ASIO

ASIO and surveillance of the women’s liberation movement in Australia in the 1970s

This post is an extended version of the paper that I gave recently for the ‘How the Personal Became Political’ symposium, hosted by the ANU Gender Institute. I am posting this on International Women’s Day 2017, so enjoy!

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In the volume of the official history of ASIO that deals with what Greg Langley has described as the ‘decade of dissent’, 1965 to 1975,[1] there is one mention of the women’s liberation movement and ASIO’s surveillance of it. In his volume, John Blaxland lists the women’s liberation movement as just one of the social movements that was monitored by ASIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the peace movement, and the movement for Aboriginal rights.[2] Blaxland does not go beyond this mention, but we know from other autobiographical works on the material history of ASIO, such as Anne Summers’ chapter in the Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets anthology,[3] that the security services did extensively monitor feminists and the women’s liberation movement during this period.

Unlike the National Archives in London, the National Archives of Australia have been very forthcoming in releasing ASIO files from the 1960s through to the early 1980s, particularly due to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by people who were subject to ASIO surveillance, as well as by a small number of interested journalists and academics. Although, as Tim Sherratt has written,[4] the publicly available ASIO files often have the most controversial elements still redacted, while more sensitive files are retained by the government. Still the amount of material that has been released has been highly useful for contemporary historians.

Most of the publicly available ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement have been digitised and cover the period from 1970 to 1980. As well as four national files (which are the papers that I have explored), there are a number of files dedicated the movements in New South Wales (9), Victoria (4) and the Australian Capital Territory (2). There are probably more files dedicated to the movements in the other states and territories, but some files on South Australia and Tasmania are incorporated into the national files.

ASIO were not the only branch of the state to be involved in the monitoring of the women’s liberation movement. The Special Branches of each state police force were involved in the surveillance of feminist activists across Australia, with Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter revealing the in-depth monitoring of socialist feminist Carole Ferrier by the Queensland Special Branch between 1975 and 1989.[5] The Special Branch files in most states have been destroyed (or are deemed not locatable),[6] with only glimpses of the work of these Special Branches being seen in their correspondence with ASIO maintained in the released ASIO files (one exception to this being the papers of the South Australian Special Branch made public during the inquiry by Justice White into the Special Branch’s security records in 1977).[7]

As Henderson and Winter, as well as Jon Piccini,[8] have noted in their research into ASIO and Special Branch files, while these files give us a detailed record of events, they also present a narrative of activism as determined by the surveiller and not by the subject of the surveillance. Their actions are deemed noteworthy if they fit in with ‘paranoid’ outlook of the security services, who were trained to see potential threats from a multitude of otherwise innocuous sources. As much as we see the behaviour of the activist in these files, we also see the thinking underpinning the actions of the state, who were much more readily to believe that many independent actors were part of a wider conspiracy against the established political and social order in Australia at the time.

The ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement assembled at the national level begin in early 1970. This provides evidence of three main motivations for surveillance of the movement. Firstly, the file contains plenty of clippings on the women’s liberation movement in the United States and their radicalism, and, as Ruth Rosen has shown, the FBI showed great interest in these feminist activists for a variety of reasons. This suspicion was transferred from the US to Australia, as Australian women started to read Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and other US feminist writers. Secondly, the files also note the beginning of various Women’s Liberation Groups formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1969-70, who are in communication with each other and looking to organise on a national scale, with the Sydney group coming first and then others taking inspiration in the other cities. Thirdly, ASIO were already heavily monitoring the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) and it is from these two groups that many of the more militant socialist feminists emerged.

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CPA feminist Olga Silver selling ‘Tribune’

Both the CPA and SYA were involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the wider cultural radicalism of the era and tried to organise around the issue of women’s liberation, both within their party structures and within broader activist circles. In the fourteen years since 1956, the CPA had undergone a significant change from a very pro-Stalin and pro-Chinese militant party to a proto-Eurocommunist party that sought to embrace the new social movements that arose in the 1960s. As Margaret Penson has shown, under the new leadership of Laurie Aarons, the CPA started to take the idea of women’s liberation seriously and several women party members were involved in organising around the issue, with a national conference on women held by the CPA in 1970.[9] At the same time, those within the Party who eschewed these social movements (and held a more pro-Soviet viewpoint) started to agitate against the Aarons leadership and eventually broke away in 1971 to become the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).

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The SYA were a Trotskyist group that emerged out of the anti-war movement at Sydney University, influenced by the US Socialist Workers Party and the Mandelite Fourth International, including the British International Marxist Group. Critical of the Communist Party’s ‘Stalinism’, the SYA emphasised its anti-imperial solidarity work, including the establishment of the Third World Bookshop in Sydney, which became an organisational hub for the SYA (but also bugged by ASIO).

A 1971 report on the Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference, organised by the CPA’s Aileen Beaver, explicitly outlined the ASIO’s interest in the women’s liberation movement in Australia:

Over the past months the Women’s Liberation Movement has been gaining increasing support… and many of the Groups appear to be dominated by Communist Party of Australia (CPAS) members, eg, the Working Women’s Women’s Liberation Group in Sydney or by Maoists eg, the Worker Student Alliance Women’s Liberation Group in Melbourne or by Trotskyists eg, Sydney Bread and Roses Women’s Liberation Group. It is for this reason that ASIO is maintaining an interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement. (my emphasis)[10]

Much of ASIO’s surveillance of the women’s liberation movement came from its surveillance of the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance, through the bugging of the CPA and SYA offices, and reports by agents at meetings and conferences. As David Lockwood has noted, these ASIO files often observed the mundane every-day activities of those involved in progressive and left-wing politics. Page after page is filled with short memos outlining particular people of interest, their links to other people and organisations under surveillance and often with a short description of the person. With the case of feminist activists, these candid remarks by ASIO agents reveal the sexist contempt that they had for the women’s liberation movement at the time. For example, a memo on Isabelle Sandford (also known as ‘Coonie’) stated:

Coonie is approximately 23 years of age, approximately 5’2” tall, with shoulder length straight dark brown hair. She has brown eyes, weights approximately 8 stone. She has a good figure, is neat and well groomed. She is not popular with the other members of the Women’s Liberation Group as they consider she talks a lot of rot, and has in fact been accused on occasions of being a liar.[11]

