Labor and the spooks

Ozleft ozleft at
Tue Jul 15 22:06:53 MDT 2003

By Bob Gould

The recent exchange between Tom O'Lincoln and Garry McLennan about
Australian intelligence agencies and the labour movement seems to me
extremely uninformed.

Uninformed discussion is not much use in an area like this, which affects
the lives and possibilities for agitation and political activity of

There is a fairly substantial literature in this field, particularly books
by the late Dick Hall, "The Secret State", and David McKnight, "Australian
Spies and Their Secrets" (Allen and Unwin, 1994).

As a major subject of ASIO and special branch surveillance and intimidation
from 1955 onwards, I'd like to make a few observations.

These are based on the published literature and my own experiences. Firstly,
Gary McLennan's ignorant pen picture of the Laborites being intimidated by
the police agencies is a limited, and therefore inaccurate, view of a
complex and contradictory series of historical developments.

All through the Cold War period, the left of the labour movement was
harassed and observed by ASIO, the national organisation, and even more by
Special Branches in each of the states and territories. ASIO proceeded
largely by phone taps and the Special Branches had agents in left-wing
organisations. ASIO also had such agents, although a smaller number.

The left of the labour movement, in particular, had a great hostility
towards, and indeed a certain fear of, these agencies.

In my case, both my NSW Special Branch file and my ASIO file commenced when
I was a callow youth of 18 in 1955.

It's a fact of Australian political life that a number of state Labor
governments have taken action against state Special Branches, in South
Australia, Victoria, NSW and Queensland. In the first three of those states,
the Special Branches were closed down, as such, by state Labor governments.
(Although in some states they have been replaced by other police agencies
with more limited and defined powers and mandates.) In SA and NSW the files
of these Special Branches were partly shredded and partly kept for
historical reasons, and in NSW after dithering for a while over a police
headquarters cellar full of Special Branch files, Police Minister Whelan and
Premier Carr decided to make the remnant files available to those spied
upon, with a few blackings-out, but without imposing any 30-year limitation.

I took advantage of this and scuttled in to get my file at the earliest
possible moment. The long-suffering copper, in charge of blotting out some
bits, worked for several months on my file before it became available. He
mentioned in passing that it was the largest he'd dealt with, and eventually
I got access to it. It contained about 3000 dicrete entries over about 200

I have also taken advantage of my legal rights to get my ASIO file up to the
end of 1972 under the 30-year rule. The ASIO files are rather different to
the Special Branch files, because they rely mainly on phone taps, and the
curious bureaucratic mechanism used by ASIO is that if you are mentioned in
someone else's phone conversation, that conversation goes into your file.

As I was at the centre of a considerable number of agitations and political
and factional activities and conflicts, I figured in many individual phone
conversations, both of friends and opponents, monitored by ASIO. As a result
of this and the ASIO bureaucracy's penchant for record keeping, my ASIO file
has about 5000 pages, and is a kind of eccentric social history of the

If one makes a few rough calculations about the cost of transcribing all
these phone conversations in the old, manual way, I figure observing and
recording myself and my associates in this way must have cost the bourgeois
state well in excess of $1 million in current terms, allowing for wages paid
to agents as well.

In practice, both ASIO and Special Branch don't black out all that much, and
it's still possible to get a coherent view of the content of their
observations, the quality of their informers and the practical purposes to
which they sometimes put the information, and sometimes intended to put the
information if events hadn't overtaken them.

Being a busy political agitator in the exciting period of the late 1960s and
the early 1970s, I didn't keep a diary, so the material preserved by the
coppers is, from my point of view, an invaluable aide-memoire to the period,
particularly when writing about it.

Both files also include photocopies of documents and journals, a number of
which have disappeared elsewhere.

It's not sensible to mystify the malevolent activities of the bourgeois
state or the reaction of the Laborites to them. It's not a great deal of use
after this passage of time to speculate as to who was or wasn't a walk-in
agent spying on us, but one thing that emerges from my file and the files of
other individuals, is that there were clearly a number of well-entrenched
and long-standing informants in the Communist Party apparatus, with which we
anti-Stalinists were often in conflict.

The mushrooming Trotskyist and New Left groups with which I was associated
for most of the period were a bit of a problem for the coppers in getting
agents established because of their newness and their frequently changing
shape. But it's clear that as time wore on the coppers got agents entrenched
there as well.

It's also clear from studying my own and other files made available under
Freedom of Information, etc, have in large part been sanitised by some
invisible hand, because some sensitive areas, such as CPA and Marxist
activity around the Labor Party, is only represented in a very uneven way,
and long-standing figures associated with the CPA in the Labor Party are
rarely mentioned. It may be that when the Whitlam Government was elected in
1972, a lot of that sort of material was removed. Who knows?

One thing that's very clear from my file is that in 1968-9 the Australian
security agencies and the Tory government were toying with the preparation
of some kind of conspiracy trial like those in the US. In my file, some of
their two-legged agents suddenly start verballing me with elaborate
discussions attributed to me advocating violence (which wasn't at all my
style, and which never took place).

