Jun 11, 2014

Speech to book launch of Dirty Secrets – Our ASIO Files

Meredith Burgmann, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I’m pleased to be here today to launch Dirty Secrets-Our ASIO Files.

When I read this book, it provoked a full range of emotions.

Occasional anger. But more often amusement.

The odd burst of laughter or LOL in today’s parlance.

I also felt a sense of nostalgia for a time when I viewed the world in more simple terms.

But the biggest take-out for me – and this might surprise some of you – is hope.

This book makes me feel truly optimistic.

I should explain.

The book details the lives and experiences of many Australians – prominent and not so prominent – united by the fact that ASIO created a file about their activities.

While their activities were deemed worthy of expensive and time-consuming surveillance by the authorities, we now have the benefit of hindsight.

So we should ask ourselves exactly what it was that they were fighting for.

  • Opposition to the Vietnam War
  • Rejection of apartheid.
  • Land rights.
  • Women’s liberation.
  • Gay rights.
  • Trade union activism.

If you consider what became of all of these causes, you will understand why this book gives me such a sense of optimism.

It’s because, by and large, the causes championed by these activists have been realised.

So while the fight for justice will never end, this book is testimony to the reformist credentials of the progressive left.

It should remind us about the victories of the past but also stiffen our resolve to keep fighting for justice in the future.

Think of it this way.

If the events in this book were taking place today, I imagine some of the people under ASIO surveillance would be campaigning for action on climate change.

They’d be under surveillance out on the streets as they questioned why their national leader believes that the science behind climate change is, in his words, absolute crap.

But, just as the activists in this book were right about peace and equality, today’s activists are on the right side of history when it comes to climate change.

I know some of the 26 Australians who feature in this book personally, so I know their activism came from the best of motives.

These people were not planning to overthrow the State in violent revolution or to diminish the rights or quality of life of any individual or group.

They were motivated by improving the quality of life of their fellow citizens whether as individuals or society as a whole.

Reading their stories invigorates my reformist spirit.

It also reminds me that one of the problems with the progressive left is that we consistently fail to celebrate our victories.

Often that is because, having won one battle, we hasten to move on to the next.

People who simply defend existing power relationships in society don’t have that problem.

They celebrate the past almost by definition.

To inspire the next generation of activists, we should understand the past, celebrate the gains which have been made, and both anticipate and create the future.

This book documents the gains that have been made by the political struggles which drew such paranoid responses from ASIO.

It is an affirmation that, in spite of the best efforts of those who seek to hold back progress, or worse still, wind back gains that have been made, history moves forward.

Last year the funeral of Nelson Mandela saw him recognised as one of, if not the most, inspirational figure of the 20th Century.

There is a broad acknowledgment that the Vietnam War was a mistake.

A woman’s right to choose is a given for most Australians and we have had a female Prime Minister, Governor General and female leaders of every State and Territory Government except for South Australia.

Lex Watson, who sadly passed away last fortnight, did so knowing that the political debate about sexuality had moved from one of decriminalization, to one where a majority of Australians support marriage equality.

With the benefit of hindsight, the investigations of the Australians in this book look a bit silly – and in some cases just ridiculous.

David Stratton being under suspicion for lining up Soviet bloc movies for the Sydney Film Festival comes to mind.

Even more surreal, is the ASIO file which read in 1950 ‘Mrs Reed very militant, active…son Jonathon (4 and a half years old) an active school propagandist…organises groups away from teachers’ grasp.’.

That’s why it’s an important book – it’s not merely a biography of prominent Australians, it’s a chronicle of how issues have advanced over a relatively short period of history.

This book reminds us that social change doesn’t just happen.

Brave activists who believe in the advancement of humanity make it happen.

And sometimes they pay a price.

This book tells their story.

About invasion of civil liberties.

About political misuse of security services.

About wasted resources and incredible amateurism at times verging upon making our ASIO officers seem completely out of touch. For some it was a very personal price.

My friend Penny Lockwood, expecting a proposal from her partner of almost a year, only to hear what must have been a devastating confession; “I can’t do it anymore. I don’t love you. I’m working for ASIO”.

It’s also a snapshot in time that tells us much about the politics of the middle decades of the 20th Century.

As it traverses that era, it reveals the youthful spirit of many great Australians who, despite having attracted ASIO’s attention, have in many cases, become known to their countrymen as modern pillars of society.

Even a High Court judge.

As someone who has served on the national security committee of the Cabinet, it is clear to me that national security issues should be taken seriously.

There is no doubt that ASIO and other agencies have undertaken critical work such as stopping the terrorist plot aimed at a major sporting event here in Melbourne.

Taking it seriously also means acknowledging that every hour spent on observing someone who is engaging in legitimate and peaceful political activity is a distraction from the task of national security.

That’s why security agencies must not be above scrutiny and accountability.

I know many of the people whose activities are revealed in Dirty Secrets as honest, community-minded Australians with nothing but love for their country.

They were mainly earnest people going about their legal business of expressing their right to comment, dissent and association.

For example, I noticed a photograph of Meredith in the book taken on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall at a protest in June, 1971.

Standing nearby was my political mentor Tom Uren.

Tom was a prisoner of war and a former Minister of the Crown, who has earned a reputation for decency and a never-ending craving for justice.

