Coalition and Labor on the issue of China, proceeds to claim an artificial construction of his own. “The tradition in Australia has been that governments seek to promote bipartisanship on critical national security issues.”

Constant airing of the view that Australian politics remains, at its centre, in agreement about security threats has been repeatedly shown to be fable and nonsense. Australia’s history of politicising intelligence and security threats is extensive and disturbingly remarkable. As Justin McPhee shows in his landmark study Spinning the Secrets of State, Australian politicians have been habitually addicted to politicising matters regarding intelligence to undermine causes and adversaries since the origins of the Commonwealth.

The number of instances McPhee notes are too numerous to mention here, but it is worth recalling the use of intelligence by the ruthlessly wily Prime Minister Billy Hughes during the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917 and the close links between ASIO and Conservative Coalition governments that kept progressive politics at bay for a generation. Hardly bipartisan.

And who can ever forget the glacial relationship between the intelligence services and the Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, culminating in the police raid of ASIO headquarters on orders by the Attorney General Lionel Murphy? Murphy had suspected ASIO of being less than frank about a possible security threat to the invited Yugoslav Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić from disgruntled Croatian nationalists. Right wing nationalist movements were less interesting to ASIO than godless Soviet communism.

This inglorious record existed prior to the sexed-up dossiers of dubious intelligence that were the hallmark of justifying the unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003. Such monstrously cooked accounts were based on the dubious premise that Saddam Hussein constituted a mortally grave threat to the interests of Canberra, Washington and London, and had intimate links with al-Qaeda. Yet Saddam is dead, and the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard live with shameless vigour. To the politicising cadres go the electoral spoils, and Morrison is trying to down to that noxious legacy.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    Some horrible war criminals, and Jack Howard is one of our leading deviates, have had runaway careers in pursuing notice, position, notoriety, an imaginary existence above the wormlike levels of actuality. And, inspired more by Adolf and Josef than by some floating fantasised fairy, Morrison is uttering buckets of bullshit from an uninformed and undereducated small mind. Too much is being said on sites by keen and ambitious paraders of pseudo wisdom, so some of us can also flog our assertions at tuppence the pound. Biden should consult his son Hunter for inside info on Ukraine’s leading neonazi schemers. Biden himself should study the 1776 position of the colonies carefully, and why one should “break away”, as some Russian culture and language regions have done within the Ukraine borders. Perhaps they don’t like being murdered by thugs; he must know all about 1963 and Cuba, surely? He must know of the deep implications of the Monroe doctrine for USA attitude and its example to others. Boris Bonkfist knows little, so let us jump over that. Could Common sense prevail? Historical perspective? Merkel used to comprehend the burdens of old culture and history, blame for being within a culture that crushed Poland, France, Scandinavia, Low Counties, Russia. She is greatly to be missed these days. Not many seem up to managing this.

  2. Kathryn

    What the despicable megalomaniacal narcissist, Scott Morrison, fails to realise is that he, and his cabinet of like-minded political psychopaths, are completely INSIGNIFICANT on the world stage! The LNP are about as relevant to Russia, China and the rest of the world as screen doors on a submarine!

    Whilst Mr Shouty (aka the vindictive, bone idle Sloth Morrison) is busy screaming empty, totally vacuous character-assassinating accusations about members of the Opposition he sees as a threat; whilst SlowMo continues to become a more offensive, parochial irritant to China – a nation that just happens to be our biggest trading partner – he chooses to conveniently forget that it was an LNP government who handed over a 99 Years lease over our Darwin Ports to the very same nation (China) he is now openly criticising! Morrison need not worry about a Chinese “invasion” as, thanks to the LNP’s decision to hand over our Darwin Ports, they are ALREADY here! My God, could this self-promoting, dumbed down windbag (Morrison) be MORE stupidly short-sighted? The damage this pig-headed fool is likely to cause in relation to trade with our largest partner is incomprehensible!

    Tragically, the rising conflict between Russia, Ukraine and America has now played right into the hands of the unpopular and ineffective pathological liar, Morrison! The fact is that the LNP have a long, long history of THRIVING on hate, misogyny, homophobia, racism, fear and WAR. Utilising fear, hate and war is deeply embedded into the LNP’s DNA whereby the LNP have used international conflict and war as a suitable distraction against their escalating level of self-serving corruption, short-sighted idiocy, reckless defundment of everything Australians value and their total inability to lead the nation with any level of integrity or credibility!

    The LNP have used and abused conflict and WAR for their OWN political agenda going back to Korea, Vietnam, John Howard’s rabid participation in the genocidal slaughter within Iraq and Syria and, here we go again, with Morrison ramping up the hate speech yet again in relation to this rising conflict between Russia and the Ukraine! It takes the bloody-minded, self-serving war mongering sociopaths in the LNP to sacrifice our national security and the lives of countless young Australians in every foreign war the LNP see as a DIVERSION against their rising unpopularity – usually right before a federal election – and it ALWAYS takes a Labor government to get us out of it!

  3. GL

    Kathryn, That’s why I call Scummo “The Guppy” and “The Purse Dog” because he keeps trying to prove he’s a big shark and a junkyard dog. A failure on all counts except for being the world’s village idiot, that he keeps winning without any competition.

  4. My say

    The scary thing is not knowing what Morrison will do next to get re elected, He is a danger to Australians and Australia

  5. Caz

    Kathryn as well as selling our two important ports to The Chinese, we allow them to buy the farm and anything else that takes their fancy. Just this week a Vaucluse trophy home was purchased for $64m by a Chinese National. You will never convince me that that sort of money is come by honestly. We have for years seen Chinese buying up whole apartment buildings in Sydney. We are becoming tenants in our own land.

  6. wam

    The libs idea of bipartisan action has always been agree with us.
    Labor agreed with the religious shit but put in amendments to get some ownership. QED.
    Check the china FTA to see incompetence in extremis

  7. paul walter

    I’m tired ofswitching on and off telly the last few days and being inundared wth fantasticsl neurotic bullshit.

    It is like drownig in the waste of the dumpster load of liquid fertiliser tipped over me.

  8. GL

    I see the bald knuckle dragging amoeba brained war monster thug is having yet another go at the CCP.


    The village idiot at work –


    He doesn’t even rate as a minor player, he’s more like a angry flea biting an elephant. Cretin!

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