Bob Carr on two new books that reveal the extent of the Labor Left’s overlap with the Australian Communist Party during the Cold War
‘Ah, here’s the apostate.’ The voice was a cigarette-flavoured drawl from a slight figure with a hat tipped on his head. This, in the Bulletin office in March 1978, my first day as a journalist after six years with the Labor Council — hence the ‘apostate’. The speaker was Alan Reid, breaker of tabloid stories, most of them harmful to the Australian Labor Party, and, according to Paul Keating, an ‘infamous Labor hater’.
Labor wasn’t his only victim. John Grey Gorton, Liberal prime minister from 1968 to 1971, felt Reid had brought him down on Sir Frank Packer’s instructions, crossing the line between reporting party room plots and shaping them. Gorton described Reid as a ‘slightly built balding man with little darting eyes and an expression of perpetual cynicism… peeping under a drooping eyelid from the corner of one eye… one expects momentarily to be nudged in the ribs with a confidential elbow and given a hot tip for the 3.30 at Randwick’.
Reid’s 50-year career reporting federal politics started in 1937 at the Sun. He switched to the Frank Packer-owned Telegraph in 1954. When he died in 1987, Reid was Kerry Packer’s personal emissary in Canberra, his lobbyist, as well as a reporter for the Bulletin and Channel 9. This was a brazen conflict. Yet his professional success subsumed all: he delivered scoops with mischief and relish, and MPs spilled secrets to him like stricken sinners in the confessional.
His most remembered front page appeared in March 1963 and put paid to the ALP’s chances of beating the Menzies government in that year’s federal election. A special ALP conference had met in Canberra’s Kingston Hotel to determine the party position on a US communication station at North West Cape in Western Australia.
Under the then party rules, leader Arthur Calwell and deputy leader Gough Whitlam were not delegates. They were caught loitering, somewhat pathetically, under a street light waiting for unknown union and party officials to arrive at a policy and hand it to them. Reid grabbed a passing photographer and captured the humiliation of the Labor leadership at the hands of what became immortalised as ‘the 36 faceless men’. It was instant political devastation for a profoundly unworldly Labor party.
Reid wrote three books, but none on the affair that sealed his journalistic reputation: the Labor split of 1954 -7. It was Reid, in the Sun, who had unveiled B.A. Santamaria, the leader of the so-called Movement, which was mobilising within the unions and party: ‘…in the tense melodrama of politics there are mysterious figures who stand virtually unnoticed in the wings, invisible to all but a few in the audience, as they cue, Svengali-like … the actors on the stage.’
Reid was fond of the John Curtin-Ben Chifley era of Labor leadership and hostile to Santamaria, whom he portrayed as an ‘exotic’ force. He even advised H.V. Evatt on his 1954 statement attacking the Santamaria forces. The statement provoked the split, but was entirely unnecessary as Santamaria’s influence was containable and, as leader, Evatt should have been able to straddle his party’s factions as Curtin and Chifley had done.
Reid recoiled from ‘the Doc’ as the flailing Evatt resorted to anti-Catholic sectarianism, as reflected in this exchange with Reid, patched together from Reid’s oral history:
Evatt: Alan, you’ve left me… You’re anti-Santamaria but you’re not with me in this campaign… I’ll tell you something Alan, for every Catholic vote I’ll lose I will get two Protestant votes.
Reid: You’re out of your cotton- picking mind, Doc.
In their biography of Reid, Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt refer to Evatt’s ‘rapprochement with communists and fellow travellers in the broader labour movement’. This is a good insight, the key to Evatt’s position through the split. This accommodation of a pro-communist Left was documented by Reid in story after story, especially after he joined the Telegraph and his contempt for Evatt merged with Sir Frank Packer’s fierce conservatism.
When Ross Fitzgerald told me he and Stephen Holt were going to write a biography of Alan Reid, I told him the material would be too scant, the result too meagre. The authors have proved me wrong. They have written an invaluable history of the interaction of the Press Gallery and politicians.
When I launched the book, I quoted the American writer Susan Sontag, who said in 1982: ‘Imagine the preposterous case of somebody who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and somebody else who read only the Nation between 1950 and 1970. Who would be getting more truth about the nature of communism? There’s no doubt it would have been the Reader’s Digest reader.’
The same is true here, I suggested. Through the Fifties and Sixties, Reid and his tabloid insights into Labor, communism and Evatt would have offered more truth than the pages of Meanjin or Outlook.
Reid would have found little to disagree with in The Family File. On the surface this is surprising, because Mark Aarons’ book is the story of four generations of a family of communists. But it is told through the archives of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), hence its unique flavour. The author’s good sense — he let lapse his communist party membership in 1978 — rescues it from being another soft-headed memoir of heroic revolutionaries struggling for peace, workers’ rights and democracy.
As a boy in 1959, Mark Aarons saw a car pulling into the backyard of the family’s Fairfield home and a suitcase being handed to his father, Laurie, then general secretary of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Opened, it revealed wads of cash: 45,000 Australian pounds from the Soviet Union, he later learned, sent through a Romanian trade union to keep Australian communism afloat.
The book confirms that the Soviet Embassy delivered orders to the leadership of the CPA and, when the party criticised Russia after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the embassy worked with a pro-Soviet faction to create a pro-Soviet breakaway party.
The revelation at the epicentre of the book, however, is the story of the party’s involvement in Soviet espionage. Enter stage left the conspiratorial figure of Wally Clayton who, from 1943 to 1949 and at the direction of the CPA leadership, worked with the Soviet embassy in Canberra. He collected files from party members and sympathisers in the public service in Canberra and delivered them to the TASS correspondent in Kings Cross, Sydney, who was the local KGB man.
