Caught in the web of ASIO suspicion

Issue 

My Father's Son: The Last Knot Untied
By Ric Throssell
Melbourne: em Press, 1997. 428 pp., $19.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Canberra author and former Commonwealth public servant Ric Throssell is one of many Australians to have fallen foul of the shadowy hand of ASIO, his career prospects stymied by a vindictive secret "security" agency which feared he might have been an Australian Philby or Burgess.

Throssell's revised autobiography covers the four-decade-long injustice done to him, snared in the sticky web of suspicion spun by ASIO around the son of the famous novelist and CPA founder, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Gallipoli hero turned socialist, Hugo (Jim) Throssell.

Joining the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs, with a posting to Moscow in 1945-46, Ric Throssell attracted the attention of the intelligence networks of both Australia and the Soviet Union.

In three messages between Moscow and the Soviet embassy in Canberra, decrypted by the Australian snoops, Throssell's name was mentioned out of casual interest in the possible intelligence value to the Soviet Union of Throssell, the son of a leading communist and working in a sensitive area of government.

There was nothing damning in the Soviet intelligence traffic, nothing that was ever pursued by the intelligence agencies, and Throssell remained for 40 years a paragon of public service responsibility and professionalism who never mixed work and politics.

Throssell's name in the bugged Soviet intelligence, however, was enough to spook the Australian spooks into denying him promotion to positions requiring access to top secret material and to damage his name publicly by hauling him through Menzies' Royal Commission on Espionage, set up as a witch-hunt over the staged Petrov defection in 1954.

So Throssell became a security suspect. "Each speck of information that might substantiate their suspicions was carefully collected. Nothing was too insignificant. Nothing would be overlooked: a mother's influence on her son; a student's interest in communism; a performance in an anti-Nazi play; a poem for peace; a pacifist play; the congratulations of the communist press; the circumstances of marriage; friends; associations. Suspicion stirred, tumescent. To them, I was a specimen in a jar."

The gaze of ASIO lends a malign air to an engaging tale of the warmth, humour and tragedy of Throssell's and his parents' lives — the background to Prichard's novels, the reality of World War I in the trenches (Jim) and of World War II in Papua New Guinea (Ric), the shame of the Depression that drove the debt-ridden Jim to suicide in 1933, the tragic deaths of Throssell's first wife and of his young son from Downs Syndrome, the comic antics of Throssell and his malicious, ill-tempered bicycle in the early days of car-less Canberra, the rueful stoicism of Throssell's early failures at play writing (33 scripts dying peaceful deaths in his bottom drawer).

Throssell did not suffer from the modern day trench-coated heresy-hunters as much as others deemed more politically dissident. Although blocked from promotion to the very top branches of the public service tree, and shunted off to aid programs rather than the hard stuff of foreign affairs, Throssell remained on the upper limbs of the public service.

Nevertheless, justice denied is justice denied, and Throssell's story is a revealing example of the anti-democratic "security" agencies and their political masters, one which mocks the freedoms they claim to defend.