Britain’s top diplomat in Australia threatened cooperation over security
London: Britain’s High Commissioner to Australia has alienated Australian government officials over her criticisms of Trade Minister Dan Tehan on Wednesday and her decision last year to unilaterally threatening to suspend security discussions between the UK and Australia.
In a sign of the souring relations between Vicki Treadell and key ministers in the Morrison government, the UK’s High Commissioner has been excluded from the free trade talks underway in London.
British sources played this down and said that Treadell, a civil servant, was not intended to attend the talks in the UK and remains in contact with Britain’s chief negotiator.
Britain’s High Commissioner to Australia, Vicki Treadell.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
But Australian government sources who were not authorised to speak on the record contrasted Treadell’s absence from the negotiations to that of Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, former Attorney-General George Brandis, who is a key player in the negotiations and is hosting a Trade Minister’s dinner.
One Australian minister said Treadell had become “heavy-handed and too political” in the job, which she took on in March 2019.
The government was dismayed when the British High Commission appeared to suggest Australia’s lack of climate ambition was the reason for Prime Minister Scott Morrison being snubbed from a climate summit last year, given the issue is so sensitive domestically.
Brandis raised this with Treadell during a breakfast meeting at Westminister House in Canberra last year when it was reported the two clashed.
This week’s trade talks were set for a rocky start this week following a bizarre briefing by allies of Britain’s Trade Secretary Liz Truss to the British press, describing Tehan as “glacially slow” and threatening to seat him on an “uncomfortable chair” for nine hours in the Foreign Office’s Locarno Room to speed up the deal.
Treadell appeared to publicly back the shock tactics as part of the “tough talk” used when negotiating trade deals and told reporters that the chairs provided would be “very comfortable”.
Now it can be revealed that in February 2020 Treadell personally threatened to jeopardise security cooperation because of this masthead’s “near verbatim” reporting of a row between Australia and Britain over Chinese telelcommunications giant Huawei.
Australia was concerned that if Britain allowed China to build its 5G network it could compromise the security of the intelligence shared between the Five Eyes network, which comprises the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson eventually bowed to pressure from Australia, the US and a rebellion mounted by his own MPs but not before Treadell fired off an angry letter to Liberal MP Andrew Hastie – now Assistant Defence Minister – and Senator David Fawcett,as chairs of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee .
In the letter, seen by this masthead, she said she was “deeply disappointed” a private meeting between Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Australian Labor Mo Anthony Byrne, a member of the committee, had been “briefed out near verbatim” to The Sydney Morning Herald and demanded the MPs explain themselves.
“I would be grateful if you could explain how this breach of trust occurred, particularly in light of the limited number of attendees,” Treadell told the MPs.
She wrote that if she didn’t receive assurances of privacy, “We will consider our future engagement with your Committees in light of your reply to these concerns”.
A UK trip by the Intelligence committee for meetings with Britain’s agencies was scrapped following the furore.
Britain, alongside the United States, is Australia’s top security and defence ally and the trio form the crux of the elite intelligence-sharing club of allies called the Five Eyes.
The role was previously held by Menna Rawlings who was highly regarded within the federal government. During her four-year tenure, Rawlings oversaw Britain’s successful $35 billion bid to build Australia’s next fleet of warships. She was promoted to Director-General role in the Foreign Office upon her return to London.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “Australia is one of the UK’s closest allies and we look forward to continuing to build a strong partnership for the future.”
“This includes negotiating a gold-standard free trade agreement which benefits both our economies and delivers growth and jobs.”
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