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Another memo on Elisabeth Elliott seemed to complain that while she was considered ‘a very attractive girl’, she was deemed to be ‘untidy in her general appearance’.[12]

The CPA had overseen the establishment of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in the 1950s, but by the early 1970s, it was being taken over by the Women’s Liberation Groups which involved both CPA and SYA members. One report from November 1970 noted ‘a lot of bickering’ at a South District branch meeting over whether the UAW was still the ‘main CPA women’s organisation’,[13] with dissidents (who would eventually form the SPA) allegedly pressing for the traditional organisation to maintain its role. In March 1971, ASIO further noted that future SPA leading figure Pat Clancy:

spoke disparagingly of the CPA leadership’s attitude of concentrating on Women’s Liberation as he feels that the potential of Women’s Liberation is minor compared to the possibility of organising women in the industrial area.[14]

The CPA maintained its support for women’s liberation movement and published a pamphlet in 1971 titled, What Every Woman Should Know, under the guise of the Women’s Liberation Working Women’s Group. An ASIO intercept report noted that the CPA sold out its initial run of the pamphlet and that hundreds of copies were to be sent to CPA bookshops in Melbourne and Perth.[15] In July 1972, ASIO still saw the CPA as ‘the best appointed Women’s Liberation’ group, but noted that ‘even within it there is quite strong opposition from many of the men’.[16] An agent’s briefing from 1972 National Congress of the CPA noted that one male Communist Party member spoke out against women’s liberation at the Congress, reporting:

He was very much against the part of Women’s Liberation where they were men hating. He felt that this was a bad attitude which could do nothing but harm to the organisation.[17]

As Steve James has written, the primary function of ASIO was intelligence gathering,[18] but one wonders about what use the information gathered by ASIO agents would be. For example, after a Women’s Liberation Conference held in Guthega in NSW in January 1972 by a faction within the SYA, a brief called for the following from any agents or informants attending the conference:

  • Identification of persons attending the Conference with particular reference to their political leanings…
  • Information concerning the reported split within the Socialist Youth Alliance over the issues of Women’s Liberation.
  • Information concerning a possible split in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney following the formation of the New Communist Party (Socialist Party of Australia).[19]

The first three national files are dedicated to the years from 1970 to 1972, but the last file covers the years from 1972 to 1980, suggesting a reduction in interest from ASIO, particularly in relation to the links between the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance to the women’s liberation movement, which was, as quoted above, the main reason for ASIO’s surveillance of the movement. This neatly coincides with the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972 and the reform of ASIO after the raid ordered by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in early 1973.

However surveillance did not stop entirely in this period and it seems that ASIO seemed to shift their focus of concern from the women’s liberation movement being a political concern with regards to Communist and Trotskyist entrism to a concern about the impact that the movement was having socially and culturally. One document drafted in November 1972, just before the election of Whitlam, argued explicitly that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a subversive movement… in a unique manner.’[20] Firstly, the report acknowledged, as had been ASIO thinking over the last few years, that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a target movement… for communist action organisations.’[21] The report expanded on this, stating:

This feature of Women’s Liberation, by itself, would make Women’s Liberation of security interest as the expressed aim of the communists is to capture, control, exploit every critical, reformist movement or organisation and develop it into a new revolutionary context.[22]

But this communist infiltration was not the only concern of ASIO. The same report purported:

Women’s Liberation… is not directly concerned with political subversion but is concerned with subversion on a higher and more sophisticated level, (that is social subversion, into which political subversion is incorporated).[23]

This suggested that certain people within the security services believed that the women’s liberation movement were actively undermining the moral fabric of Australian society in the 1970s. The report outlined at length the ways in which this moral subversion alleged manifested itself, including through the degradation of the education system, reconfiguration of sex values and conduct, promotion of drug use, rejection of traditional social values, and undermining of traditional understandings of ‘democracy’.

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ASIO outlines the ‘subversive’ agenda of the WLM in Australia (1972)

‘Because of its relentless critique of the existing social order, and the unique nature of its critique,’ ASIO stated, the women’s liberation movement was ‘a fertile field for communist activity’.[24] The report continued…

Women’s Liberation is engaged in the same process of dismantling existing institutions that the communists engage in AFTER the revolution (and, of course, continuously attempt). The communists are delighted to have a ‘captive audience’ which can be mobilised against the capitalist system…

From the Women’s Liberation social analysis, then, it is a short step to the communist analysis of political and social power in capitalist societies.[25]

However as the 1970s progressed, the focus of ASIO on communist entrism in the Women’s Liberation Movement shifted to other parties than the CPA and the SYA (which had become Socialist Workers League after 1972). Between 1972 and 1975, ASIO noted the increased interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). The aforementioned report from November 1972 noted that the CPA(M-L) held the line that women should organise inside the Communist Party as ‘Marxism-Leninism is the only correct theory on this question.’[26] Two memos from 1975 reveal that some within the SPA, who were originally sceptical of the Women’s Liberation Movement’, argued that the Party ‘must associate with groups such as Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Electoral Lobby because in these groups is where the progressive people are.’[27] Geoff Curthoys was quoted as saying that ‘the S.P.A. must not sever connections with these groups’.[28] Freda Brown reportedly agreed with Curthoys, but stated that ‘the S.P.A. has not got the women’s forces’ to work with these groups.[29]

By 1980, the focus had moved the Australian branch of the Spartacist League, a highly sectarian orthodox Trotskyist group that had grown from the US and UK in the late 1970s. A memo from June 1980 commented that the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand were ‘active in two main groups… the Gay Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole, not in individual groups within the movements’, with the Women’s Action Committee identified as the group that the Spartacists were ‘specifically interested in’.[30] In one document from 1980, ASIO outlined the strategy of the Spartacists to acquire members, remarking ‘[i]t is a very long slow process but they gradually draw people away from groups like Gay Liberation and Women’s Rights’.[31] However a document from 1977 had already noted that the Women’s Liberation Movement had already expelled a number of Spartacist League members.[32]

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From ‘Australian Spartacist’, May 1980.

The current batch of files run out in 1980, but the last file of the series demonstrates that ASIO’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement had greatly waned by the late 1970s. Over the preceding decade, the movement had moved from the extra-parliamentary sphere to the heart of parliamentary politics and policy, as evidenced, for example, by the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as the first Advisor on Women’s Affairs by Gough Whitlam in 1973. The role that the far left played in Australian politics had also waned after the upturn in radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We know that surveillance of the far left and other social movements continued into the 1980s, but the files relating to the Women’s Liberation Movement do not continue into Hawke era.

