Victoria's special branch spooks

Victoria's Special Branch Spooks

by Joan Coxsedge

Last week, Melbourne's Age published lead stories about the activities of Victoria's Special Branch, supposedly disbanded in 1983 by the Cain Labor Government, but which sprang back to life almost immediately as the "Operations Intelligence Unit". Like Special Branch, the new outfit infiltrated and spied on a broad range of individuals and community organisations and kept up its working relationship with ASIO.

The secret records and files leaked to the Age cover the years 1983- 92, giving the impression that the worst excesses only took place during that period and that State Police snoops have now cleaned up their act. Nothing could be further form the truth. The National Times (now defunct) reported in 1978 that Victoria's Special Branch was regarded as the toughest and most ruthless in Australia and had one of the most extensive networks of informers.

An ardent supporter, Jeffrey Kennett, clearly demonstrated its ongoing nature post-1992, when in the mid-1990s he entertained Parliament with details of people protesting against the closure of Richmond Secondary College, details he could have only got from a Special Branch look-alike.

According to the Age, it is now called the Protective Security Intelligence Group, but for how long is anybody's guess. The dates aren't the only aspect that is misleading. So are the listed names. There are omissions that make no sense, such as the absence of Communist Party members and most trade union leaders.

There are names on the list I am convinced were "doing a job" on behalf of the snoops. Being included would certainly give them credibility within the movement. Is this all part of a weird "dirty tricks" campaign? At this stage, more questions than answers.

When the tumult and shouts of outrage have died down, as they inevitably will, one hopes that more intelligent debate and assessment will be allowed to surface. There was a suggestion by some aggrieved citizens that as they were "respectable, peaceful and law-abiding" they shouldn't have been spied on, giving the impression that others were fair game.

They didn't understand that an assault on one person's freedom of speech and movement is an assault on the whole society. Some clamoured for a judicial inquiry (mainly lawyers), and some for controls and guidelines, which might sound reasonable if they were talking about the YWCA or Boy Scouts, but not when dealing with the fallout from a secret agency.

I first became aware of snoops during the Vietnam War when protests and meetings invariably attracted a presence lurking in the background with a notebook, tape-recorder and camera. Some Special Branch officers were bolder and asked after Auntie Flo and whether son Johnnie had passed his exams, letting you know how much they knew about your private life. A ploy to intimidate. Most anti-war activists just got on with it, treating them as an inevitable part of the scene. But a few like me were curious to know who these creepy individuals were and where they came from.

At the end of 1972 the Whitlam Government was elected and it seemed a good time to launch an anti-spooking organisation. In March 1973, a few days before Murphy's Raid on ASIO, CAPP, the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police, came into being.

We knew from the word go that we would have to be a small tightly- disciplined group. If our membership was thrown open to all and sundry and our internal affairs were made public property, we would quickly be infiltrated and destroyed. Our motto was a reversal of the golden rule: "Do unto them what they had been doing to us", the "them" being ASIO.

We did everything possible to open up their lives. We advertised their presence, which they hate, and used humour, which they hate even more. We photographed them and named them, distributing the information far and wide and held demos outside their front door, laying siege on many occasions. We wrote articles, leaflets, pamphlets, submissions, letters and a book Rooted in Secrecy, and gave testimony before Royal Commissions.

This formidable amount of material was not achieved by sitting in an ivory tower studying documents, but was influenced by our participation in the political struggle, especially our running battle with the secret agencies. We believed it was vital for people to understand that secret agencies were not an aberration but were a fundamental part of our system.

We warned that ASIO was only one of a range of secret agencies, which threatened not only our civil liberties but our national sovereignty. Put simply, those entrusted with "maintaining Australia's security" were acting on behalf of the global power elite, with the united States at the helm. This was starkly brought home when Harvey Barnett, former ASIO Director-General, stated that those who opposed the CIA were "traitors to Australia".

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, I successfully moved for a policy of abolition of ASIO and Special Branch at Victorian ALP State Conferences, receiving near-unanimous support, which then became party policy. In 1979 I was elected to the Legislative Council and used my presence in Caucus to push hard to have the policy implemented.

In 1980, I moved for the abolition of Special Branch in State Parliament and got done like a dinner, with members voting on tight party lines. In 1982 the Cain Government was elected and I pushed even harder. Special Branch abolition became a controversial issue and a hot spud.

The then Victoria Police Commissioner, Mick Miller, got in on the row, stating categorically that if Special Branch was disbanded he would immediately resign. In the event, he did not resign, clearly believing it lived on. When I expressed my suspicions inside the Caucus and Parliament, I hit a brick wall.

