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A new world for Australia’s spies

26 December 2015 383 views One Comment

Review of ‘The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO, 1963-1975’
ALLEN & UNWIN, $49.99


The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation of 1975, at the end of the controversial federal Labor government of Gough Whitlam, was very different from 1963 when the long-serving Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies was still in power.

As John Blaxland explains in this rather pedestrian account of our signature intelligence agency, the so-called “Protest Years”, from the expulsion from Australia of the Soviet spy, Ivan Skripov​, in February 1963 to the ascension of Whitlam as prime minister in December 1972, saw ASIO grappling with new and difficult challenges, including Croatian extremism.

This was despite the fact that, as Blaxland puts it, “the old threats of Soviet espionage and communist subversion remained”. Under the Whitlam government, things got considerably more difficult for the spy agency , especially after the 1973 “raid” on ASIO headquarters in Melbourne, led by the erratic Attorney General, Lionel Murphy, accompanied by federal police.

Blaxland’s laboured writing style does not help this lengthy book, which contains some errors, for example about the positions held by anti-communist activist B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria. It is also rather confusing that the project’s principal research officer, Dr Rhys Crawley, is acknowledged as the author of Chapter 12.

Entitled “Australia’s Cold War Frontline”, this key section concerns ASIO’s role in Papua New Guinea from 1962 (a year before this volume begins) to 1975. However, a close reading of Crawley’s chapter does not reveal, at least to this reviewer, a different or more energetic narrative voice.

While the conspicuously drab text leaves much to be desired, the photographs and other illustrations, including political cartoons, are a highlight of ‘The Protest Years’. In particular there are two fine photos of one of Australia’s finest photographers, Ponchita Hawkes, both taken by ASIO operatives in 1973. Hawkes was one of the main collaborators, with Victorian activist Joan Coxsedge​, in the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police, which sought to expose ASIO officers and to embarrass them.

Other revealing photographs include a magisterial portrait of prime minister Menzies, who from 1950 to 1966 had a close relationship with ASIO’s Director-General, Brigadier Charles Spry, and one of expelled Soviet spy Ivan Skripov, with the tantalising caption, “Many wondered whether poor ASIO tradecraft had tipped off his illegal contact”.

For me the standouts are two stark photos of prominent ALP senator Arthur Gietzelt​, who because of his close relation with the leadership of the Communist Party of Australia was strongly suspected of being a committed communist.

One of the strongest sections in the text also concerns ASIO’s extensive surveillance of Gietzelt and its gathering of evidence about him. In a section dealing with ASIO during the Vietnam War, Blaxland claims that while ASIO had corroborating information about Gietzelt, Spry thought the risk to ASIO of divulging it outweighed any possible benefits of exposing him.

A careful reading of ‘The Protest Years’ makes it clear that ASIO considered Gietzelt, an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam who was a senator from 1971 to 1989, to be a prominent “hush hush” communist member of the ALP.

Blaxland seems to agree with the proposition that Gietzelt was a communist operative inside the ALP who, in order to avoid detection, was not a formal member of the Communist Party of Australia and who, while attending CPA functions and meeting with its leadership, used the alias “Arthur James”.

This book reveals that ASIO records show an “Arthur James” on the CPA payroll, earning $2000 a year , a substantial sum at the time. If “Arthur James” was Gietzelt, his double life would, Blaxland writes, “have enabled him to influence the ALP on behalf of the CPA”.

Although ASIO surveillance during the 1960s and ’70s captured many “secret” meetings with CPA leaders Laurie and Eric Aarons, throughout his life Gietzelt resolutely denied being a communist. Moreover the former ALP senator , who died in January 2014 , never acknowledged that he was the Arthur James mentioned in ASIO files and featured in many Australian press reports.

Emeritus Professor of Politics and History at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books.

The Sydney Morning Herald, December 26, 2015, Spectrum, Books, pp 18-19.

One Comment »

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    Gerard Henderson to John Blaxland – 29 January 2016
    I refer to your email of 20 January 2016.
    You are correct in stating that “we have corresponded about the fine detail of only three-or-so paragraphs in a book of 200,000 words in length”. That’s because you refuse to concede that The Protest Years makes a number of inaccurate claims about B.A. Santamaria, the Catholic Social Studies Movement (The Movement for short – and from 1957 the National Civic Council) and the Democratic Labor Party.

    I am not the only person to point this out. Similar criticisms have been made by Greg Sheridan (The Australian), Professor Ross Fitzgerald (Fairfax Media) and Dr Peter Edwards (The Weekend Australian). But you are in denial about this.

    Gerard Henderson, Media Watch Dog, January 29, 2016

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