[1] Greg Langley, A Decade of Dissent: Vietnam and the Conflict on the Australian Homefront, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

[2] John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 4.

[3] Anne Summers, ‘Number C/57/61: What ASIO Knew’, in Meredith Burgmann, Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files (Sydney: New South, 2014).

[4] Tim Sherratt, ‘Turning the Inside Out’, Discontents, October 24, 2016, http://discontents.com.au/turning-the-inside-out/ (accessed 6 March, 2017)

[5] Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter, ‘Memoirs of Our Nervous Illness: The Queensland Police Special Branch Files of Carole Ferrier as Political Auto/Biography’, Life Writing, 6/3 (2009) pp. 349-367.

[6] Andrew Moore, ‘“A Secret Policeman’s Lot”: The Working Life of Fred Longbottom of the New South Wales Special Branch’, in John Shields (ed), All Our Labours: Oral Histories of Working Life in Twentieth Century Sydney (Kensington: UNSW Press, 1992) pp. 193-226; Mark Finnane, ‘Long Gone, But Not Forgotten’, Griffith Review, 21 (2008) https://griffithreview.com/articles/long-gone-but-not-forgotten/ (accessed 7 March 2017).

[7] Justice White, Special Branch Security Records: Initial Report (Adelaide: Government of South Australia, 1977); Richard G. Fox, ‘The Salisbury Affair: Special Branches, Security and Subversion’, Monash University Law Review, 5/4 (June 1979) pp. 251-270; Anna Kovac, ‘ASIO’s Surveillance of Brian Medlin’, Flinders Journal of History and Politics, 31 (2015) pp. 132-133.

[8] Jon Piccini, ‘“People Treated Me With Equality”: Indigenous Australians Visiting the Soviet Bloc During the Cold War’, Labour History, 111 (November 2016) p. 2.

[9] Margaret Penson, Breaking the Chains: Communist Party Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975 (Broadway, NSW: Breaking the Chains Collective, 1999).

[10] ‘Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference’, August 1971, A6122 2573, National Archives of Australia (Canberra).

[11] ‘Isabelle SANDFORD’, 6 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[12] ‘Elizabeth ELLIOTT’, 8 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[13] ‘South Coast District – Communist Party of Australia’, 13 November, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[14] ‘Communist Party of Australia Dissidents – Activities in Trade Unions’, 30 March, 1971, A6122 2274, NAA.

[15] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1971, A6122 2573, NAA.

[16] ‘Communist Party of Australia 23rd National Congress – Women’s Liberation’, 12 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[17] ‘Leslie William SMITH (S/65/20)’, 10 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[18] Steve James, ‘Policing Political Violence in Australia’ in, David Lowe, et. al., Examining Political Violence: Studies of Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Internal War (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013) p. 342.

[19] ‘Women’s Liberation Conference, Guthega, New South Wales, 29th-31st January, 1972’, 13 January, 1972, p. 2, A6122 2573, NAA.

[20] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1972, p. 1, A6122 2575, NAA.

[21] Ibid., p. 1.

[22] Ibid., p. 1.

[23] Ibid., p. 2.

[24] Ibid., p. 2.

[25] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[26] Ibid., p. 4.

[27] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206003’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206005’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[30] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Interest in Mass Issues’, 30 June, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[31] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Tactics at Demonstrations’, 23 July, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[32] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ)’, 20 June, 1977, p. 3, A6122 2575, NAA.

ASIO memo on Germaine Greer from 1971

I am currently putting together a work-in-progress paper on ASIO’s monitoring of the women’s liberation movement in Australia for an upcoming symposium hosted by the ANU Gender Institute, ‘How the Personal Became Political: Reassessing Australia’s Revolutions in Gender and Sexuality in the 1970s’. As part of the several ASIO on the WLM that have been digitised, I found this memo on prominent feminist Germaine Greer, written up in response to an article by Richard Neville (of Oz magazine fame) and possible inquiry from the UK security services.

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Alongside this memo, there is a facsimile of Greer’s passport renewal application from the UK, when she was at the University of Warwick. The memo also notes her notoriety in the UK at the time and inquires to her ‘security history’ in Australia. Looking at the records of the National Archives of Australia, no ASIO files regarding Greer as individual have been disclosed at this stage – but files on other prominent feminist activists in Australia during this period suggest that they do exist (someone needs to put in an FOI request for them to be made public).

Like other social movements in Australia, the women’s liberation movement first came to the attention of ASIO because of the involvement of several Communist Party of Australia women in the movement, as well as the fear of the feminist movement spreading from the United States. Greer’s publications feature heavily in the first file, alongside the writings of several others, such as Kate Millet, but the intelligence reports seem to focus on those involved in the Communist Party or the various Trotskyist groups that were around at the time.

After the symposium, I will post a version of my paper. Stay tuned!

New article in Journal of Australian Studies: Policing Protest in the Australian Capital Territory

Canberra Times on the first use of the Public Order Act

Just a quick post to let you all know that the latest issue of Journal of Australian Studies features my long awaited article on policing protest in the ACT in the early 1970s. The full title of the paper is ‘Policing Protest in the Australian Capital Territory: The Introduction and Use of the Public Order Act 1971’. The abstract is below:

This article examines the reaction by the Australian Federal Government to the protest movements of the 1960s–1970s and their attempts to use public order legislation to thwart radical discontent in Australia. It argues that the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 was aimed at the threat of “violent” protests, particularly the tactic of the “sit-in”, and that to this end, the legislation was an overreaction to the actual threat posed by the protest movements at the time. It also shows that after a long gestation period, the Act was ill-equipped to deal with the changing nature of demonstrations in the 1970s, such as the problems caused by the erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Thus, after an initial flurry of use in mid-1971, the law has been seldom used since.

You can find the article here. If you use academia.edu, you can access the article here.

CFP FOR EDITED VOLUME ON HISTORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN FAR LEFT

CPA pamphlet

Evan Smith (Flinders University), Matthew Worley (University of Reading) and Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) are calling for chapter proposals for an edited volume on the Australian far left in the post-war era (1945 to the present). Expanding on our work looking at the history of the British far left, we believe that a survey of the exciting new work being done of the far left in Australia and its influence on wider Australian political history is due.

