Premier, challenger defend Australian intel agency bosses

Opposition leader Bill Shorten speaks at the launch of Labor's federal election campaign at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in Brisbane, Sunday, May 5, 2019. Australia's opposition party officially launched its election campaign putting health care and climate change at the forefront of its bid for election on May 18. (Darren England/AAP Image via AP)

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's prime minister on Monday defended the nation's intelligence agency bosses after a former prime minister described them as "nutters" who have damaged bilateral relations with China.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating on Sunday urged his center-left Labor Party to "clean them out" — referring to the security agency chiefs — if Labor wins government at elections next week.

Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Australian security agencies had prevented 15 terrorist attacks in Australia since the national threat level was increased in 2014.

"For what the Labor Party calls a Labor legend to go out there and attack the credibility of our security agencies that have been saving lives in this country, I think is very disappointing," Morrison told reporters.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, whom opinion polls suggest will replace Morrison as prime minister after the May 18 election, distanced himself from Keating's comments.

"Paul Keating's an elder statesman of Australian politics, he's never been shy of saying what he thinks, but for myself and my opposition team, we've worked very well with the national security agencies," Shorten told reporters. "We, of course, will continue to take the professional advice of the people who help keep Australians safe."

Keating, a 75-year-old who was prime minister from 1991 until 1996, made scathing comments about the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service during an interview televised by Australian Broadcasting Corp. after Labor's official campaign launch.

Relations between Australia and its most important trading partner, China, became strained after former conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced in 2017 plans to ban covert foreign interference in politics.

The ban followed a classified report by China analyst John Garnaut that found the Chinese Communist Party for a decade had tried to influence Australian policy, compromise political parties and gain access to all levels of government.

Keating said security agencies had "all gone berko" — a slang term meaning berserk — since Garnaut's report.

"When the security agencies are running foreign policy, the nutters are in charge," Keating said.

"They've lost their strategic bearings, these organizations," he added.

Security agencies' advice has led to the government banning Chinese technology giant Huawei from involvement in Australia's national broadband network and the rollout of the upcoming 5G network.

The agencies were also responsible for Australia this year stripping Chinese billionaire political donor Huang Xiangmo of permanent residency and rejecting his citizenship application.

Keating said Australia's relations with China needed to be mended by a Labor government.

"There's healing to be done, but I think a Labor government would make a huge shift just really making the point that China's entitled to be there rather than being some illegitimate state that has to be strategically watched," Keating said.

Shorten said a Labor government would put Australians' interests first in the bilateral relationship with China.

"There is a debate which says we shouldn't look at the rise of China solely through the prism of strategic risk," Shorten said. "We'll mind the security; we'll also make sure that we try and gain the best deal I can for Australian jobs, Australian exports, dealing with China and other Asian economies."

Two opinion polls published on Monday showed that Labor is likely to win the election.

A Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper showed that 51% of respondents supported Labor and 49% supported the conservative coalition.

The poll was based on a nationwide weekend survey of 1,846 voters. It has a 2.3 percentage point margin of error.

An Ipsos poll published in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper found 52% support for Labor and 48% for the coalition.

That poll was based on a nationwide survey of 1,200 voters from May 1 to 4. It has a 2.8 percentage point margin of error.

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