In one fascinating incident, an informant says in my Special Branch file
that I advocated militant violence at a Resistance forum about the result of
the 1969 elections, addressed by right-wing Labour Council secretary John
Ducker, left Labor Senator Arthur Geitzelt and myself. The case officer on
my file at this time was obviously nonplussed by this and possibly didn't
believe his agent, as he got a kind of second opinion, maybe from the ASIO
expert on the labour movement, Jack Clows, who was in constant contact with
the right-wing leadership of the NSW Labor Council at that time. This person
seems to have got another account of the meeting, possibly from Ducker, who
said I hadn't said anything like that at the meeting, whereupon the case
officer made a written comment that maybe I'd said something like that after
the meeting in the same premises.

There's a lot of other fit-up material in my files from around the same
time, and this convinces me they were toying with the idea of conspiracy
trials, but the political situation worsened, from their point of view, and
events overtook those intentions.

At about this time, ASIO made available to a journalist called Robert Mayne
and a Tory politician, Peter Coleman, their files on me, Denis Freney, the
first organisation called Resistance, and High School Students Against the
War in Vietnam, to plant red-baiting material in the bourgeois press.

Coleman later summarised this material in an exotic pamphlet called "School
Power in Australia". It was full of charts, graphs, etc, illustrating all
the alleged conspiracies.

(A couple of months ago, Peter Coleman, who still draws breath, had the hide
to attack the 1960s radicals as "totalitarians" at the launch of a book by
Alan Barcan about student radicalism in Australia. He became most upset when
I had a slice of him from the floor, in my usual fashion, pointing out that
he was pretty totalitarian himself in collaborating with ASIO to smear
radicals like myself and many others at that time. The collision between
myself and Coleman caused a certain amount of uproar at the book launch at

In 1970 there was a kind of political insurrection in the left of the NSW
ALP, in which I was a central figure, which culminated in the formation of a
breakaway group, the NSW Socialist Left. At the 1971 NSW ALP conference,
after three recounts, I was elected on just over half a quota as one of six
delegates from NSW to the then 36-member federal ALP conference in

This conference was unusual for two things. Firstly, we defeated a proposal
of Clyde Cameron and others for an ALP-ACTU wages Accord-type arrangement,
which directly led to the so-called wages break-out during the Whitlam Labor
Government of 1972-5. The other notable question at this conference was what
to do about ASIO and the Special Branches.

The traditional left figure, Senator Lionel Murphy, was peddling a
proposition for the reform of ASIO, etc. I deliberately avoided attending
the broad left caucus of delegates discussing this question, as I wanted to
leave my options open.

When the ASIO matter came up on the conference floor I moved an ammendment
for abolition of both ASIO and the Special Branches. I was at my sometimes
eloquent best, and I persuaded most of the left and even some of the right,
and my amendment was carried on a show of hands by one vote, with the
curious feature that the one vote was Gough Whitlam, who had been outside,
didn't know what was being discussed, came in, looked around to see people
he identified with voting for something, and put his hand up, much to his
later embarrassment.

Consternation broke out, confusion reigned, and Murphy moved to recommit the
motion, having wised up Whitlam and several other members of the Labor left
as to how dangerous this motion was, and my amendment was rescinded.

Murphy and even Whitlam and his staff were at considerable pains to stress
that they were certainly going to put the cleaners through ASIO if they were
elected, and considerably reform that body. The later raid on ASIO by Murphy
has to be seen in the context of the pressure that had built up in the
labour movement on the issue, of which the temporary carrying of my
amendment to abolish ASIO was a significant reflection.

(After the federal ALP conference, the political excitement associated with
the breakaway of the NSW Socialist Left from the official left subsided
somewhat. The newly formed SWL, the predecessor of the DSP, moved into this
situation of decline and stacked the NSW Socialist Left and took it over.
The frontrunner in this operation was Roger Barnes. Within a few weeks,
however, the Barnes group was expelled from the SWL as part of the SWL's
initial "Bolshevisation" on the Jim Cannon-Zinoviev model, and the SWL moved
out of the ALP almost immediately, having wrecked the NSW Socialist Left by
the flexing of its organisational muscle. This episode is described in an
extract from George Petersen's autobiography that we have posted on Ozleft Possibly, the demise of
the NSW Socialist Left figures in the DSP's self-image a bit like the
destruction of the US Socialist Party as a result of the Trotskyists' entry
tactic figured in Jim Cannon's mind. Inept interventions that produce chaos,
such as that one and the later intervention in the Nuclear Disarmament
Party, can always be rationalised as the removal of an obstacle to the
development of a revolutionary organisation.)

When the first Labor government for 23 years was elected in 1972, led by
Whitlam, there was a certain amount of trepidation among the ASIO coppers,
etc. One funny event on the election of the Labor government was that the
late Dick Hall, who was a longtime friendly sparring partner of mine in
Labor politics, was one of Whitlam's chief staff members. All Whitlam's
staff, on his being elected Prime Minister, had to fill in an ASIO form to
be vetted for access to secret material, etc. Among other things they had to
provide two referees. Hall had the rather fiendish idea of asking me to be
one of his referees, which I duly did. Hall reported that the ASIO spooks
looked a bit cranky but appeared to accept this rather impudent gesture
through gritted teeth.