We are currently seeking chapter proposals on the following topics:

  • The CPA and Cold War espionage
  • 1956 for the Australian left
  • The peace/nuclear disarmament movement
  • The student left and the anti-Vietnam War movement
  • Radical Marxism since the 1960s (Trotskyism, Maoism, anti-revisionism)
  • Anarchism in Australia
  • ASIO and the new left
  • The left and Indigenous rights
  • The left and the women’s movement
  • The left and gay rights
  • The anti-apartheid movement in Australia
  • Nationalism and internationalism on the far left
  • Trade unionism, the ALP and the left
  • The Green Bans
  • Environmentalism and the Greens as a ‘left’ party
  • Or any other aspect of the Australian far left if suitably interesting.

We welcome proposals from both scholars and activists, but emphasise that chapters must be presented in an academic format, written ‘objectively’ and with references to primary source materials.

An internationally recognised publisher has already shown interest in publishing the collection.

300 word abstracts and a short bio should be sent to: evan.smith@flinders.edu.au (Please CC in m.worley@reading.ac.uk and Jon.Piccini@uqconnect.edu.au into all emails)

Please email any editor with any further questions.

DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS – 4 APRIL, 2016

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Forming the National Front of Australia: ASIO and the fledgling far right group

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On Saturday June 2, 1978, a group of nine people gathered in a room of the Southern Cross Hotel in the Melbourne CBD to launch the National Front of Australia (NFA). According to the ASIO informant, nine people attended the meeting, including several well-known far right activists, a 16 year old schoolboy and an undercover reporter for the newspaper The Age. Seven out of the nine listed were already known to the authorities in some regard. The meeting was led by a 23 year old law student and army reservist, Rosemary Sisson, who had travelled to the UK in 1977 to seek permission from the National Front’s John Tyndall to establish an NF in Australia. According to ASIO, Tyndall had appointed Sisson to be Chairwoman of the NFA until a directing body was created. In a report on Sisson by the Victorian Police’s Special Branch, Sisson was described in these terms:

She appears to be intensely sincere in her beliefs but politically naïve and immature. I do not believe that she has the ability to form a political party on her own volition and would most likely be used by other persons taking advantage of her enthusiasm, while maintaining their anonymity.

The meeting, which lasted between two and four hours, commenced with the playing of God Save the Queen and passed several motions relating to the outlook of the NFA, the composition of the National Directorate, membership fees and a statement of ambition regarding the contesting of elections in the near future. The ‘highlight’ of the meeting was listening to a tape recording of Tyndall. The ASIO informant described Tyndall’s speech as such:

Tyndal’s [sic] speech included greetings to the newly formed NFA and congratulations and it is encouraging to him that the National Front had extended to Australia… He pointed out that the National Front had been established for almost 12 year and during this time there had been clashes with the authorities, Police Special Branch and most left-wing groups. In spite of all this, they had conducted massive demonstrations and never instigated violence but violence was forced upon them… The speech continued with the usual self praises and self congratulations for the National Front.

Tyndall also mentioned in his speech that National Fronts had been established in several other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia. After Tyndall’s speech, a letter of congratulations from the leader of the New Zealand National Front, David Crawford, was read out. Sisson saw the connection to the British NF as very important and most of the policies outlined at the meeting centred around maintaining Australia’s links with Britain, the Commonwealth and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ race. These included the establishment of the Commonwealth National Front (CNF) as a (theoretical) co-ordinating body of the various NFs across the globe and the call for the reconfigurement of the British Commonwealth as ‘an exclusive closely-knit association of White states’, where there was either a large white population or ruling white elite. This led to the calling for the re-entry of Rhodesia and South Africa into the Commonwealth and support for white rule in both countries. As evidenced by the singing of the old national anthem, loyalty to the British Crown was paramount to the NFA.

The Age journalist that attended the meeting was David Wilson who wrote about the establishment of the NFA in the newspaper the following week. Wilson described the secret meeting of nine people as:

the culmination of 12 months’ work: trips by England by two of the nine, talks with the head of the English movement, Mr John Tyndall, letters to the chairman of the New Zealand division, Mr David Crawford, and weeks of long hours carefully selecting the initial members of the Australian movement, printing, letter writing and telephone calls.

According to ASIO intelligence reports, a Birmingham based NF organiser, Jeremy May (who had previously lived in Australia), had travelled in early 1978 to assist Sisson in setting up the NFA, while Sisson also communicated with Tyndall in writing. In an intercepted letter between Sisson and Tyndall, written in late November 1977, she concurred that the NFA would supposedly operate differently than the British NF, writing:

We agree with your suggestion that an Australian NF body should aim to function – at least initially – as a pressure group concentrating on basic political technique and party organisation, rather than attempting to achieve mass popular appeal and publicity.

This letter was written in the wake of the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977 when the British NF attempted to march through a borough of south-east London with a large African-Caribbean community. The clashes between anti-fascist protestors and the police, as well as with some NF members, brought the NF to attention of many Australians as the scenes were broadcast on the news. The NF had shifted in their strategy from attempting to gain influence amongst ex-Conservative Party voters and building its membership base to a strategy of ‘owning the streets’ and gaining as much as publicity as possible from these street battles, whilst simultaneously contesting elections and trying to siphon off disaffected Labour voters. It seemed from Sisson’s letter that the NFA were not expecting to mimic the British NF’s approach just yet – with only a handful of interested people, occupying the streets was too tall an order for them.

The 'Battle of Lewisham', August 1977

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’, August 1977

The month before the establishment of the NFA, May wrote an article in Tyndall’s journal (aligned to the NF at the point in time) Spearhead, titled ‘Towards a National Front of Australia’. Like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the NF saw Australia as ‘a vast and fascinating country with tremendous social and economic potential’ and while the country was ‘almost completely self-sufficient in economic resources’, it was perceived that Australia was at the mercy of foreign investment and international liberalism. May pointed to the ending of the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a particular symbol of Australia’s despair, lamenting the ‘invading hordes’ from southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, May focused on Australia’s ‘complete absence of protection for almost the entire length of the country’s vast coastline’ as another example of the country’s weakness, with the naval defences, described as a ‘bathtub floatilla’, unable to prevent ‘Chinese drug racketeers, Pacific Islanders and, most recently, Vietnamese refugees’ from reaching its shores. Despite this, Australia was still seen as a bastion of the old white Commonwealth at a time when South Africa and Rhodesia seemed on the verge of collapse. May warned Spearhead’s readers:

Let us be clear on one point. Should South Africa ever fall to the forces which threaten to engulf Western civilisation, we can be sure that Australia will be next on the list. Liberalism is a luxury which Australia simply cannot afford, if only for geographical reasons. No protection money will ever be sufficient to dissuade the teeming Asiatic billions from erupting into the island continent once they get their chance.

