Power without responsibility—the traditional prerogative of the whore—is the essence of the position achieved by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in the past quarter-century, during which its annual budget has risen from $228,000 to $4,890,000. This position, coupled with the political manner in which the Organization’s power has been covertly used, explains the extraordinary furore over the Attorney-General’s visit to ASIO headquarters in Melbourne on 16 April 1973. Admittedly, Senator Murphy took some Commonwealth policemen with him on the ‘raid’ (presumably to ensure that he would be given access to material in the building), but in fact he did no more than examine some files and give a pep-talk to ASIO staff. This evidently was enough to confuse and shock a body of public servants who are not accustomed to receiving any guidance from the Minister to whom the Organization is normally responsible, though not formally accountable.
If this incident demoralized ASIO personnel it was a very good move, because ASIO has done far more harm than good over the years. It has never been able to produce evidence sufficient to convict, or even indict, anyone of espionage, despite all the posturing at the Petrov Commission. On the other hand ASIO through its secret reports has blighted the lives or careers of many worthy people.
Officially ASIO exists to guard against espionage, sabotage or subversion. The Organisation has counterparts in the special branches of every state police force and the very wide scope of the functions of these bodies was laid bare for the first time in Senator Murphy’s statement concerning the disbandment of the small special branch of the Northern Territory police. The branch’s charter of duties, laid down in 1952, included:
such matters as communism, subversive activity, espionage and sabotage, vetting reports on persons who are liable to be security risks, dossiers kept and maintained on communists and suspects, advice and assistance to the local defence planning committee and a number of matters about aliens and so on. There are some matters relating to subversive elements, surveillance of public bodies for communist influence and also of industrial organisations, assisting the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in obtaining information … assisting other Government departments to organise a security system of documents etc., and reporting on all matters where political and industrial troubles are likely to arise.1
Surveillance of public bodies … of trade unions … of immigrants—all the available evidence indicates that these are the areas on which ASIO concentrates its efforts. ‘Communist influence’ assumes a very broad meaning in the mind of an agent who has been recruited mainly on an ‘old boy’, ‘right-thinking’ basis. Many radicals have learned to live with ASIO, to assume that their telephones may be tapped and to act accordingly to preserve privacy of communication. Nevertheless, many people, especially immigrants and public servants, have suffered heavily from ASIO’s suspect reporting.
ASIO acts to penalise people because of their political views. To take an example concerning immigrants, the Australian Committee for Cypriot Self-Determination was established in the 1950s to propagate the view that Cyprus should be granted an autonomous government—a view which the British government eventually adopted. The Committee engaged in no illegal activities, nor was there ever any suggestion that it should; it arranged a visit to Cyprus by Mr Don Dunstan (now Premier of South Australia, and hardly a subversive character) and myself so that on our return to Australia we could address public meetings on the situation in Cyprus. Yet every one of the Greeks or Cypriots on that committee was blacklisted by ASIO. They were fine men and women with no criminal record but they were made to suffer for their political beliefs. Their applications for naturalization as Australian citizens were rejected. Worse still, two members of the committee were lost to Australia as a result of ASIO’s underhand discrimination. One, Steve Paradisses, went to Greece in disgust after being refused naturalization. The other, E. Elevtheratos, who was secretary of the Committee for Cypriot Self-Determination, left Sydney in 1957 on a two-month business trip overseas and was refused permission to re-enter Australia.
A similar story could be told of victimization of Melbourne members of the League for the Restoration of Democracy in Greece more than a decade later. The facts have been well known in the Greek and Cypriot communities in Australia and the knowledge served to make many other people fearful of suffering the same consequences, so they kept their mouths shut and were effectively denied their right to take part openly in public affairs. This applies also to members of other migrant communities and the responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs lies mainly with ASIO, which advises the Immigration Department on applications for naturalization. Fortunately the advent of a Labor government has brought changes: most of the political suspects who have re-applied have been granted naturalization. This may account in part for the fact that in the first four months of 1973, 19,855 citizenship applications were received compared with 13,432 in the same period in 1972.
Incidentally, there is an unknown number of would-be immigrants who have been refused entry into Australia as a result of adverse ASIO reports. ASIO agents have been posted overseas to screen migrant applicants since 1951, and what little has come to light concerning their recommendations does not inspire confidence in their political impartiality. Thus in 1961 Y. S. Brenner, an Israeli-born lecturer at London University who had been appointed to a post at Adelaide University, was not allowed to enter Australia seemingly because of his youthful membership of the anti-British Stern Group in Palestine. Political views considered to be extremist by ASIO are sufficient to keep a man out. ASIO operates as a secret police force acting against what it deems to be dangerous thoughts.
