The Magazine

The Case of the Shaky Ally

The U.S.-Australia Cold War of 1972-73.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By ROSS TERRILL
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The book shows several senior Labor figures in cahoots with the CPA on foreign policy and union issues in the 1970s. Whitlam, like Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’50s and ’60s, probably knew about Communists in his movement but looked beyond them. He effectively addressed the public with soaring rhetoric and turned a blind eye to compromising details, expecting surrogates to handle them.

After reading The Family File, the current Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, a former Labor premier of the country’s most populous state, said (before taking office in the Labor cabinet of Prime Minister Julia Gillard), “This forces us to reassess the Labor left.”

Comintern chief Georgi Dimitrov said in 1935, “It cannot be expected that Social Democrats under the influence of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie .  .  . will break with this ideology of their own accord. .  .  . No. It is our business as Communists to help them free themselves from reformist ideology.” In France, Spain, and other countries where the Communist party was strong, it sought an open alliance (popular front) with Labor parties, but in the United States and Australia, where the Communist party was smaller, it adopted an underground approach. This unfolded for decades in Australia. Amidst the eucalyptus trees of Canberra, Moscow’s fiats were passed to Aarons; near Sydney’s beaches, the TASS correspondent handed over tens of thousands of dollars in cash. By 1945 the CPA had 20,000 members and held sway over almost half the delegates to the congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the key pillar of Labor’s support. Between 1945 and 1948 Moscow obtained crucial secret American and British documents from the hands of Australian Communists working in the foreign ministry at Canberra.

Whitlam knew of “unity tickets” in trade union elections that gave Communists a role in Labor conferences as delegates of affiliated unions, and the practice of “dual membership” in the Labor party and the CPA. John Curtin, Labor prime minister during World War II, had belonged both to Labor and the Victorian Socialist party, which stood for revolution and believed World War I had been a sordid feud among capitalists in which workers were mere fodder.

Whitlam complained to me soon after becoming prime minister, “Even my own staff have to be cleared by ASIO [the Australian Security Intelligence Organization].” Certainly with Labor out of power since 1949, ASIO had grown cozy with the conservative side of politics, but Whitlam might have recalled that after Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia in 1954 in one of the key espionage cases of the Cold War, Soviet agents were found on the staff of Whitlam’s 1950s predecessor as Labor leader, Herbert Evatt (who was, incidentally, Labor foreign minister during the egregious 1945-48 security lapses).

As ASIO sequestered Petrov, the Soviet embassy put his wife on a plane for Moscow. But during a stopover at Darwin airport, ASIO snatched her back, and the Petrovs gave Canberra mildly valuable information and settled in Australia. Conservative prime minister Robert Menzies exploited the drama for political advantage, but Evatt rubbed salt in his own wounds by writing to Soviet foreign minister Molotov to ask whether or not Petrov had spied!

I was a Trojan horse union delegate to the 1965 Victorian State Labor party conference in Melbourne, one of a band of young pro-Whitlam Labor members combating Communists who used “unity tickets” to influence Labor. From a podium under heavy CPA influence, the chairman said all wars were “a result of the free enterprise system.” Moderate unions affiliated with the Labor party had little voice in deliberations; 100 of the 400 union delegates at the conference had Communist secretaries. “Let’s get on with attacking capitalism,” one speaker cried. “That’s what we are here for.” Appalled, I wrote an article for Rupert Murdoch’s recently established Australian newspaper and sent it first to Whitlam, then deputy leader of Labor, to check the wisdom of publishing my direct attack on the left. He phoned: “Publish and be damned!” but advised a pseudonym. Murdoch ran the piece under the title “Class-War Crusaders in the Affluent Age,” by a Special Correspondent. “Is Labor politics only about the interests of the unionist,” I wrote, “not at all about the interests of the housewife and the teenager?”

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