May declared that the only way to ‘safeguard the nation from this fate’ was the creation of the NFA, which he described as ‘an urgent and imperative necessity’. ‘Native Australians’, by which May meant white Australians with an Anglo background, ‘are a proud, strong-minded and independent people’, who also maintained their links to British. And it was up to the NFA to ‘ensure that this distinctive national identity… is encouraged, enforced and politically activated.’

With this mission in mind, the establishment of the NFA was preceded attempts to gauge public opinion through the secret distribution of literature across Melbourne. As David Wilson wrote in The Age, ‘The only indication of the secret spread of the movement was through the carefully circulated newsletter, The Australian Nationalist.’

The Australian Nationalist had started appearing from January 1978 and was a mimeographed publication written by Sisson. The first issue called for a united Australian nationalist party and bemoaned that the nationalist movement at that time was ‘almost hopelessly and irretrievably fragmented into mutually suspicious, competitive, and absurdly idiosyncratic, exclusive little groups.’ But Sisson declared:

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT WE REGROUP AND UNITE! Only though unity and the strength this gives us can we begin to tap and realise the incalculable political potential of national patriotism within this country.

Sisson pointed the British NF as the example ‘forever before our eyes’ of the unification of several different far right groups (in 1967, the NF had formed from the remnants of the League of Empire Loyalists, the British National Party, the National Democratic Party, the Greater Britain Movement and the Racial Preservation Society). The Australian Nationalist expressed a pro-British Commonwealth nationalism and its influences were very much drawn from the British fascist movement, rather than the American far right. Similar to May’s article, Australia was portrayed as the bastion of the white British civilisation on the periphery of Asia and Sisson argued that this meant that a strong nationalist movement was needed to maintain this position. The fear of invasion by Asians was long-standing in Australia and Sisson evoked this in a January 1978 article:

The geographical situation of Australia, with its close proximity to some of the most populous of Asiatic nations, impels us to be very much on our guard against nationally destructive propaganda…

In the editorial to the April 1978 edition of the newsletter, Sisson further championed Australia’s links to Britain and the importance of their ‘proper ethnic pride’. She argued:

Australia owes almost everything it has to Great Britain. The conquering and pioneering spirit of our forefathers was British. This can never be denied. If anything, we should seek closer links not only with white Europe, but to a greater extent with our mother country. Even though we are no longer a cluster of colonies, but are fully self-governing and independent, there is no reason why we should forsake our history and clamour for a republic.

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The first leaflet produced by the NFA

In June 1978, The Australian Nationalist became Frontline: Magazine of the National Fronts of Australia and New Zealand, with the debut issue dedicated to the formation of the NFA. Unlike the descriptions by ASIO and by David Wilson in The Age, the June meeting of the nine people to form the NFA was described in Frontline in grandiose terms. Quoting the opening address by Sisson, meeting supposed ‘mark[ed] an important event in the political history of Australia’ by forming a new political party that ‘represents the future of the Australian people’ and ‘revive national pride’. The magazine also carried the text of Tyndall’s speech heard at the meeting, in which Tyndall described Australia as a terra nullius transformed by British settlers into a bulwark of white civilisation on the edges of the British Empire:

Australia was not so very long ago a wilderness inhabited by a few savages, and it took some very hardy determined, self-reliant and tough pioneers to carve a great country and a great civilization out of that wilderness…

Tyndall enthused about the formation of the Commonwealth National Front, remarking that the ‘realisation of the National Front spanning the whole British Commonwealth has always been a dream to me’ and with the establishment of the NFA, ‘the sight of this dream being fulfilled is enormous encouragement to me’. Tyndall asserted that the NFA was not subordinate to the British NF and there was to be ‘equal partnerships’ between the NF in the UK and those in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In an article in Frontline, the CNF was to co-ordinate activities amongst the various NFs across the Commonwealth, but allowed discretion to each NF to function as it desired. The article explained:

Subject to their adherence to a common set of basic principles and objectives, National Front organisations in various countries are free to determine their own rules of association, to make their own executive decisions and to determine themselves all policies relating to their own countries’ domestic political affairs.

The above will include the right to determine whether the National Front in a particular country will function as a fully fledged political party, seeking power in its own right by the ballot box, or whether it will function merely as a pressure group or society for the furtherance of National Front ideals.

The magazine also carried the letter of congratulations from the NFNZ’s leader David Crawford, which described the NF as ‘the vanguard of the most impelling force ever to strike your country in the last 100 years’. Crawford mentioned that National Fronts now existed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. The journal Patterns of Prejudice noted the announcement of the Commonwealth National Front in mid-1978, but stated that the only NF that had been set up by that time was in New Zealand – although by March, 1979, ASIO believed that the NFNZ was ‘almost finished’. Patterns of Prejudice that NFs in Canada and South Africa were still in development.

The 16 year old schoolboy that attended the inaugural meeting of the NFA was David Greason. In his autobiography, I was a Teenage Fascist, Greason described the meeting as a ramshackle and ill-organised affair, with him moving a motion for the formation of the NFA, even though he had not seen the motion previously. Greason described that in the days following the meeting and the publicity given to the NFA in the mainstream media, several different far right identities, usually linked to the now defunct national Socialist Party of Australia claimed to part of the NFA’s leadership. This is borne out in the ASIO files, which catalogue that various people in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales all claimed to represent the National Front in Australia. According to Greason and ASIO, the NFA seemed to be limited to Victoria and Queensland, where the Queensland Immigration Control Association (run by John C.A. Dique) had significant influence. The rival to the NFA in Sydney was the National Alliance, which eschewed the pro-Britishness of the National Front and leaned more towards the white supremacism coming out of the United States, influenced by the infamous newspaper National Vanguard. According to Greason, National Alliance tried to foster a uniquely Australian nationalism, appropriating the symbolism of the Eureka Flag and promoted the idea of an Australian republic. The leading figure of the National Alliance was Jim Saleam, who had been a member of the NSPA and went onto form groups such as National Action and the Australia First Party.