This is true also of ASIO’s regular reporting, from a supposedly security stand- point, on persons applying for public service positions or promotion. Such reports are confidential and the subject of an adverse report is given no opportunity to show that it is inaccurate or misleading. Indeed, the victim is not even told of the existence of the report, let alone its contents.* On the basis of such denial of natural justice, many men and women have been excluded from the public service or have been refused normal promotion within it. The lives of these people have very often been soured as a result. For example, an architect employed by the Commonwealth Public Service approached the Council for Civil Liberties recently: he believes that over long years his promotion was blocked by ASIO, and now that he is due to retire he realises that his superannuation benefit has also been affected. The CCL is unable to help in such cases because it is impossible to obtain any clear evidence that ASIO reports were responsible for the situation.
Occasionally the veil is lifted. A Public Service Board report which somehow came into student hands in 1970 indicated that the Organization was responsible for the failure of Hall Greenland, well known as a student radical, to obtain an appointment in the public service despite the fact that he had favourably impressed a selection board at an interview. Occasionally, too, it has become evident that ASIO (or special branch) reports are sometimes made available to employers outside the public service. One such report resulted in the rejection of Russel Ward’s application for a lectureship in History in the University of New South Wales in 1956. This case only came to public notice four year later: those people who knew about it earlier felt unable to protest for fear that it would prejudice Dr Ward’s career (he now has a Chair at a more liberal university). In addition, several instances have come to light of ASIO engaging students and staff as informers at universities. What is known of ASIO’s confidential reports suggests that they may be grossly inaccurate.2 Much more worrying than the known cases are the unknown ones. Who is a spy in the associations to which you belong, dear reader? You are not likely ever to find out. Yet you have every right to know, if the slogan of ‘open government’ is to have full meaning. Fear is an inevitable by-product of a secret police system.
It is now evident that ASIO is not content with the mere collection of political information. It is prepared to use it for party-political purposes. Recently a Sydney journalist, Robert Mayne, disclosed that he had been approached to produce a magazine aimed at exposing the activities of left-wingers, including ALP members. An ASIO officer handed over files of material for this purpose; and an un-named Liberal member of the N.S.W. Parliament, who was associated with the project, told Mayne that he had access to ASIO information—he used it in Parliament and written articles.3 The magazine, to be called Analysis, has not yet appeared, but the Sunday Telegraph unearthed the fact that the title is registered in the name of Peter Coleman, M.L.A. In carefully chosen words, Coleman said of Mayne’s disclosure, ‘I am loth to dignify the report by denials but this is an absurd suggestion’.4
This incident, coupled with the leaking of an ASIO document concerning a meeting between the Director-General of ASIO and the Prime Minister (a leakage calculated to embarrass the ALP), makes one wonder at the naïveté of Labor leaders in imagining they can control the monster and perhaps turn it to their own political advantage. The crucial question now is whether ASIO should be disbanded or reformed in some way. At the ALP Launceston conference in 1971 a motion to do away with ASIO was defeated on a tied vote—and both Whitlam and Murphy voted against abolition. Murphy believes that the Organization should continue in existence, with himself in control. No doubt he can obtain politically useful information from it for the time being, but this is a terribly short-sighted empire- builder’s view. Given ASIO’s history, its strong tendency to assume that subversion comes only from the Left of the political spectrum, and the establishment social and educational background of its officers, it is sheer folly to suppose that its direction and thrust can be changed. If a Chilean-type situation should ever develop in Australia, ASIO would be right there, gunning for the Allende supporters.
A more respectable argument advanced in favour of retaining ASIO is that Australia, like every other country, needs a security service to guard against terrorist bodies such as the Ustashi and Black September. Certainly, protection against such bodies is needed. But why not use the ordinary police forces (including plain-clothes detectives) for the purpose? Why have a separate bureaucracy such as ASIO, which wastes much public money on surveillance of activities which have no connection with security? As for counter-espionage, it is widely acknowledged that the most important intelligence operations do not in fact involve secret information: they are concerned with the collection and analysis of publicly available material. Indeed, ASIO is not alone in the field at present; Australia has a network of intelligence agencies, including ASIS (Australian Security Intelligence Service).
When ‘security’ is stripped of the mystique which surrounds it, very little content remains. Australia has few defence secrets to warrant either the use of spies by other countries (apart from their agents in embassies evaluating public material) or the employment of a horde of counter-agents. Yet this is the official justification for the existence of ASIO.
ASIO is a threat to the civil liberties of Australians. It is a hang-over from the Cold War era and it should be disbanded. The Prime Minister is talking in terms of a commission of enquiry into ASIO but if evidence is to be heard in camera, as seems likely, little will be gained from such an enquiry. It is time that Australians were given the right to know why gross infringements of civil liberties are regarded as necessary in the name of security by an Organization which is virtually accountable only to itself. We may then see a real public demand for the eradication of the strangling creeper. Admittedly, disbandment of ASIO could lead to a growth in unemployment. However, some ASIO operatives could find suitable outlets in divorce investigation agencies, while the core of unemployables might decide to emigrate to South Africa or Rhodesia where they would probably be welcomed. They have outlasted their function in a democratic society.
*See Meanjin 1/1955 for editorial comment: ‘Subversive Views on the Wide Screen’.