More unwanted attention for ASIO

June 29, 1994

ASIO: An Unofficial History
By Frank Cain
Spectrum, 1994. 292 pp., $19.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

ASIO is receiving a lot of unaccustomed attention lately. Hard on the investigative heels of David McKnight's recent book comes Frank Cain. Cain's sleuthing turns up the same sordid history of an ASIO opposing "radical political groups", militant trade unions and other "disrupters" of establishment Australia.

The list of who ASIO and its predecessors have opposed, or approved, tells its own story. Amongst the targets this century have been the revolutionary unionists in the IWW, anti-conscriptionists, the "intellectual left" in the universities, Vietnam War draft resisters and protesters and the Communist Party of Australia. Passing ASIO's conservative muster have been private right-wing armies such as the New Guard, pro-fascist groups and Nazi war criminals.

The latter were "kindred spirits" with ASIO. They were impeccably anticommunist. What this term means is best illustrated by why ASIO regarded the CPA as dangerous. Cain scoffs at ASIO's rationale about the "long arm of international communism" manipulating freedom-loving Australians into Kremlin stooges. The real crime of communists in Australia was, for example, that of Ernie Thornton, CPA leader, general-secretary of the Ironworkers' Union and the subject of an extensive ASIO dossier, who succeeded in unionising BHP in 1950.

Other communist union activists were popular with their co-workers, uncorrupt and helped to achieve improvements in wages and conditions. Cain does not use the terms "capitalism" or "profits", but this is clearly what ASIO, and anticommunism, wanted to preserve.

Cain has a useful exploration of ASIO's heyday during the Petrov defection. Petrov, a low-level cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy, defected in 1954. Petrov found the lifestyle of Australia, and its Kings Cross prostitutes and potential for a brisk trade in "sly grog-selling", attractive.

ASIO used the defection of Petrov to advantage, fabricating evidence "to sustain the image of there being a Soviet spy network in Australia" and to haul ASIO suspects before the resulting Royal Commission on Espionage. No spies were found, but the charade was of "inestimable benefit" to ASIO by increasing its stature, boosting Menzies' electoral stocks and fanning the embers of a Cold War, which put the left and democratic forces in Australia on the defensive.

On the creation of ASIO in 1949 by the Chifley Labor government, Cain dismisses the stated reasons, which were to nab Soviet spies and protect Australian-British access to US high-technology defence secrets. Cain argues that the creation of ASIO was a loyalty test of the ALP government to Washington's dominance of the Free World and its ideological glue of Cold War anticommunism. The ALP complied.

There was also an "unstated reason" for ASIO's creation: an influential CPA leading union opposition to the ALP's refusal to improve wages and working conditions foregone by workers during World War II. The creation of ASIO was a means to counter this opposition and weaken the unions by rooting out the communists.

Chifley appointed a judge who was a "supporter of the non-labor forces" to be ASIO's first head. ASIO recruited its agents from the police, and was free from ministerial control. Chifley's, and other, ALP governments had lived quite comfortably with ASIO's security predecessors, which carried out the same tasks as ASIO and which handed 200,000 dossiers over to the new spy outfit.

Subsequent ALP governments refused to scrap ASIO. Whitlam set up a royal commission under Justice Hope, who was living in the "time warp" of "Evil Empires" and "Communist Menaces". Hope recommended "more power, money and staff" for ASIO. Hawke swallowed the preposterous ASIO nonsense that ALP national secretary David Coombe was a spy in the grip of Ivanov, first secretary of the Soviet embassy, and set up another royal commission headed by the same Justice Hope.

Nevertheless, Cain, despite his portrait of an anti-democratic ASIO, concludes that ASIO is today a different beast because the CPA and the Soviet Union are out of the game, and because reforms to the ASIO Act in 1986 have made it more accountable. It now consists of "ordinary public servants" who target "politically motivated violence" (usually associated with the right), and who no longer snoop on the left or trade unions. ASIO can no longer hinder "lawful advocacy, protest or dissent".

This requires a leap of faith. As Cain himself says, we still do not know what the 700 permanent staff and myriad part-time agents and informers do, or how ASIO's budget of $40 million is spent, because ASIO is still a closed book. ASIO still obstructs historical researchers — "ASIO intends keeping its secret history to itself", says Cain — but if ASIO is now really a good guy, why be so coy about its past and present?

One third of ASIO's staff do not belong to even the mild-mannered ASIO Staff Association because of their anti-union attitudes. What does that say about ASIO agents and the unions? And 1990s protesters who have felt the heavy hand of police violence at AIDEX and elsewhere might well question any new-found tolerance towards lawful protest and ASIO's alleged withdrawal from targeting left activists.

These are a few of the unanswered questions about ASIO, and ASIO's continued veil of secrecy does little to dispel scepticism. Cain is hopeful that ASIO can rise to the challenge of post-Cold War intelligence work in areas such as "international criminal links, money-laundering, tax evasion ... and other threats to Australia".

The biggest threat to working class Australians, however, is unemployment-generating, poverty-producing, environment-destroying Australian capitalism. ASIO, even with a cosmetic facelift or a heart transplant could not tackle this threat. That is a political job for the working class — its unions, radical political groups and oppressed peoples — to take on.

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