Former defence minister Christopher Pyne has been rebuked by Federal Parliament for suggesting a cyber attack was “much worse” than the public had been told.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Tony Smith condemned Mr Pyne’s comments about the hack on Parliament’s computer network in January 2019, saying any suggestion the public had been kept in the dark about the extent of the hack was “false”.
In an interview with former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson on his podcast Pyne Time, Mr Pyne said the cyber attack was serious but he could never talk about the true extent of it.
“You and I know how much worse it all was, which we can never talk about,” Mr Pyne said with a chuckle to Mr Parkinson.
Mr Smith told Parliament on Thursday he and Senate President Scott Ryan received detailed briefings from the Australian Signals Directorate and the Department of Parliamentary Services after the cyber attack that informed their public statements.
“Communication and management of the incident was guided by the information available to us as presiding officers in the context of the parliamentary computing network,” Mr Smith said. “Of course, as we pointed out, our statements balanced the need for transparency with discretion on matters of national security.
“But any inference that our statements to the Parliament to this issue were inaccurate or misleading as to the seriousness of the situation is false. I stand by the statements made by the President of the Senate and myself.
“I would just finally say the podcast also refers to a cyber intrusion at the Australian National University … so perhaps it shouldn’t be inferred that the comments necessarily relate to the parliamentary network. The important point is the president and I have no further information or knowledge as to what Mr Pyne meant.”
The comment has caused concern within senior levels of the government after Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year assured Australians the government had “chosen to be transparent” about the attack.
In a letter to Mr Smith, Labor’s assistant spokesman for cyber security, Tim Watts, said Mr Pyne’s comments risked undermining public confidence in the statements of the Prime Minister and presiding officers.
Mr Watts said he was conscious of the need to balance transparency with discretion, but Mr Pyne’s comment that the incident was “much worse” than publicly revealed was “not easily dismissed”.
“Given this, I am writing to you to seek your guidance about what steps you intend to take in response to Mr Pyne’s comments to ensure the Australian public is able to have confidence in their understanding of the nature and extent of these attacks,” Mr Watts said.
“As I know you are aware, cyber attacks on democratic institutions have become common place around the world in recent times. A common intent of these attacks is to undermine public confidence in the integrity of these institutions and democratic processes more broadly.
“In this context, it is a national security imperative that the public has confidence in what they are told about the nature and impact of cyber attacks on Australia’s democratic institutions.”
Mr Pyne was contacted for comment but had not responded by deadline.
Although the Morrison government has never publicly confirmed it, senior government sources have said Australian intelligence determined China was responsible for the malware attack.
Mr Parkinson told Mr Pyne he was “amazed” at how little concern was expressed by the public when cyber attacks were reported.
“Look at [the attack on] ANU … we should be appalled by this, look at what happened to Parliament House – we should be appalled,” the former most senior bureaucrat said.
Mr Parkinson said there was “no question that the level of cyber attacks and political interference had “gone through the roof”.
“And that’s not good, that’s eroding our sovereignty, and we must, and are, responding to that … but to then take it to the sort of level of hysteria where if somebody is a member of the Chinese diaspora, automatically they seem to have some sort of mark against them …” he said.
Mr Parkinson said the worst period in his time as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was the six to 12 months leading up to the leadership challenge against Malcolm Turnbull, which took in the dual citizenship crisis and former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce’s affair with a staff member.
“Every time the government got a bit of stability, got a bit of momentum and were able to focus really hard in on some of the tricky problems, political sort of policy problems, something would come out of left field,” he said.
“Whether it was the citizenship, whether it was ministers being forced to fall on their sword or walk the plank because of personal behaviours, whatever it was … there was just constant things occurring which destabilised the government and made it harder to focus in on the key policy issues in front of us … It was frustrating, but it was also quite debilitating.”