Australia’s security services have foiled a plot to interfere in this year’s national election by an anonymous government through a wealthy individual nicknamed the “puppeteer”.
Mike Burgess, chief executive of Australia’s intelligence services ASIO, said an unnamed individual with “direct and deep ties to a foreign government and its intelligence agencies” planned to make political donations and generate positive media coverage for some politicians running for office.
Burgess did not name the foreign power behind the attempt to influence Australian policy, but said “espionage and foreign interference have supplanted terrorism as the primary security concern”.
Australia introduced laws to limit outside influence on its domestic politics, banning foreign political donations and requiring lobbyists to reveal when they worked for foreign entities. In 2019, ASIO investigated allegations that a Chinese spy ring tried to recruit an agent to run for office.
An opposition Labor Party politician, who had called for Australia to respect Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea, resigned in 2017 after being accused of endangering national security over a donation scandal linked to a Chinese property developer.
James Paterson, who chairs the House Intelligence and Security Committee, declined to reveal which government was behind the Puppeteer plot.
But he told 3AW radio that “the main threat of foreign espionage and interference comes from the Chinese Communist Party, but it is not the only threat. There are other foreign intelligence services that try to influence Australia in their national interest but against ours.
The Puppeteer plan was to be funded by an offshore account worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and use a “cut out”, a well-connected local employee, to protect the identity of whoever supported the politicians. If successful, the plan would have opened up an invaluable source of influence and information gathering for the foreign power, according to Burgess.
“The [Puppeteer’s] The goal was not only to bring candidates into positions of power, but also to generate a sense of appreciation, obligation and debt that could then be tapped,” he said.
“It was like a foreign interference start-up,” he said of the plan that could have ultimately led to people being employed in Canberra at the Puppeteer’s behest. Once in position, Burgess said they would be able to pass security and trade intelligence to the foreign power and potentially pressure targeted politicians to vote in certain ways and influence their left.
“I know that’s how it happens because we’ve seen it happen in situations where we discovered foreign interference at a later stage,” Burgess said.
Paterson said the foiled plot was a “very serious” attempt to sabotage Australian politics. “If it hadn’t been thwarted, it could have had a very insidious influence on our political system and on our country,” he said.
Burgess added that ASIO should be on high alert ahead of the election, which is due to take place by May 21, for further infiltration attempts.
The spy chief said foreign intelligence agencies had also started using dating apps, such as Tinder and Bumble, to target Australian officials with access to sensitive information.