When considering Lionel Murphy's subsequent "raid" on ASIO, it's important
to look at the background and build-up of tensions involved.

The closure and release of the files on individuals of various state Special
Branches was a product of this general labour movement antagonism to ASIO
and other political police, but in each case it took place in relation to
specific events in that state.

The Royal Commission conducted from 1974-1977 by Justice Hope into the
intelligence agencies was an important part of this process, as was the
public inquiry precipitated by the Salisbury scandal in South Australia.
This whole process is discussed competently and at some length in David
McKnight's book. In this context, it's very sad to see McKnight, who is now
a lecturer in communications at the University of Technology, Sydney,
publicly supporting increased powers for ASIO.

His argument, a completely invalid argument, is that the threat of
"terrorism" supersedes all other considerations. He ought to know, from his
meticulous investigations of the activities of ASIO and the Special Branches
against the "threat of communism" that these powers are often misused by the
bourgeois state for its own class purposes.

The facts of the matter are that in the 1970s and 1980s, the spirit of the
times and pressure from progressive, civil-liberties-minded Australians,
severely cut back the abilities of the police agencies of the capitalist
state to spy on and disrupt the activities of the left of the labour
movement. In this sphere, as in every other sphere, the Howard Government is
trying, unfortunately, with some success to reverse this process.

>From this point of view, the DSP's recent handling of the latest partial
capitulation of the parliamentary Labor Party to the current raft of
reactionary legislation giving ASIO new powers has been very sensible.
Alison Dellit and others have had useful articles analysing the reactionary
character of the legislation in detail, and the Green Left Weekly editorial
writer used the very realistic formulation that the Labor Party's caving in
on part of the legislation in the Senate was a big mistake. This lays the
basis for the necessary agitation in the whole labour movement against
misuse of the legislation.

It's worth noting at this point that despite Labor's gross cave-in on part
of the legislation, nevertheless, public agitation had the effect of the
Laborites and the Greens forcing the government to drop a number of the
worst features of the legislation.

The price of working-class liberty and socialist freedom to agitate is
eternal vigilance, and with this new, still draconian legislation, we're
entering a difficult period. The spy agencies of the ruling class: ASIO,
ASIS, DSD and the residual state bodies that replaced the Special Branches,
are a formidable force, and between them probably have a staff nudging 2000
and a very large budget. In the modern world, being realistic, it's probable
that a fair part of their activities are directed at what they call
terrorism and only a smaller part is directed at leftists in the workers'

This flows from the relative weakness of leftists in the workers' movement
compared with, say, the powerful perceived institutional threat posed by the
Communist Party in Australian life for a large part of the 20th century.

We should vigilantly defend the civil rights and freedom of political
agitation of ourselves and other leftists, and we should also vigorously
defend the civil rights of members of migrant communities who fall foul of
the sweeping tendency of these police agencies to view all political
agitation, for instance, by people from the Middle East, as expressions of
"Islamic fundamentalism".

The view now expressed by people like David McKnight that in some way the
security agencies are more benign than they were in the past seems to me
totally metaphysical. The structure of capitalist society and the capitalist
state dictates that all police agencies, particularly security agencies, in
the final analysis defend the rule of capital.

Subjectively the ideology of people who make up the leading circles in
police agencies, particularly security agencies, usually expresses all the
inherent prejudices of ruling elites in capitalist societies.

The notion that these institutions have become generally benign in some way
runs against all class analysis and experience. The ideological battle in
the labour movement, and even in circles of liberal opinion, is one in which
it is necessary to energetically demystify the role of these agencies, which
involves an energetic struggle against opinions such as those of David
McKnight and others.

The fact that the Labor left caved in to part of the ASIO legislation was
caused by the ideological softening up from the McKnight kind of argument,
combined with conventional parliamentary Realpolitik, which is what
primarily motivates Labor leaderships, even their left wing.

This parliamentary Realpolitik inclines Labor politicians to the view that
it would be electorally dangerous to give the Liberal Government a
double-dissolution electoral trigger about the ASIO legislation, which
conjures up, to Labor politicians the frightening spectre of a possible
election fought around issues of Australian "homeland security".

The job of socialists is to try to combat this political atmosphere
energetically by appealing to the civil liberties and democratic traditions
of the labour movement. It must be said that the Greens have been a good
deal more principled in fighting the ASIO legislation than all factions of
the Labor Party, including the Labor left.

It's also a nice piece of historical irony that the energetic and courageous
leader of the civil liberties organisation, who fought so hard against the
current ASIO legislation, happens to be Cameron Murphy, son of Senator
Lionel Murphy, who earlier pushed for the reform of ASIO.

Socialists and left-wingers should not be too intimidated by the vicious
intent of the new legislation. The old secret police set-up of the 1960s and
1970s also had vicious intent, but the magnitude of popular agitation made
it impossible for these agencies to be used in the sweeping way desired by
the Tory politicians and the reactionary spooks of that period. In the final
analysis the social relationship of forces is usually more powerful than
outright government repression in countries with a bourgeois democratic
political set-up.

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