The Political Alignment of Australia’s Security Service

Most of us would hold some sort of opinion on the operations of Australia’s major security service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). For some it is an organisation embroiled in lies and deceit whose very nature limits civil liberties. For others it is a necessary ‘evil’ required to protect our society. However, how many people question the political influences acting on the agency? Is it a politically impartial organisation who strives to serve the government of the day? Or, does it have inherent political bias which manifests despite the government in power? Nonetheless, these are questions that have been dealt with by many political commentators and historians ever since ASIO’s inception.

 

The Petrov Affair:

ASIO was established on 16 March 1949 under Chifley’s Labour government. Under this government ASIO served a brief nine months before the right-wing Liberal government began their twenty-three years in power, with the election of Robert Menzies in December 1949. ASIO then faced their first major controversy, the Petrov Affair, in April 1954.

For historian David McKnight this event was the ‘spy drama that gripped the nation’ and centred on the defection of Soviet spy, Vladimir Petrov, and the political fallout that followed. During the early months of 1954 Labour enjoyed an increasing amount of popular support and as an election drew closer it appeared the Menzies government may be toppled. However, that was not the case. In May 1954 Menzies managed to secure a victory. Opposition leader, H. V. Evatt, blamed the Petrov Affair for the loss and labelled the event as a conspiracy spearheaded by ASIO.

 

A Royal Commission was eventually held and found that the Petrov’s were genuine in their defection and no conspiracy had occurred. Historian Robert Manne effectively summaries the two views. On one side he states “none would dispute…Menzies, with the assistance of ASIO, consciously manipulated the Petrov’s defection…achieving a Coalition victory.” While Manne himself holds the counter view that the Labor’s loss was due mainly to Evatt himself.

 

Surveillance of Suspected Communists:

During the 1950s, 60s and 70s ASIO opened thousands of files on any one who may have had the slightest chance of being a communist. On the other hand, being a registered NAZI party member was not enough grounds to constitute the same level of suspicion. One such file that was opened in the 1970s was that of David Stratton.

Many of us know David Stratton today as a movie reviewer for the ABC. He is a man that many of us would consider to have no apparent political agendas. However, during his years as director for the Sydney Film Festival, ASIO kept close watch on Mr Stratton. This surveillance was based on David’s infrequent attendances at the Russian Embassy. He needed to go to the Embassy to obtain a visa so he could travel to Russia to scout films for the festival. Despite having no connection to the Communist Party one ASIO officer still concluded that “I would suggest that [David] may be in receipt of receipt of…compensation from the Soviets if he actively promotes their films.” (ASIO file A6119, 3681).

 

Examples such as these have lead opponents of ASIO to suggest that the organisation is quick to defend against left-wing ideologies while remaining lax when it comes to the right.

 

The Murphy Raid:

In 1972 Whitman brought an end to Labor’s years in opposition but it was clear to Attorney-General Lionel Murphy that ASIO’s alliance still remained strong. Murphy, feed up with ASIO’s apparent lack of interest in stopping radical (right-wing) Croatian terrorist conducted ‘raids’ on both the Canberra and Melbourne headquarters of ASIO. However, during these raids Murphy found that ASIO did in fact have very limited information of these terrorists. This lead to views being taken that ASIO may merely be an incompetent body, rather than a politically biased one.

 

Royal Commission:

In the 1970s a Royal Commission was conducted under the supervision of Justice Hope to evaluate ASIO. This investigation did not flesh out any political prejudice yet Hope did identify many failings of the organisation. In his Fourth Report he made note of such flaws as nepotism, bribery and abuse of power.

 

It appears through these particular case studies there is no conclusive evidence that ASIO has a political agenda. Both historians and the courts concluded that Petrov was not a conspiracy, while the accusation that ASIO only targeted left-wing idealists may have only been due to the fact that it was during the Cold War, when Communism was the security threat. Further, The Murphy Raid and the Royal Commission, although highlighting many flaws, failed to bring to light any political bias.
Nonetheless, ASIO is an organisation trained in secrets and manipulation. Therefore the information we access may only be that information that they want us to see.

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2 comments on “The Political Alignment of Australia’s Security Service

  1. merrynlynch says:

    Hi Alex,

    I really enjoyed your post!

    Your measured analysis takes into account all the major historical commentary, which you have integrated well into your post. Dividing the post with headings into significant events made the content accessible to readers.

    The impressive amount of primary research you have done comes through in the post- I want to go and have a look at the files for myself now!

    I think it was a wonderful idea to use the mild-mannered film critic David Stratton as a case study. I think it highlights the absurdity of the anti-Communist hysteria that gripped Australia during the Cold War- particularly in light of the fact that files were not kept on registered Nazi Party members and other right wing extremist groups.

    You have tapped into wider public interest, manifested of late, in the history of ASIO and the so-called Communist ‘spy rings’. Last year Mark Aarons released “The Family File” (an account of his own family’s presence in ASIO files- a great read if only for the surveillance photos!); this year the Police and Justice Museum had its wonderful ‘Persons of Interest’ exhibition and The Australian published an article on Walton Clayton: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/the-spy-who-came-out-as-klod/story-e6frg6zo-1226144286825.

    Perhaps following 9/11 and the resulting Anti-Terrorism legislation, we have all become more keenly aware of the supposed ‘tension’ between maintaining civil liberties and ASIO’s duty to ensure domestic security- and what exactly this entails.

    What do you think?

    Merryn

    • alexjobe says:

      Thanks for your very nice comments Merryn.

      I did read “The Family File” and even spoke about it in my capstone, but I thought it might have been a bit too much to try and incorporate into this blog.

      I’m not sure if you went to the ‘Persons of Interest’ exhibition but it was very interesting. That’s actually where I got the initial idea to look into David Stratton’s file because he was mentioned in the expo.

      As for your comment regarding 9/11 I definitely agree that it raised both sides of the argument. On one hand it shows the horrible consequences extremism can have, which may lead to a certain justification of the practices of ASIO and other security bodies, but then on the other side situations such as David Hicks’ extended imprisonment without being charged goes against many civil liberties many in society would expect to be protected.

      It will be interesting to see where this argument goes in the coming years because historian David Horner has been commissioned to write a history in ASIO which will come out in two parts in 2013 and 2015. Maybe he will be looking at more recent records, such as the ones during 9/11 time, which i was not able to access while doing my project.

      There is already a book like this out by Christopher Andrew which covers the whole of the history of the British security service (MI5) including after 9/11, so if it is something you are interested it is quite an interesting read.

      Thank you again for the comment. If you are interested in looking at some ASIO files it is really easy. Below is a link to the national archive website where you can access them

      http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/SearchScreens/BasicSearch.aspx

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