After the CPA dissolved itself in 1991, Laurie Aarons, who had been the party’s national secretary from 1965 to 1976, taped an interview with Clayton, by then 90 years old. Clayton admitted in this tape that he delivered material to Soviet intelligence, something he had insolently denied at the Petrov Royal Commission into Soviet Espionage (1954-5), and that he had done it at the request of then party secretary Lance Sharkey. This revelation should nudge Australian historians towards a more benign view of the Petrov Royal Commission, which had been denounced so thoroughly by Evatt and criticised by Labor-inclined historians.
After the commission, Laurie Aarons claims he terminated any dealings with the Soviet embassy that may have fed intelligence to Soviet spies. Mark Aarons quotes him as saying: ‘The thing about spying is that it’s a very dangerous thing to have alleged against you.’ True indeed. Yet Mark Aarons reports that a first secretary of the Embassy, Ivan Skipov, was to beat a path to Bill Brown, a
CPA leader and later a leader of the pro-Soviet breakaway party, who gave him the names of sympathisers. To people like Brown, the Soviet Union was the country of the mind, the object of their patriotism.
For Labor party people, the most arresting material in Mark Aarons’ book is the confirmation that the CPA recruited and managed dual ticketholders, that is, left-wingers who held secret membership of the communist party while they held office in the ALP. The big fish here was Arthur Gietzelt, eventually a minister in the Hawke government. This practice, of course, magnified the influence of a relatively tiny Marxist-Leninist party, giving it a say — how much of a say can be debated — at ALP conferences.
Some leftists have said in reference to Aarons’ book: ‘Big deal. Everybody knew it.’ Maybe. But we’ve never had a combination of ASIO file notes and a member of the Aarons family laying it down for the record. Moreover, no dual ticketholder has ever admitted it; Gietzelt continues to deny it. And historian Stuart Macintyre in his writings on the history of the CPA never revealed it.
A book is now being written on Gietzelt and research taking place on others on the Labor Left who may have held dual membership. A number of ALP leftwingers could be revealed as long-term CPA plants. As a result, some leftist activism could be exposed as less indigenous Labor radicalism and rather emanations and diktats emerging from a Marxist-Leninist party that could never poll one per cent at a general election under its own name.
This has implications for the historiography of Australia in the Cold War era. It strengthens the indictments of Evatt and Calwell because they accommodated what we can probably now objectively define as a pro-communist Left and thus made Labor close to unelectable. It elevates Gough Whitlam’s role as the leader who broke the power of the Victorian ALP executive and prevented Jim Cairns becoming Labor leader. In acres of speeches and writings on foreign policy by Cairns, a single criticism of the Soviet bloc would be a discovery of gem-like value. Perhaps not a dual ticketholder, he wore the appellation ‘fellow traveller’ like a second skin.
The revelations are also a historic justification for the existence of a NSW-based Labor Right with a lineage embracing Premiers McKell and Cahill (the later warded off both Santamaria and Evatt forces as his government of 1952-59 became the only state Labor government to survive the split) and machine man John Ducker, who blocked a Gietzelt-led takeover of the ALP’s biggest branch in 1970-71. Gietzelt-led? Knowing what Aarons and his ASIO files have confirmed one can write, rather, communist-led. Paul Keating took over from Ducker when control in NSW Labor again wobbled in 1979-80. From his time in Young Labor, the hard Left have always been ‘the comms’ to Paul Keating.
Gietzelt’s wife Dawn was once overheard saying she ‘did not care which labour party her children favoured’, and clearly meant the CPA was to be regarded as another labour party. Obviously no reader of Solzhenitsyn, she — like the ALP Left of her generation, including Cairns — could never see the difference between the totalitarian and democratic brands of socialism. I always suspected their spiritual homelands were the ‘people’s democracies’ of Eastern Europe, and was inclined to imagine some of our lefties as members of an Australian Politburo, wolfing pork and caviar at banquets for visiting Soviet delegations and, with a bark or two, despatching social democrats and liberals to the Gulag.
Aarons is blunt about these forces in his dad’s old party. Other communist memoirs cast a rosy hue over the comrades, idealistic fighters for the rights of workers and Aborigines. Of course, idealism is never a defence. Isaiah Berlin identified the desire of idealists for a ‘rational reorganisation of society’ as the very source of totalitarianism. ‘The search for perfection,’ he wrote, ‘does seem to me a recipe for bloodshed, no better even if it is demanded by the sincerest of idealists, the purest of heart.’
Former Tribune editor Rupert Lockwood once told me that in a lifetime in the CPA he had met people perfectly capable of lining enemies against a wall and machine-gunning them.
ASIO penetrated the CPA comprehensively. Its agents were present at every meeting and even worked as full-time staff. If this were overkill, then the espionage of the Forties, now confirmed, provides the justification. I find myself hoping that ASIO now demonstrates the same spycraft as it infiltrates every Islamist cell that harbours the faintest enthusiasm for blowing us up. And I’m struck by ASIO’s restraint. After all, a leaked copy of Gietzelt’s ASIO file could have killed Labor’s chances at any number of elections.
I know one journalist who would have torn a half-proffered copy from an agent’s gloved hands. He, above all, understood the implications. The adjective ‘explosive’ or the noun ‘time bomb’ would have been in the first par of his Telegraph exclusive.
Bob Carr was Labor premier of NSW from 1995 to 2005. Alan ‘The Red Fox’ Reid: Pressman Par Excellence is published by University of New South Wales Press, price $49.95. The Family File by Mark Aarons is published by Black Inc, price $34.95.