Bob Gould, 2003

The left and spooks

Source: Marxmail, July 16, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The recent exchange on Marxmail between Tom O’Lincoln and Garry McLennan about Australian intelligence agencies and the labour movement is only a small part of the story.

Poorly informed discussion is not much use in an area like this, which affects the lives and possibilities for agitation and political activity of left-wingers. 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’m in a position to make a few observations based on published literature and my own experiences.

Firstly, Gary McLennan’s pen picture of 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, was very hostile towards, and indeed did have 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 — in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and Queensland — have taken action against their Special Branches. In the first three of those states, the Special Branches were closed down, as such, by state Labor governments. (In some states they have been replaced by other police agencies with more limited and defined powers and mandates.)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 the 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 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 discrete entries over about 200 pages.

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 of both friends and opponents. As a result of this and the ASIO bureaucracy’s penchant for record keeping, my ASIO file is about 5000 pages, and is a kind of eccentric social history of the period.

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 must have cost the bourgeois state well in excess of $1 million in current terms, allowing for wages paid to agents.

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, the practical purposes to which they sometimes put the information, or 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-memoir 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 laws, etc, that they 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 1968-69 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, which 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 Gleebooks.)

In 1970 there was a kind of political insurrection in the left of the NSW ALP, in which I was a central figure, culminating 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 Launceston.

This conference was unusual for two things. Firstly, we defeated a proposal of Clyde Cameron and others for an ALP-ACTU wage-price freeze arrangement, which directly led to the so-called wages breakout under 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 keep my options open.

When the ASIO matter came up on the conference floor I moved an amendment 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 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, 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 involved the late Dick Hall, a longtime friendly sparring partner of mine in Labor politics, who 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 general labour movement antagonism to ASIO and other political police, but it took place in different circumstances in each state.

The Royal Commission on the intelligence agencies conducted from 1974-1977 by Justice Hope 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 greater powers for ASIO.

His argument, a completely invalid one, 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 reduced 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 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, public agitation helped Labor and the Greens to force 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, 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’ movement.

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 is 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 contains 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 kind of argument advanced by McKnight, 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”.

Socialists should 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 malevolent intent of the new legislation. The old secret police set-up of the 1960s and 1970s also had repressive 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.