Launch of The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949–1963
7 October 2014
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Can I acknowledge the Director-General, Duncan Lewis; and senior and executive member of ASIO, and indeed all ASIO officers who have gathered here today. Can in acknowledge the five former Directors-General who grace us with their presence this morning, can I acknowledge my Parliamentary colleague Mark Dreyfus, a former Attorney-General and Shadow Attorney-General, other parliamentary colleagues, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. But most of all, I think I should single out those four gentlemen who were recruited to the organisation in 1949 and who have come along this morning. It is so good to see you, it's such an honour and privilege to meet you.
It is a pleasure to be here to launch the first volume of the official history of ASIO. The Spy Catchers, by Professor David Horner. This is the first of a projected three volumes, which traces the history of the Organisation from its inception in 1949, through to 1963. However, this first volume commences much earlier, the first four chapters chronicling the genesis of the Commonwealth's national security function to a time even before the First World War, and taking us through to the planning and development of ASIO, under the close guidance and encouragement of Britain's MI5, in the immediate post-War years. Two more volumes are in preparation. Volume-two will deal with the period from 1963 to 1975, and the third will take history until 1989, which date has been chosen to coincide with the end of the Cold War and, in a sense, the triumph of the values and institutions which ASIO was created to protect and defend.
The period covered by the first volume was a crowded time in our history. It covered the final months of the post-War Labor Government, and most of the Menzies years. It is very appropriate that this history should be launched in this numinous building, for so many of the events recounted by Dr Horner took place, or had their culmination, here. We gather in the Members Dining Room, just imagine how many conversations about ASIO took place across the table here, or perhaps in the bar along the way, particularly in the 1950s. But the great events that touched upon ASIO which occurred in this building took place in the old House of Representatives chamber. It was there, on 2 March 1949, that Prime Minister Chifley announced the Government's decision to establish ASIO. It was there, in 1954 and 1955, that the most dramatic event of the period, the Petrov affair, was played out on the political stage. The two highlights of that almost Shakesperean drama were Menzies' sudden announcement, on the night of April 13 1954, of the Petrov defection and the establishment of the Petrov Royal Commission; and Dr Evatt's bizarre Parliamentary speech in 19 October 1955, when, to the astonishment of Government members and the appalled silence of his own colleagues, he held aloft a letter from the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and announced that he had been assured by Molotov that the Petrov documents were a fabrication and that there was no Soviet espionage in Australia.
It was there in the old House of Representatives chamber, as well, on 5 May 1960, that the then Attorney-General, Sir Garfield Barwick, introduced the amendments to the Commonwealth Crimes Act which subjected ASIO's telephone interception powers to a statutory regime, under the authorisation of the Attorney-General. Professor Horner's account of the Parliamentary debate that followed, and in particular the contributions of some of the colourful figures of the day reminds us that the spirit of Evatt was still very much alive in 1960. We learn that Dr Jim Cairns expressed the view that "there is no evidence of subversion" in Australia; but Les Haylen opined, "there is no spy in the length and breadth of this country," while according to the firebrand Eddie Ward, ASIO had become "almost exclusively a military organisation. Mercifully, today, such foolishness is confined to the Greens.
During the period covered by this volume, ASIO operated under four Attorneys-General—Evatt, Sir John Spicer, Sir Neil O'Sullivan and Barwick—and under the leadership of two Directors-General. the inaugural Director-General, Sir Geoffrey Reed, and, from 1950, Sir Charles Spry. Spry—who has, in the recent past, received much critical treatment from some historians, and in particular the disobliging portrayal of him in an ABC television series about these years—emerges as a figure of enormous significance and wisdom. He was a very great Australian indeed, who did more than almost any other official in the service of the Commonwealth to protect our democratic institutions. This volume, to its great credit, while not uncritical, recognises that.
The ASIO history project had its inception in 2008 when Paul O'Sullivan was the Director-General. By a happy turn of the wheel of history, Paul is now my Chief of Staff. It was authorised by Attorney-General Robert McClelland, and carried forward with great enthusiasm by David Irvine. I am delighted that both Paul and David have joined us today, along with no fewer than three other former Directors-General—John Moten, David Sadlier and Denis Richardson.
The last few weeks have been an historic time in the life of ASIO, with the retirement of David Irvine and the transition to a new Director-General, Duncan Lewis. The Government's announcement last week of an additional $196.8 million in funding, to support ASIO's crucial counter-terrorism work, and the passage through the Parliament, also last week, of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1), which gives effect to many of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, this represents the most important reform of ASIO's powers since the 1979 ASIO Act following the Hope Royal Commission about which you will no doubt be able to read in Volume 3. It is important to remember that that legislation received bipartisan support.
Security agencies present a paradox for democratic governance. By their nature they are required to operate covertly. Yet parliamentary democracy depends upon accountability and transparency. Reconciling those two imperatives is by no means easy. Yet, after 65 years, the very high level of public confidence which Australians have in ASIO is the strongest testament there could be to the fact that we have, on the whole, resolved that paradox successfully. The fact that we have done so is a tribute to the maturity of our political and governmental institutions. But, even more, it is a tribute to the integrity and the patriotism of the men and women who have, for two thirds of a century, served ASIO and, in doing so, served the nation.
I congratulate Professor Horner on a fine and important work of history, written to the very highest standards of scholarship; and the publisher, Allen & Unwin, who have produced a handsome volume worthy of its important subject. To all who have been involved with the project from its inception—the History of ASIO Advisory Committee, represented here today by Geoff Gallop and Jim Carlton; the ANU research team who supported Professor Horner's work; and all others who gave their time, knowledge and skill to produce this handsome volume, I offer my thanks and congratulations. And, with those words, it is my pleasure to launch The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949–1963.