Some figures within Australia’s security agencies see it as an attack on one of their own, given Mr Byrne’s longstanding relationship with them, while multiple members of the PJCIS were said to be “incensed” by the contents of the letter.
Mr Byrne requested to view a copy of the letter after it was sent to Mr Hastie and Senator Fawcett on Thursday. After viewing the copy on Friday, Mr Byrne was overheard telling colleagues the letter was “inappropriate”.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Saturday said “I’m not going to go into that,” when asked about the revelations – insisting Australia’s diplomatic ties with the UK “have never been stronger”.
The PJCIS was scheduled to travel to Britain in late March and spend the first week of April meeting with the House of Commons intelligence committee, Britain’s security agencies and other high-level national security figures as part of the countries’ mutual links and membership of the Five Eyes spying alliance.
But The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Saturday revealed the trip had been suddenly cancelled.
Late on Saturday, the Australian House of Representatives tweeted the trip was delayed on the advice from Australia’s High Commissioner in the UK, “as he advised that counterpart committees in the UK have not yet re-constituted following the UK’s December election”.
It came after this publication published a story on February 8 revealing that Mr Byrne told the British Secretary of State that letting China build Britain’s critical national infrastructure was tantamount to allowing the Russians to construct it.
The other people in the meeting were Mr Hastie, the chair of the PJCIS, Senator Fawcett (who chairs the foreign affairs committee) and Ms Treadell.
While the leak caused upset in London, the disagreement had largely died down until Thursday – a week after the exchange took place – when Ms Treadell sent the stern letter.
Multiple sources familiar with the contents of her letter said it was the equivalent of a “dressing down” and that it was unprecedented for a UK civil servant to berate elected MPs in this way, particularly given the two men have served in the military.
Mr Hastie was an officer in the elite SAS for five years and served on the frontline in Afghanistan, while Senator Fawcett was an experimental test pilot.
The confrontation underlines the deep tensions within the Five Eyes alliance over Britain’s green light for Huawei in defiance of Australian and American advice to follow them in banning the Chinese vendor.
US President Donald Trump was reportedly “apoplectic” about Mr Johnson’s decision on Huawei, while Mr Byrne’s intervention was widely regarded as a reflection of Australia’s position – something confirmed this week by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in question time, who endorsed and praised the Labor MP.
Australia first banned Huawei from supplying equipment to the nascent National Broadband Network in 2012 under Julia Gillard, and in 2018 then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull banned the company from taking part in the 5G rollout on security advice.
Australian intelligence and security agencies are assessing Britain’s decision to allow Chinese company Huawei into its the next-generation network and were seriously concerned with the announcement.
While in Australia this month, Mr Raab said that British intelligence services had found that you could allow high-risk vendors into some parts of the network while protecting the “core”.
This differs from the assessment of Australian security agencies, which concluded that a hostile state actor could gain control of parts of a 5G network and never be detected.
Australia, the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand are members of the “Five Eyes” alliance that shares highly sensitive intelligence with each other. Huawei argues that despite being headquartered in China, it operates free of government influence.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.