By mid-1979, Patterns of Prejudice was reporting that the NFA had between 100 and 300 members, but had been subject to in-fighting, particularly as Sisson made trips to the UK to meet with Alan Birtley, a NF member jailed for weapons and explosives offences. The ASIO file carries significant correspondence between Sisson and a NF member named Margaret Swan, whom Sisson discusses her links to Birtley extensively.

In the UK general election in May 1979, the British NF contested more than 300 seats and were wiped out at the polls, receiving barely more than 1 per cent of the vote on average. Similar electoral contests by the NFA in 1979 and 1980 led to the same results. Greason outlines that by 1980, there had been several defections from the NFA to the National Alliance, but the National Alliance was unable to make any more headway than their rivals. The media also focused less on the National Alliance, which did not have the same name recognition of the ‘National Front’, which was infamous across the English-speaking world.

The Commonwealth National Front did not last long into the 1980s. The NFA emerged to a completely hostile media and fared very poorly in its electoral pursuits, but was also not popular enough to take up the strategy of ‘occupying the streets’. Besides the production of Frontline, Sisson’s organisation dwindled and eventually over taken by rival groups, namely National Action. Patterns of Prejudice also reported in 1978 that the National Front of South Africa was in talks of merging with another small racist group and that the Chairman, Jack Noble, had resigned. The NFSA’s other major figure, Ray Hill, also left South Africa in 1980, before returning to the UK to join the British Movement as an undercover anti-fascist mole for Searchlight magazine. The British NF, which was seen as the beacon of the CNF, also collapsed after the 1979 election into warring factions. Tyndall formed the New National Front in 1980 and in 1982, transformed this into the British National Party. The remnants of the NF in the 1980s became known as the Official National Front and the NF Flag Group, which competed with the BM and the BNP for support amongst football hooligans and skinheads in the Thatcher years.

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

In his PhD thesis (acquired through the University of Sydney), Jim Saleam suggests that it was the authorities, particularly ASIO, that stifled the development of the NFA, writing ‘two facts were demonstrated: some Extreme-Rightists had strategies, and the para-State intended they not blossom.’ However while ASIO had infiltrated the NFA from its very inception and monitored it closely, the hostility it faced from the Australian public and its inability to gain any sort of traction politically was more to do with the NFA’s ideology and its membership.

As John Blaxland has acknowledged in his volume on the official history of ASIO, the security services had monitored the far right in Australia since the inception of the NSPA in the early 1960s and continued to monitor the far right throughout the 1970s, even though the various far right groups did not seem to present a danger to the parliamentary system and the ‘poor quality’ of its small membership. Troy Whitford has shown that when National Action was formed in 1982, both ASIO and the NSW Special Branch took measures to monitor and infiltrate the organisation, especially in the late 1980s when NA became increasingly involved in racist and political violence (as noted in the 1991 national inquiry into racist violence in Australia).

These three large files of ASIO’s surveillance of the National Front of Australia make for very interesting reading and show how the NFA attempted to seize the initiative presented by the British NF, creating an antipodean version of the UK organisation. The NFA had a particular pro-British outlook and saw a white-dominated British Commonwealth as its goal, but like many white supremacists and far right activists in the 1970s and 1980s saw South Africa and Rhodesia as symbols of white ‘civilisation’ being attacked by non-white and communist forces. Solidarity with these former settler colonies was paramount to the NFA’s worldview. The files show that the internal structures of the NFA (with the disputes over the leadership and direction of the party), as well as the media’s spotlight on the fledgling group and its inability to gain a widespread following, all led to the demise of the NFA by the early 1980s. However, as National Action, the Australia First Party and nowadays, the United Patriots Front demonstrate, the far right in Australia may change and shift, but not necessarily go away.

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?

Policing Communism Across the British Empire: A Transnational Study

This is a revised (yet shortened) version of the conference paper I gave last week at the XXIV Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History. I am currently knocking it into shape for submission as a journal article, so any feedback, comments or questions is most welcome. If you’re interested in reading the longer version, do send me an email.

A flyer from the campaign against the dissolution of the Australian Communist Party in 1951.

A flyer from the campaign against the dissolution of the Australian Communist Party in 1951.

The period after the Second World War looked to present the international communist and anti-colonial movements with an ‘interlude of hope’ as the forces of socialism and national liberation seemed to gather pace.[i] Based on the Lenin’s theory of imperialism, communists saw the collapse of the European colonial systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas as the catalyst for worldwide socialist revolution. On the other hand, these colonial powers, primarily Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, also viewed colonial independence as a precursor for a communist takeover and prepared heavily to prevent decolonisation and the spread of communism.

The largest empire belonged to the British and there was an orchestrated effort from late 1946 onwards to allow colonial self-government where necessary, but also intense pressure put on the British armed forces and the security services to, in the words of Calder Walton, ‘to prevent former British colonies being absorbed by the Soviet Union as satellite states.’[ii] In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, this led to counter-insurgency measures being taken in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus (as well as support for the Royalists in the Greek Civil War), as well as ‘anti-communist’ interventions by the security services in other parts of the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia.

While the threat of a communist takeover was more acute within the Commonwealth’s developing nations, the Dominions of Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia were seen as vital allies in the battle against communism inside the Commonwealth and bulwarks of ‘democracy’ on the periphery of the former empire, charged with maintaining order within the ever increasing post-imperial Commonwealth. Although its struggles were not as bloody as those of French, Dutch and Portuguese decolonisation, Britain did not willingly give up its rule in every former colony were part of a wider strategy developed by successive British governments that was ‘carefully calculated to allow decolonization to occur on British terms rather than those of the indigenous people’.[iii] As Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon states:

The British government developed a concerted imperial strategy designed to secure the colonies for the Commonwealth in an orderly transfer of power while maintaining British influence in the region and strengthening overall Western dominance in the Cold War world.[iv]

In a bid to counter these national liberation movements and their links to communists, the British authorities, alongside the United States, the Australian and South African governments (as well as those of Canada and New Zealand), looked to co-ordinate an anti-communist response across the British Empire. While the British authorities were able to ban many communist or workers’ parties in the British colonies, in the Dominions, where there was self-government, the British tried to build an anti-communist consensus. This was achieved through several measures:

  1. By a constant relay of information about ‘communism in the colonies’ via the Foreign Office through the various High Commissions;
  2. by the establishment of security agencies in liaison with the British and the Americans to gather and distribute intelligence on communist activists in each country;
  3. the monitoring of suspected communists inside the trade union movement, the civil/public service and other civil society organisations; and
  4. the introduction of legislation to ban the Communist Party.

