In commenting this week, Meredith Burgmann said that ‘my view is that the stories in my book (Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files. New South Wales Publishing, Sydney 2014) collectively represent ASIO as being improper, incompetent, irrelevant, inappropriate and intrusive.’
The following are extracts from her book.
The most astonishing report I found occurs in early feminist Lucy Woodcock’s ASIO file. In November 1950 it records for posterity, ‘Mrs Reed very militant, active…Son Johnathon (4 ½ years old) an active school propagandist…Organises groups away from teacher’s grasp’.
When a secret police agency is filing reports on four year olds we have serious problems.
Justice Michael Kirby reveals that he first came to ASIO’s notice at the age of twelve when he was taken to the zoo by his communist step grandfather.
Alan Hardy, Frank Hardy’s son, reveals that after the jury in Frank’s ‘Power Without Glory’ criminal defamation trial returned a not guilty verdict, the ASIO Director-General called for reports on all the jurors.
Film critic David Stratton was considered worthy of ASIO attention because he wore a red tie and handkerchief to a Polish National Day function.
Professor Verity Burgmann’s file was pretty standard – a description of endless reasonably boring Trotskyist meetings but her photo file was spectacular. It consisted of ten photos – all of her standing on a beach in a bikini!
Joan Bielski is followed for the rest of her life because, as prim ‘Miss Ward’ she took a job teaching English to two Soviet diplomats in Canberra in the 1950s, one of whom just happened to be Vladimir Petrov!
ABC gardening expert Peter Cundall’s file, contains copies of a newsletter that he was producing in Tasmania at the time, called Apple Juice, which was basically a guide to potting petunias and what to do with your cuttings.
Penny Lockwood discovered that a man that she’d had a year long relationship with, and who she was expecting to propose to her, was actually an ASIO agent and was spying on her. In the end he said he couldn’t go on, and broke off the relationship, and we think left ASIO.
Labor MP Jean McLean discovered that she was refused a bank job in the 1960s because of her ASIO file and long-serving union official Col Cooper was moved from one job to another within the PMG because of his ASIO file. His parents were politically active so even he, as a 15 year old telegram boy could not be trusted with the nations’ wedding jokes and birthday wishes.
Potentially damaging mistakes about identity are made. Peter Murphy was confused with another Peter Murphy. Anne Summers was confused with a Dr. Anne Cooper, who was a psychiatrist, as Anne Summers’ maiden name was Cooper. Tim Anderson (later falsely imprisoned) was confused with a Glen Anderson.
No issue was too trivial or parochial. There are detailed reports about my opposition to corruption on Leichhardt Council. There were agents inside Leichhardt Town Hall reporting on Council meetings on at least three occasions. They describe in great detail my arrest for calling the Mayor a “silly old twit”.
Irrelevant to national security? I think so.
One weird episode in my file occurs when I go overseas at the end of 1968 having only come to ASIO’s attention six months earlier. I met up with my boyfriend and two other friends in London and together we travelled through Wales to Ireland. It is at this stage that there is in my file a request from M15 wanting further information on our records. I remember our car being stopped and my boyfriend being questioned as we approached the ferry, but until now had never put two and two together. A heavily blacked out letter from Colonel Spry himself requests further details of my boyfriend, a totally apolitical New Zealand vet, and actually alerts them to my suspicious activity such as protesting against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Another interesting occasion was in May 1970 when I was arrested in Canberra on my way to give evidence at a friend’s court case. Because I thought that I was simply giving evidence in court proceedings I had my handbag with me. At a normal demonstration or political event I would never have carried anything at all revealing. However because I was arrested in my good court outfit and in fact flown down to Sydney and incarcerated in what was then Silverwater Gaol, ASIO got access to my address book, and also had plenty of time to note its contents. This report is fascinating because it not only lists everyone in my address book of May 1970, but it also indicates who had ASIO files at the time.
Almost everyone in my phone book had a file including Michael Kirby, David Kirby, Jim Spigelman, Peter Mason, Bob Connell, Aidan Foy, Paul Brennan, Dennis Harley, Rodney Henderson, Bruce Miles, Murray Sime, Peter Simpson, Nadia Wheatley and even my father, the Chairman of CSIRO. However, Geoff Robertson and Alan Cameron did not (at least at that stage).
The NSW Special Branch (which used to operate virtually as the state branch of ASIO) closely monitored me even when I became a Labor MP in 1991. In fact my monitoring only concluded shortly before the NSW Special Branch was disbanded by a disgusted Bob Carr in 1997.
Here was I, a democratically elected member of a mainstream party having my movements recorded in my everyday activity around Parliament. These activities included being involved in the launching of Broadside Weekly in 1992 which took place in the Parliament House press conference room. Later in 1992 I was recorded as participating in a protest rally against killings in the Ciskei in South Africa. The final report was in February 1994 and recorded my attendance at a meeting between the Consul General of Mexico and Amnesty International to discuss human rights violations in Mexico’s Chiapas province. What utterly mundane and appropriate Parliamentary behaviour.
Meredith Burgmann was a member of the NSW Legislative Council 1991-2007. She was President of the Council 1999-2007. As a political activist she was jailed for running onto the Sydney Cricket Ground in the 1971 Springbok Tour. As president of the Legislative Council, she removed the Queen’s portrait from her office and replaced it with an aboriginal painting.