The last few years have seen a number of documentaries and books based on people’s ASIO files, which can now be released to the public after 20 years.
Meredith Burgmann’s new book Dirty Secrets brings together chapters from left activists and other well known Australians written after accessing their own files.
Burgmann’s book contains chapters on 26 people’s files ranging from the Movie Show’s David Stratton, libertarian and investigative journalist Wendy Bacon, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, former High Court judge Michael Kirby and Jack Waterford, former editor of the Canberra Times.
Many of the contributors point to how bumbling and pointless the effort ASIO put into surveillance was. But the damage ASIO was willing to do to people’s lives and the danger it was prepared to put them in also comes through.
Victorian Labor Left MLA Jean McLean found out that ASIO had a hand in her sacking from a job in a bank.
Colin Cooper, who became a union official in NSW, found out that his ASIO file meant he was moved from his job within Telecom. Penny Lockwood, who had Communist Party parents, found out a man she was having a relationship with was an ASIO spy.
Colin Cooper’s file confirms what I wrote in a prior article on ASIO—that it has spied habitually on the Labor Party and the unions.
ASIO’s brief—to keep an eye on the nebulous and all-encompassing notion of “subversion”—gave its investigations a simply enormous scope.
Obsession with the left
Verity Burgmann’s file revealed that ASIO planted two members in Solidarity’s predecessor organisation in the 1970s, the International Socialists (IS), who posed as a couple. One had even got people to pose for photos he took and then handed over to ASIO.
Kevin Cook, an Aboriginal activist and former organiser with the NSW BLF, has a file that shows an ASIO obsession with the IS and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
Kevin rightly says, “What surprised me was how little there was in the file about land rights…There was nothing in the files about the actual campaigns or what we wanted or what we did! They just wanted to know who came to the meetings.”
ASIO does pay the IS a back-handed compliment, noting that, “the International Socialists consistently support all [Aboriginal] demonstrations”.
Writer and feminist Anne Summers was spied upon, even though her file had written in it “capacity for violence—nil”.
ASIO was a law unto itself but the Ministers responsible—in particular successive Attorney-Generals—have all been complicit in the obsessive spying.
Nicola Roxon, Attorney-General in the Gillard government, recalls querying an “intercept warrant” for phone tapping. When the ASIO officer could not explain the need for the intercept, Roxon refused to sign the warrant without further information. She was told that this had never been done before. She hasn’t said whether she finally signed off on the warrant.
While former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser is fashionable these days for his support for refugees and social justice, it was he who increased ASIO’s powers in 1978 after the Sydney Hilton bombing, which killed three people in February that year.
Tim Anderson spent seven years in jail (1978-85) alongside Ross Dunn and Paul Alister, after being framed for the Hilton bombing. All were members of the spiritual organisation Ananda Marga.
ASIO worked hand in hand with the old “Special Branches” of the various state police forces. Colin Cooper states that, “The NSW police ignored the warrant requirements and undertook illegal phone taps over a sixteen year period from 1967.” Tim says, “The two spy agencies [ASIO and Special Branch] often exchanged files.” The three were convicted on the “evidence” of paid informers.
ASIO also “exchanged files” with secret police forces overseas, including the ruthless Apartheid era police in South Africa, as Tasmanian gardening expert Peter Cundall’s file shows.
I applied under the Archives Act but was told I don’t have a file. This is despite being interviewed by ASIO for a security clearance when I worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade only to be denied one.
Yet in the late 1990s, when the Melbourne Age did a story on Victoria Police’s Special Branch hiding its secret files, my former Labor MP in Canberra rang me to say he was miffed that he didn’t have a file but that I was listed as having one.
Spies will never stop a genuine mass upheaval in society. The Okhrana could not save the Russian Tzar. SAVAK (trained by he CIA) could not save Iran’s Shah. The KGB could not save Gorbachev’s Stalinism. The Stasi, which had a spy for every 6.5 East Germans could not save Honecker’s East Germany.
Suharto finally fell in Indonesia in 1998, without the military or his secret police lifting a finger. The same applied to Hosni Muburak’s regime in Egypt in 2011.
But the spooks can continue to make some people’s lives a misery. The asylum seekers who fail ASIO “security” checks, and so end up in detention for life, are only the most recent example.
By Tom Orsag
Dirty secrets: Our ASIO files
Edited by Meredith Burgmann
NewSouth Books, $32.99