And then in December 1985 I got hard evidence that instead of being disbanded, Special Branch had been updated and expanded. This information didn't come from "my" lot, the Victorian Government, but from a parliamentary colleague in another State who who had approached his Police Minister.

The letter detailed its functions, one of which was "to maintain and develop previously established links with other security agencies and other government departments on an intra, interstate and overseas basis" and "to foster and maintain a reliable and confidential network of agents/informers within the ethnic and local communities".

It was clear from the letter that every Australian State had a Special Branch or an equivalent body. So there it was, laid out in black and white. Whatever their names, these secret police units continued to do much of the legwork for ASIO -- information passed on to the international intelligence community -- and spooked on anyone questioning society, criticising society, taking part in demonstrations, all normal healthy democratic activities.

Cain and the Police Minister maintained their ridiculous bluff. But in face of the current irrefutable evidence, Cain was forced to respond and looked stupid. He said: "The operations intelligence unit was supposed to liaise with community groups... and was instructed that this did not mean snooping." I marvel that he had the gall to put out such drivel. But I always believed Cain was scared of the police and would have performed hand-springs up and down Spring Street to keep them happy.

Special Branches have been around for a very long time, certainly long before communism became a bogey and before that bogey was replaced by the threat of terrorism. In any case, Australia has a large array of bodies dealing with this nebulous threat.

Snooping was a popular pastime back in biblical times. According to the New Testament, Jesus was under constant surveillance by agents from Jerusalem as he flayed tax-gatherers, money-lenders, merchants and the rich and the powerful. His organisation of 12 disciples was infiltrated by a paid informer. If Christ were to return to earth in this country, I have no doubt there would be a whole tribe of Judases at work.

The CIA, ASIO and all the others would be around with their field cameras as he attacked large developers, economic rationalists, bribe-takers, profiteers and arms-dealers, although one would imagine that today infiltrators would be paid considerably more than the traditional 30 pieces of silver.

Since WW1, state police snoops have popped up under different names, such as "Subversive Section", a particularly apt name since they are truly subversive. At a special conference in 1948, Police Commissioners from all States agreed to establish "Special Branches" to liaise with Military Intelligence units and "D" Branch.

When ASIO began in 1949, the Police Commissioners put the 1948 agreement into effect. Special Branches were set up by administrative acts, without any reference to parliaments. Special Branches (and their ilk) are in daily contact with ASIO by courier or by phone when they exchange information. ASIO even foots the bill for the networks of informers run by the police snoops, naturally sharing the material in their files.

These agencies don't have to show a record of efficient prevention of crimes or offences, because the people they pursue are not offenders. If they were, they would immediately be subject to regular police procedures. The secret agency rationale not only creates the offender, but creates the offence. Secret agencies therefore generate an apparatus within themselves which lays down what they can do. In this way, they are not only above the law, they are the law.

Secret agencies therefore represent an aspect of the repression apparatus of the state which capitalist countries are most anxious to hide. On one level you can laugh at this latest sorry saga, because the idea of snoops infiltrating groups who want to protect ducks and lorikeets, is pathetic. But on another level the events are anything but funny.

We must recognise that the seeds of the Gestapo lurk in every secret political police force, no matter how bumbling and stupid it might appear on the surface. Under the facade of a democratic system, the work of secret police snoopers is to intimidate dissident elements. Under overt repression, such as fascism, they terrorise.

There is no difference in basic purpose, only in degree. Secret political police, no matter what they call themselves, have no place in a society claiming to be a democracy. Demanding their abolition must be our ongoing aim. Today we live on the knife edge of a most brutal form of capitalism steering a course which, unless stopped, will destroy all life on this earth.

Back in 1916, Bukharin forecast its direction: "Thus arises the final type of contemporary imperialist robber state, an iron organisation which envelops the living body of society in its grasping claws. It is a new Leviathan before which the fantasy of Thomas Hobbes seems child's play." Unless others join with those of us who recognise and oppose this dangerous trend, our future will not be determined by what we want to do, but rather, where we will be allowed to go...

JOAN COXSEDGE is a well known left-wing activist, artist, writer and former Member of Victoria's Upper House. During the 1960s and early 70s, she was in and out of jail opposing Australia's embroilment in the Vietnam War and  established the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police . She oppposed the Gulf war and opposes US sanctions against Iraq, Libya and Cuba. Joan is co-author of Rooted in Secrecy on intelligence agencies.