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.
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.