Indeed, he remains the most inspirational 93-year-old activist I know.

Tom is a great Australian. He wasn’t a subversive.

Still, people moving in Tom’s orbit came under ASIO scrutiny.

  • Because they were socialists.
  • Because they were pacifists.
  • Because they could not stand silent in the face of institutionalised racism.
  • Because they were black.
  • Because they were gay.

I can’t imagine that many, if any, of these people, were motivated by anything other than a desire to make their country a better place.

Michael Kirby has always put his country first.

This was the case whether he was a boy carrying a gluepot to help a relative paste up Communist posters in inner Sydney, or whether he was a High Court Judge or indeed a UN appointee clinically dissecting the authoritarian outrage of North Korea.

I’m confident that author Frank Hardy and columnist Phillip Adams, as members of the Communist Party of Australia, felt they were embracing a way forward for society, not violence or hatred.

David Stratton, photographed by ASIO visiting the Soviet Embassy as he was lining up films for the Sydney Film Festival, was certainly not hell bent on violent revolution.

In fact, according to this book, David was, even as he was being observed by ASIO officers who took his red necktie as evidence of subversion, a Liberal voter.

I must say I am happy to see that David says he has since seen the light.

Indigenous activist Gary Foley no doubt cared about his country, even as ASIO officers traced his visit from Sydney to Gympie for a meeting with a woman who, unbeknown to him, was a Communist Party member.

Gary’s only interest in this woman, as he outlines in the book was “romantic’’.

Meredith Burgmann was sincere and correct in her opposition to the Vietnam War and apartheid and her youthful activism was about peace, not hate.

She became a distinguished President of the Legislative Council of NSW and remains a committed political activist who has stuck to her principles.

But at the time, ASIO saw all of these Australians as dangerous.

Their only crime was to hold progressive views.

It seems that, at that paranoid time in Australian history, authorities confused progressive politics with violent revolution.

This phenomenon is highlighted in Dirty Secrets in the section about Tasmanian horticulturalist and television presenter Peter Cundall, who had a brief involvement with the Launceston Branch of the Communist Party in the 1960s.

One passage in particular caught my eye. I quote:

I’m anti-war like every other soldier that’s been to war but that of course horrified them. I even briefly joined the Communist Party in an effort to get the things that I believed in – racial equality, education for everyone, an end to poverty, an end to war – all these things. But of course I left when I found out it was getting nowhere.

What I found so interesting about that was that Peter, despite being tagged by ASIO as dangerous, did not dabble with the Communist Party because he wanted a revolution.

In his own words, this revolutionary gardener just wanted peace and equality.

And having served in the Korean War, you would have thought he would know something about peace.

How could it be that Peter’s motives and those of others in this book could have been so ridiculously misunderstood?

There are a couple of reasons.

Younger people in the audience today will not have memories of the Cold War, when the paranoia and suspicion driven by the existence of two political philosophies on a collision course gave people an excuse to see dark motives where none existed.

The authorities were so spooked by the external threat that they had no tolerance of internal dissent, even if it was non-violent.

While that might have been described by some as prudent, there was another factor at play.

Conservative politicians of the day encouraged this paranoia regarding progressive politics to secure domestic political benefit.

Robert Menzies, still feted as a small l liberal was in fact so illiberal that he attempted to ban the Communist Party, a move thankfully overthrown by the High Court, as Michael Kirby outlines in this book.

But there is another reason for the events in this book that is not related to Cold War politics.

It is the never-ending tension between conservatives and political progressives.

True conservatives simply cannot abide change.

They fear anything that is at odds with the status quo, even to the extent of being unable to recognise when the status quo represents injustice.

It should not be forgotten that many conservatives described Nelson Mandela and his colleagues in the African National Congress as terrorists.

Such people can stare injustice in the eyes and still convince themselves it must be right because it is the status quo.

Some conservatives are so reform shy that they are reactionaries and, if given a chance, will seek to tear down the gains of the past.

This brings me back to Tony Abbott.

We now have a Prime Minister committed to tearing down the gains of the past, rather than adding to them with new policy vision for the future.

His Budget attacks universal health care, equality of access to education, a decent safety net and he opposes action on climate change.

Mr Abbott has defined himself by what he is opposed to, not what he supports.

However, the good news is that history is frequently kinder to progressives that conservatives.

The dreamers among us – those prepared to fight for a better future, are always on the cutting edge of reform.

While progressives are often vilified at the time of their advocacy, they are the creators of the positive narrative of human advancement.

In my time as a political activist, causes such as anti-apartheid, the right to love who we choose, the rights of the first Australians have all advanced.

The apology to the Stolen Generation went from being a radical concept to one of national celebration when Kevin Rudd lifted our hearts with the sincerity of his words.

A year earlier, the conservatives were still arguing that an apology would be divisive rather than a positive step on our national journey.

In the same way, people will one day look back at Tony Abbott’s views on climate change and say “really?”

Which brings me back to where I began.

This book brings an opportunity to look to the recent past and acknowledge the contribution of these 26 Australians who made a positive difference through their activism.

But more importantly it gives us hope for the future that this and future generations of activists will also be successful in advancing the cause of humanity.

This book adds to Meredith Burgmann’s extraordinary contribution to public life and for that she deserves our collective thanks.