Although much of this was driven by the British (as well as by the United States as the new global superpower), in some areas, the authorities in Australia and South Africa went beyond what the British government was inclined to do domestically, resulting in a process where often the periphery that drove the anti-communist policies and strategies of the metropole. Alongside this, there was also the horizontal transmission of anti-communist politics and policy transfer particularly between Australia and South Africa – two countries where anti-communism became intertwined with white supremacy and shared a common outlook as the Cold War began.

This paper proposes that anti-communism in the British Commonwealth as pursued by the ‘white’ Dominions fuelled by two overlapping sets of transnational ties. Firstly, there was a keen sense of imperial responsibility felt by the Dominions (particularly Australia) to maintain the Empire/Commonwealth and assist in the fight against communism, which threatened both domestic politics and the political situation in the colonies (such as Malaya). Secondly, there was the wider concept of the global West under the umbrella of the hegemonic dominance of the United States and an allegiance to the ‘global colour line’ promoted by the USA’s informal empire.[v] To varying degrees, Britain, South Africa and Australia co-operated with each other to combat the communist threat, but also taking inspiration from other Anglophone nations, such as the US, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia. This formed the basis for the intelligence network, developed during the Cold War, known as the ‘five eyes’ network between Britain, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.[vi]

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The Foreign Office as co-ordinating centre for information

Beginning in the late 1930s, the Dominion Office, and then the Foreign Office, compiled a weekly report from the various High Commissions across the British Empire/Commonwealth, routinely titled ‘Communism in the Colonies’. These typically took in reports from the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, as well as the various countries of the Indian sub-continent, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and on occasions, Ireland. Correspondence was generally directed towards the Foreign Office in London, but copies of most reports were distributed between the High Commissions in Canberra, Pretoria, Ottawa and Wellington.[vii]

The transmission of anti-communist materials went essentially three ways and this differed with the kind of report produced. Firstly, the Commonwealth Relations Office produced weekly reports on ‘Communism in the Commonwealth [or Colonies]’ that were distributed to the High Commissions in Canberra, Ottawa, Pretoria, Wellington, Dublin, Delhi, Karachi and Colombo. These were, for the most part, summaries of the communist movement in each country and the measures being taken against them. Secondly, there were in depth reports produced by the High Commission in each country, which were fairly constant, but not regular, in their production and these were sent to the Foreign Office in London. Lastly, these in depth reports were also distributed horizontally across the various Dominions, fostering links between the various countries.

The co-ordination of intelligence

Up until the late 1940s, the security and intelligence services of the Dominions were overseen by MI5 and MI6 (also known as the Secret Intelligence Service), with local Special Branches being involved in the policing and monitoring of political dissidents and extremists. Special Branches were established at federal and state/province level within most of the Dominions in the first half of the twentieth century, aided by the British security services. As the Cold War began in the late 1940s, the newly formed CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, taking over from the US Office of Strategic Services) and MI5 formed closer ties and it was felt that a more rigorous security service needed to be established in such places as Australia, Canada and New Zealand after a series of security lapses. Originally perceived as overseas sections of MI5,[viii] each country established a domestic security service modeled on the British agency.

Alongside the establishment of security services in the Dominions and the frequent reports on Communism in the Commonwealth via the Foreign Office, the Attlee government attempted to foster closer ties between the security services and the executive branches of the government with the creation of the Information Research Department (IRD) in 1948. The IRD was an inter-governmental body established to produce ‘covert anti-communist propaganda’ and although originally constituted to counter the Soviet-inspired World Peace Council, it was transformed under the Conservative government, led by Winston Churchill, in 1951 into a strategic counter-subversion body to deal with domestic and transnational communist threats.[ix] Like ASIO under Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, the IRD’s scope for counter-subversion went beyond known Soviet operatives and CPGB members and also targeted ‘fellow travellers’ attached the trade union movement and the British Labour Party.[x] Despite this work on counter-subversion, others in the security services were not convinced of the political threat posed by communism in Britain, and instead focused on the role that communists played within the trade unions.[xi]

Purging the trade unions

After a general freeze on industrial action during the Second World War by many of the Communist Parties in the Western world, strike action involving communists rose sharply in the late 1940s as the Cold War escalated and the international communist movement shifted to the left. These episodes of industrial action in all three countries led the authorities, as well as many others, to worry about communist infiltration in the trade unions. This led to increased monitoring of the trade union leadership in all countries and numerous reports by the security services, the police and various British High Commissions being circulated on the subject. For example, a 1947 report (made public in 1952) by the Investigation Officer of the South African Police declared:

it might be mentioned straight away that they have only one policy, viz. control of all trade unions in this and other countries which must ultimately be used to establish anarchy at a given moment in order to facilitate world domination. Local and present-day strikes are primarily engineered by them in order to practise and perfect the necessary machinery for their ultimate object. In order to accomplish this, demands are invariably made on the employers for increased wages to an extent which can never be met in order that no alternative but a strike may be the issue.[xii]

With their links to the trade union movement, the ruling Labor/Labour governments in Australia and Britain both renewed their rules enforcing the proscription of members of the Communist Party from joining and encouraged those trade unions that also banned Communist Party members. Phillip Deery and Neil Redfern suggest that this revived anti-communism was influenced by Harold Laski’s pamphlet The Secret Battalion: An Examination of the Communist Attitude to the Labour Party, which was distributed widely amongst Australian Labor Party branches and to the anti-communist Industrial Groups formed inside the Australian labour movement.[xiii]

Similar to the Chifley government, Deery and Redfern argue that ‘proscribing the CPGB or banning its publications was not seriously considered’ by the Attlee government. But in all three countries, calls were made on the right wing side of politics for the banning of the Communist Party.

National Party PM of South Africa, who oversaw implementation apartheid, D.F. Malan.

National Party PM of South Africa, who oversaw implementation apartheid, D.F. Malan.

