New film uncovers ASIO’s spy operations

August 10, 2013
A still from ASIO surveillance footage of a 1971 youth conference.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is Australia's national security service, and promotes itself as being responsible for protecting Australia from all kinds of attacks — from terrorism to politically motivated violence.

This fairytale should not be taken seriously. Established in 1949 by the Ben Chifley ALP government, ASIO’s primary purpose has always been to carry out spying, disruption and provocation against left and progressive forces on behalf of the established order.

It is Australia’s political police — our very own secret police organisation.

Newly uncovered footage shows the lengths ASIO went to in order to spy on young people who had broken no laws.

An online videoclip, for Haydn Keenan’s just-completed documentary on ASIO Persons of Interest, consists of a three-and-a-half minute excerpt of an ASIO surveillance film of the April 1971 Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) national conference in Melbourne.

ASIO’s agents were apparently operating from a building opposite the entrance to the conference venue.

As an enthusiastic 24-year-old, I attended the SYA’s 1971 conference and am one of those shown on the ASIO spy footage. Today I am a member of the Socialist Alliance and am even more convinced about the need to replace our barbaric capitalist system with a genuine socialist society.

In the 1970s and 80s, the SYA and it’s affiliated party, the Socialist Workers League (SWL), had a number of experiences of ASIO spying and disruption.

Obviously these were only the tip of the iceberg of state operations against us and we became aware of them only by accident.

‘Sex, treachery and terror’

The February 23, 1975 edition of the ultra-trashy Melbourne Sunday Observer newspaper would have startled its readers with its “world exclusive”.

Starting with the front page, six whole pages were devoted to the lurid “revelations” of a self-confessed ASIO agent called Max Wechsler. He had joined the SWL to act as an informer for ASIO.

An idea of the quality of Wechsler’s information can be gleaned from the Observer headlines: “ASIO’s top agent exposes our amazing world of sex, treachery and terror”; “Terror plot to take over Australia”; “Sex, sabotage, crime make Max’s world”; and so on.

The political thrust of the coverage was to attempt to portray the completely open and legal activities of the SWL as a sinister conspiracy. Yes, we sought to build campaigns of resistance to this exploitative and oppressive system and win support for our socialist ideas. But this is not a crime.

ASIO agent decides socialism makes sense

In April 1976, Lisa Walter, a young member of Adelaide SYA, confessed that she had been sent into the organisation by ASIO the year before.

She and some friends had rung up ASIO for a prank — she didn’t even know what it actually did. In the event she was recruited and given the assignment of infiltrating the SYA (“moral filth” as her ASIO handler described the group to her).

But quite early on the fantasy her ASIO controllers had given her about the SYA began to jar with reality. Walters came to realise that the organisations’ members were ordinary people who were strongly committed to a deeply progressive social ideal and there was no sinister reality behind the supposed “facade”.

As her sympathies were engaged by the socialist struggle, she began to feel more and more guilty about her role as an ASIO informant.

Eventually Walters decided to reveal the truth. Convinced of the genuineness of her story, it was decided she should be allowed to remain a member of the SYA — on the condition that she help expose ASIO’s anti-democratic activities.

This she did. The National Times ran a sympathetic full-page story on her case, with a photograph showing reporter John Edwards confronting Walter’s startled ASIO handler in a suburban carpark. Walters told her story at forums in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

ASIO agent discarded by his masters

In 1979 the Socialist Workers Party, as the SWL had become, expelled a member called Tom Shepherd. He had joined some years before but from quite early on had aroused the suspicions of a number of people.

They couldn’t understand why he had joined, as he didn’t appear to be very interested in politics.

Various members voiced their suspicions to party leaders. Our response was always that unless people wanted to make a concrete charge, they should keep their thoughts to themselves. One of the most precious things in a socialist organisation is the confidence members have in each other. Mass paranoia is the last thing we need.

But eventually the chorus of suspicions grew so loud that it was necessary to resolve the situation one way or the other. An investigating commission was formed and Shepherd was informed of the situation.

We did not find any evidence that he was an ASIO agent, nonetheless his membership was terminated. The commission could find no convincing reason for him having joined the organisation; something was definitely fishy.

We never saw him again. But in 2009 Tom Shepherd went public. He had indeed worked for ASIO for 20 years, first in the Communist Party and then in the SWP. But now, aged 66, he was in a bad way. His marriage had broken down due to the strain of his past deception, he had serious mental health issues and financial problems. He wanted ASIO to admit its responsibility and help him. But ASIO were not interested.

It’s a familiar story. Our rulers use people — as workers, soldiers, thugs, informers — squeeze them dry and then throw them away like dirty rags when their usefulness has ended. That is capitalism through and through. It is true to itself in everything.

Abolish the secret police

The activity of the socialist movement is not a conspiracy but an open fight to win people to our ideas and organise them to struggle for a better world. The real permanent and truly sinister conspiracy is that of the capitalist state and its agencies against the people.

Capitalist politicians are always blathering on about the “national interest”. What they really mean by this is the interests of the super-rich 1% — the corporate oligarchy, the capitalist plutocracy.

Naturally they see the socialist movement as a threat to their unjustifiable privileges. Even if it is small today, it might grow tomorrow — especially in conditions of severe social crisis.

This is why ASIO exists and why it will always see the fundamental danger in the left and progressive movement.

ASIO should be abolished. It has no place in a genuinely democratic society.

[Dave Holmes is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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