UK Security Assessment of Australia: 1983

The National Archives have just released Cabinet and Prime Ministers papers for 1983 as part of the process of moving from 30 years disclosure to 20 years. Within these papers was a 365 page file from the Cabinet Security Policy and Methods Committee,* which undertook security assessments of 30 different countries across the globe in early 1983. According to the National Archive website, these security assessments:

summarise[d] the UK’s relationship with each country and include[d] notes on the ‘mission of communist countries’ noting which communist countries have intelligence officers based in that territory and the number of officers known and suspected. The forms include questions such as ‘Are intelligence services hostile to the UK active in this country?’ and ‘Have they penetrated the country’s institutions?’

Amongst the 30 nations assessed was Australia. I thought it would be interesting to explore briefly how the UK Government saw national security in Australia in the early 1980s and any impact this had for UK national security.

The first document in the assessment asked for ‘general political and economic factors which are likely to affect the country concerned in its policy towards the UK’, with the assessment highlighting the recent election of Bob Hawke’s Labor Government. The first document states:

Whilst some elements within the ALP take a more hostile line tow3ards the UK, and are suspicious of such things as intelligence links, Australia under an ALP government is still likely to value the advantages of close cooperation with the UK. The vociferous left wing of the ALP is at present well contained by Bob Hawkes [sic] firm leadership but he4 has to take their views into account in formulating policy. If the economic recession gets worse he may need to buy their support by giving into some of their more radical views on foreign policy eg over Timor, Vietnam which could have a spin-off effect on the UK.

The second document asked for numerical information on the personnel of communist countries in Australia and the local Communist parties. It was noted that the USSR had 4 identified Intelligence Officers in Australia, while another 2 were suspected of being Intelligence Officers. Only 2 Intelligence Officers had been identified amongst the Chinese personnel, but another 5 were suspected. The only other country to have identified Intelligence Officers working in Australia was Czechoslovakia with 3, but Hungary, Romania and Poland were also suspected of having Intelligence Officers in the country. The document also cited the existence of three Communist Parties in Australia – the CPA, the Socialist party of Australia and the CPA (Marxist-Leninist) – but noted that while the parties were able to ‘recruit amongst Trade Unionists and students’, they did not ‘on the whole… thrive’. The CPA was estimated as having 1,800 members, with the SPA estimated as having 1,100 and the CPA (M-L) having 200. On the matter of influence, the document stated:

For historical reasons individual members of the CPA and SPA hold senior positions in major unions and as a result are able to influence… ALP policy. The influence of the Communist Parties in Trade Union and ALP matters is , however, of little significance.

ASIO and the Department of Defence were given glowing reviews and it was deemed on a slight risk that UK security information could be compromised by the Australian Government. One document claimed that the major weakness in this regard came from the ‘propensity of Civil Servants to leak information if they consider this would further the policies which they favour’, with the ‘worst offender’ in recent years being deemed the Office of National Assessment, although the document also noted that ‘[m]inisters are equally liable to leak if they think it will further the interest of Government or their own particular interests.’ The same document raised the issue of Australia’s recently passed FOI laws, which was a cause for concern in how material passed from the UK Government to the Australian Government would be handled.

Overall, the security assessment deemed the ‘state of security in [Australia] by UK standards’ to be ‘good’ – the highest ranking that could be given. It would be interesting to compare this with any previous (or future) security assessments done – I will need to check the NA catalogue to see if any others were conducted. Also I wonder how this assessment correlates with any security assessments done of Australia by ASIO around the same time – particularly as the Hawke Government instigated the second Royal Commission into Australia’s national security under Justice Hope in 1983 after the David Combe affair.

But that’s some archival work for another day.

*An interesting point of note is that one of the authors of the assessment was D.H. Colvin, who had been a diplomat at the British Embassy in Paris in the 1970s, who claimed, according to National Archives documents released in 2007, that the Israeli Government and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) had worked together on the Entebbe hijack in 1977.

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