Banning the Communist Party

Of all the anti-communist measures introduced across the three countries (and the wider Anglophone world), the most transnational of these was the banning of the Communist Party (or attempts to ban it), where the governments of South Africa and Australia took inspiration and lessons from each other and other attempts to ban the Party in Canada and the United States. In a 2004 speech, Justice Michael Kirby stated:

In the United States,… the Supreme Court had held up as valid the Smith Act which was in some ways similar to the Australian anti-communist legislation. It, in turn, had borrowed elements from a South African law which subsequently became the model for “suppression of terrorism” laws in a number of British colonies.[xiv]

Shortly before his electoral victory in 1948, Opposition leader D.F. Malan cited the efforts made by Canada and Australia during the Second World War to deal with the ‘threat’ of communism, praising that ‘Canada decided to banish the Communist Party in that country and to take every necessary step to ensure Canada’s safety.’[xv] He further added:

In Australia we have the same phenomenon at the present time. I think it was announced last Saturday that two of the principal parties in Australia had announced that they wanted steps to be taken against Communism in so far as it exercised an influence from outside on Australia but also from within and that they also wanted steps to be taken to ban the Communist Party and its allied organisations. South Africa’s Government is powerless and is doing nothing in the matter…[xvi]

The Malan government and the Menzies opposition (and after December 1949, the Menzies government) did share some thoughts on how to deal with the communist ‘threat’, with the Communist Party Dissolution Bill (Cth) and the Suppression of Communism Bill both being entered into Australian and South African Parliaments respectively within months of each other in 1950. Records from the National Archives of Australia show correspondence between the High Commissions in Cape Town and Canberra in March 1950 that drafts of each country’s anti-communist legislation were confidentially shared prior to the introduction of Menzies’ bill in April 1950. A cablegram from the Australian High Commissioner in Cape Town to the Australian Minister for External Affairs states:

The Union Government has made available for your strictly confidential information, a copy of the draft bill to combat Communism, which I am sending by today’s airbag. It has yet to receive the final approval of Cabinet.

The Union Government state they would seek particulars of any Australian Government measures directed to the same object.[xvii]

In the end, the ban on the CPSA was the only one to survive (and did so until 1990), with the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 being ruled unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia and a subsequent referendum to change the Australian Constitution to allow such an Act narrowly failed in 1951. In the parliamentary debates on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in Australia, veteran Labor MP Jack Holloway raised the fact that Australia was, in May 1950, leading the way in its pursuit of anti-communist legislation, stating:

No other country within the British Commonwealth of Nations would dream of passing legislation of this kind. Great Britain and Canada have refused to do so whilst South Africa is watering down its original proposals to deal with the Communist Party.[xviii]

Legislation was not introduced in Southern Rhodesia as the small communist circle inside the country worked clandestinely within the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party and as an extension of the CPSA (and after 1952, the South African Communist Party). Despite calls for the banning of the LPP, Canadian PM Louis St. Laurent rejected these proposals by the Opposition in May 1950 and the Party was allowed to continue legally until it was reconstituted as the new CPC in 1959. As The Guardian commented on during the debates over the Suppression of Communism Bill in South Africa:

Canada has learnt her lesson. Must we learn it too, in this country, only from bitter experience?[xix]

Conclusion

This paper shows that the co-ordination of anti-communism in the British Commonwealth went beyond the sharing of intelligence between the members what would become the ‘five eyes’ network in the Cold War (and post-Cold War) era. Through government agencies, the institutions of the Labor/Labour Parties and the executive branches in all three countries, Britain, Australia and South Africa drew upon each other’s policies and legal frameworks to develop a shared anti-communist response, although adapted to local political and social conditions. Between 1947 and 1951, this co-ordinated response was strongest, before divisions in the international communist movement and in the Anglophone world emerged in the late 1950s. Using the metaphor that Zhdanov promoted at the outset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, by the late 1950s, there no longer just two camps – the democratic/anti-fascist/anti-imperialist and the anti-democratic/fascist/imperialist camps – but a myriad of camps amongst the global West, the global East and the non-aligned, which complicated the Cold War. With these divisions, the anti-communist and imperial unity projected by Britain, Australia and South Africa (alongside the United States and other Anglophone nations) in the early Cold War period became more fractured and these countries were less likely to act in step with each other as they once did.

18-culture

[i] Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.

[ii] Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire (London: Harper Press, 2013) p xxvi.

[iii] Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) p. 2.

[iv] Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame, p. 3.

[v] John Munro, ‘Imperial Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement in the Early Cold War’, History Workshop Journal (2015) doi:10.1093/hwj/dbu040 (accessed 21 July, 2015); Richard Seymour, ‘The Cold War, American Anticommunism and the Global “Colour Line”’, in Alexander Anievas, Nivi Manchanda & Robbie Shilliam (eds), Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line (London: Routledge, 2015) pp. 157-159.

For further discussion of the ‘global colour line’, see: Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008).

Both Lake and Reynolds, and Seymour have taken this notion from W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm (accessed 20 July, 2015).

[vi] See: Stephen Lander, ‘International Intelligence Co-operation: An Inside Perspective’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 17/3, (2004) pp. 481-493.

[vii] See: Letter from Lord Harlech to Viscount Cranborne, 3 December, 1943, DO 35/1199, NA; Letter from Lord Harlech to Clement Attlee, 16 April, 1943, DO 35/1199, NA.

[viii] Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London: Allen Lane, 2009) p. 371.

[ix] Thomas J. Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain: The Official Committee on Communism (Home), the Information Research Department, and ‘State-Private Networks’, Intelligence and National Security, 2014, DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2014.895570, pp. 2-4.

[x] Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain’, p. 12.

[xi] Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, p. 406.

[xii] Cited in, South African House of Assembly Debates, 13 June, 1952, col. 7949.

[xiii] Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) p. 66.

[xiv] Justice Michael Kirby, ‘Comparative Constitutionalism – An Australian Perspective’, paper presented at the University of Chicago, 23-25 January, 2004, http://ccc.uchicago.edu/docs/kirby.pdf , accessed 13 April, 2014.

[xv] South African House of Assembly Debates, 15 March, 1948, col. 3198.

[xvi] South African House of Assembly Debates, 15 March, 1948, col;.3199.

[xvii] Cablegram from Australian High Commissioner (Cape Town) to Minister for External Affairs, 3-4 March, 1950, A1838 TS201/2/26, NAA.

[xviii] Australian House of Representatives debates, 16 May, 1950, col.

[xix] The Guardian, 11 May, 1950.