ASIO and B.A. Santamaria: Duelling Anti-Communisms

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The Australian has had a love-in this week with Catholic anti-communist B.A. Santamaria, with pieces by Tony Abbott and Gerard Henderson celebrating Santamaria’s anti-communist crusade inside and outside the Australian labour movement since the 1940s, and Greg Sheridan disclosing how his work inside the National Civic Council led him to crosspaths with ASIO and conduct anti-communist mischief in the student movement in the 1970s. Sheridan wrote this week:

The NCC always had some kind of relationship with ASIO. ASIO studied the communists for several reasons. Many communist groups received money from the Soviet Union and other foreign governments. Some used violence for political purposes. Some facilitated espionage. ASIO got information from the NCC and vice versa. So there was always a clandestine, secretive, slightly exotic air about the NCC.

However, from these National Archives files from ASIO’s monitoring of the NCC from 1973 to 1976, the relationship between ASIO and the NCC was much more fraught than Sheridan would suggest. In a 1972 report, ASIO complained that Santamaria continually made links between the ACTU’s Bob Hawke and the Communist Party of Australia’s Laurie Carmichael, although no link seemed to be there. The report says, ‘There appears to be no reason or justification for this, other than to smear HAWKE by association.’ In the same report, ASIO described Santamaria’s description of the involvement of ‘the Kremlin’ in the affairs of the Australian labour movement as bordering on the conspiratorial, and akin to the rantings of the anti-semitic League of Rights. This section of the report states:

The second point, which alleges coalition now of the “Communists” and “monopolistic employers”, is perilously close to the League of Rights – Eric BUTLER allegation that a conspiracy links the Pentagon and the Kremlin. The only difference is that the League sees the conspiracy as Jewish and the NCC as Communist-Capitalist. Mr. SANTAMARIA does  not bother to explain exactly what the “communist union bosses”  and “cynical capitalist employers”  have in common that leads them to agree on squeezing “small businesses” and the “lowest paid workers”.

The report concludes:

If the NCC’s analyses continue to develop along the lines of SANTAMARIA’s second point, one may have to consult a political pathologist, or even a psychologist, for an adequate explanation.

Furthermore, a February 1973 minute wrote that ASIO was ‘competing with the NCC in interpreting to Government and the public, the nature and extent of Communist influence in Australia’ and depending on government priorities could be considered a ‘subversive’ organisation. The minute pointed two specific areas where the NCC was worthy of ASIO’s interest:

(1) Undeclared NC members penetrating sensitive areas of Government service with consequent detriment to official secrecy.

(2) The use of such information by the NCC to embarrass or thwart Government, for example, in such a situation as Mr. SANTAMARIA’s recent visit to Saigon as a guest of Brigadier SERONG where he addressed a military academy and urged disregard of U.S. and Australian policy re the cease fire.

However the minute concluded:

The nature of their political attitudes and objectives, whether judged extreme by some, or commendable by others, would not, I believe, justify security attention in a democratic society.

Although we know from this file that ASIO continued monitoring the NCC for at least the next three years.

The file also includes some documents relating to the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security held between 1974 and 1979 by Justice Hope (after the infamous raid on ASIO by Labor Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in 1973). This admits that ASIO assisted Santamaria and the NCC at some stage, but also notes that the NCC was an organisation of interest to ASIO (with a suggestion that ASIO impeded its activities at times as well). However these documents don’t reveal what the relationship between ASIO and the NCC was during the 1970s (beyond the one-way internal reports of the early 1970s).

One of the primary goals of ASIO was to combat communist subversion in Australia, a goal also held by Santamaria’s Democratic Labor Party and the NCC. While both pursued this goal and there was collusion between the two organisations at times, it is important to recognise that both organisations also had wider agendas and their anti-communisms were not exactly the same. While not having too much faith in the opinions of ASIO during the 1970s, a read of this file indicates that ASIO were wary of the claims being made by Santamaria and the NCC and saw them as worthy of monitoring because it was unclear what the wider agenda of the NCC was and there was also suspicion of the Council’s semi-clandestine operative framework.

We know that ASIO started monitoring the NCC in 1963 and it is reasonable to assume that they kept monitoring after 1976. The NCC flirted with the edges of democracy and were, at times, judged to be involved in subversive and anti-democratic activities within the labour movement. Because they shared an anti-communist agenda with ASIO, the surveillance of this secretive organisation by the Australian security services was limited, but it is very apparent that Sanatmaria, the DLP and the NCC were not the beacons of democracy that Abbott, Sheridan and Henderson suggest in the pages of the Murdoch press this week.

Maybe it is worth applying for an FOI request for any ASIO files on the NCC from 1976 to 1985?

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