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Launch of The Protest Years: the official history of ASIO 1963-1975, speech, Canberra

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Friday 16 October 2015



When I launched the first volume of the official history of ASIO, written by Dr David Horner, in October last year, I said:

Security agencies present a paradox for democratic governance. By their nature they are required to operate covertly. Yet parliamentary democracy depends upon accountability and transparency. Reconciling those two imperatives is by no means easy. … [T]he very high level of public confidence which Australians have in ASIO is the strongest testament there could be to the fact that we have, on the whole, resolved that paradox successfully.

In the second volume of the official history, The Protest Years 1963-1975, by Dr John Blaxland, we see that observation put to the test during the years of social upheaval which began in the early 1960s and reached its climax with the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975. While the emphasis of Volume 1 was largely upon Soviet espionage, most famously ASIO’s early triumph with the Petrov defection in 1954, in Volume 2, the focus broadens to counter-insurgency and domestic threats emerging during those turbulent years of transition from the golden summer of the late Menzies Government, through to confused politics of the late 1960s, to the folie de grandeur and spectacular denouement of the Whitlam Government.

Volume 2 thus encompasses some of the most significant changes in Australian history, and chronicles ASIO’s response to them. It was a volatile period, which saw eight Attorneys-General - Barwick, Snedden, Bowen (twice), Hughes, Greenwood, Whitlam (briefly, during the 12 days of the Whitlam/Barnard duumvirate in December 1972), Murphy and Enderby; six Prime Ministers, and two Directors-General.

The domestic politics of these years of rapid, and sometimes unsettling, social change, were dominated, in particular, by Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. This led to the rise of the protest movement, concentrated in particular on university campuses, the national security implications of which became a matter of concern for ASIO. In Chapter 6, Dr Blaxland chronicles ASIO’s response to those protests, in particular the somewhat unfortunately-named “Operation Whip”. He skilfully deals with the issues for democratic governance which that response posed. In a democracy, dissent is legitimate. The protests were the expression of strongly-held political views - shared widely across the political Left and reaching into the middle class and the political centre. Insofar as the protests were violent, that violence was largely the violence of an unruly, disorderly crowd: its management was a policing function, not an intelligence one. And yet there is no doubt that elements of the protest movement were inspired and sometimes financed by genuinely subversive elements, in particular the Communist Party of Australia.

On my reading, Dr Blaxland is not entirely satisfied with ASIO’s response - in particular, its closeness to the Government of the day and the extent of its involvement in what were, very often, more properly matters of domestic politics than national security. In an admirably balanced judgment, he writes:

It is easy to cast aspersions on ASIO for its focus on the protest movement, but it was not an independent actor, and was not working without government sanction. Meeting the Government’s requirement through Operation Whip, ASIO gained a thorough knowledge of the activities of the protesters. The Government failed to demand enough from ASIO in terms of accountability, but the Government wished to be kept informed and ASIO ensured it was. ASIO came to be seen in the eyes of protesters and other observers as the tool of a conservative government, reaffirming views held since the Petrov defection in 1954. Not surprisingly, therefore, when a change of government occurred at the end of 1972, ASIO would be in for a shock.

The consequences for ASIO of the election of the Whitlam Government, and the way in which that fraught relationship was managed, comprises the largest part of the book. However, even before Whitlam was elected, there was evidence of unease by some in the Coalition about the relationship between the government and the Organization. Prime Minister Gorton did not get on well with Sir Charles Spry. Blaxland’s account deals with the circumstances in which, after more than 20 years at the helm, Spry retired, with evident reluctance, in January 1970. It would have been good to see a little more detail in Dr Blaxland’s account of this important transition about the role of the new head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Sir Lennox Hewitt.

Spry was replaced by the 44 year-old Peter Barbour, then the Deputy Director-General; he remains the only Director-General to have been appointed from within the Organization. Barbour was seen as a moderniser, and we read about how quickly he ran up against the Organization’s entrenched culture inherited from Spry. And then he ran up against the Whitlam Government. To say that there was a clash of cultures between ASIO and the Whitlam Government would be something of an understatement. As Blaxland writes:

ASIO under Barbour has its foundations shaken to the core by the Whitlam Government, and particularly by Whitlam’s Attorney-General Lionel Murphy.

It did not end well. As Volume 2 draws to a close, Barbour finds himself dismissed by Whitlam during a dramatic meeting at The Lodge on the evening of 17 September 1975 - only weeks before Whitlam’s own even more dramatic dismissal.

The story of the tension between ASIO and the Whitlam Government is the most important and, for me, exciting part of the book. Attorney-General Lionel Murphy’s infamous “raid” on ASIO’s Canberra office in the early hours of 16 March 1973 is emblematic of those tensions. It was hardly a propitious way for the new Attorney-General to kick off his relationship with the national security agency, although it must be said that Murphy emerges from Blaxland’s account of the raid looking less than a serious threat to national security, and rather more like Sir Les Patterson.

Nevertheless - and this, I think, is Blaxland’s point - the tension, fed by historic Labor paranoia about the role of ASIO and exacerbated by the serial political blunders of the Attorney-General of the day, had a creative element too. ASIO was in need of modernization, and we find the Organization, at the end of 1975 - a period described by Blaxland as “ASIO on the Brink” - ripe for the reforms which the Hope Report would shortly bring. Blaxland gives appropriate emphasis to Peter Barbour’s role as an agent of change.

Although I have concentrated on two important aspects of Dr Blaxland’s account - the anti-war protest movement and the Whitlam Government - there is of course a great deal more of enduring significance which this volume covers, including the opening of the Joint Facility at Pine Gap in 1970. Dr Blaxland’s account is thorough, and not without a touch of dry humour: thus we learn, at a time when South Australia was the scene of much activity of national security interest through the 1960s, being the home of Woomera rocket range, the Weapons Research Establishment, and the base for construction of Pine Gap outside Alice Springs, that “ASIO recorded a large number of visits by Soviet embassy officials to Adelaide, ostensibly to see visiting Russian ballet performances.”

Overall, the view of ASIO which emerges from this finely-researched, thorough but not uncritical account is that its men and women served Australia well in difficult times, but that negotiating the treacherous domestic politics of the era presented challenges to which the ASIO response was sometimes less than perfect. But it is important to place criticisms into perspective. As Dr Blaxland concludes:

It is easy … to look back dismissively at the concerns and key areas ASIO was focused on, namely espionage, protective security, subversion and terrorism. After all, the Cold War has long since passed and many of the apparent security threats of the time are now popularly dismissed as either fringe or harmless or overblown in the imagination of a conspiratorial element in the Australian body politic. Such a perspective is ahistorical and not based on a dispassionate consideration of the evidence. The evidence is compelling that the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc proxies were actively engaged in espionage in Australia. Their efforts were multifaceted, enduring and relentless. … There remained a variety of … Trotskyist or

socialist splinter groups [which] … retained a dogged fixation in terms of rhetoric and apparent intentions, if not in capability, on the violent overthrow of Australia’s Parliamentary democratic system…

It is reassuring that our liberal democracy is so healthy that the principal domestic security agency can subject itself to the kind of friendly, yet critical historical scrutiny that Dr Blaxland has undertaken. What is even more reassuring is that we have an organization such as ASIO, comprising a body of fine and honourable men and women whose professional lives are dedicated to keeping that liberal democracy safe.

May I congratulate Dr Blaxland on a fine piece of scholarship and the publishers, Allen and Unwin, for producing such a handsome volume.

It is with pleasure that I launch John Blaxland’s The Protest Years 1963-1975, the second volume of the Official History of ASIO.