Here’s a question for readers of The Strategist who’ve been fascinated by the last fortnight of reflections on Gough Whitlam’s legacy. What’s the major area of policy, front and centre in today’s political debate, where Whitlam initiated a major and enduring reform that has been totally overlooked in all the column inches and megabytes on Gough?
Some clues may help to explain the omission. This is a story that doesn’t fit into his supporters’ narrative of Whitlam-as-heroic-visionary, expressing magnificent visions that swept away the outdated dogmas of his conservative predecessors. Nor does it fit neatly into his critics’ portrayal of Whitlam-as-disaster, or even Whitlam-as-flawed-hero, the arrogant ‘prima donna assoluta’ who disregarded wise advice from ministerial colleagues and official advisers.
Instead, it’s a case of Whitlam acting responsibly and prudently to defuse a contentious political issue and to open the way to policies and structures that have been broadly supported by subsequent governments of all persuasions. The Hawke government, which so often distanced itself from Whitlam’s ‘crash through or crash’ style, exactly repeated what Whitlam had done in order to consolidate the reforms he initiated.
Ten points and a koala stamp (as Phillip Adams would say) to those of you who knew that the answer was intelligence—or, to use Whitlam-like precision, Australia’s intelligence and security agencies. At its last conference before Whitlam’s 1972 victory, the Labor Party came within one vote of deciding to abolish the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). As the first volume of David Horner’s official history of ASIO has recently confirmed, the organisation’s successful and justified operations to counter the Communist Party of Australia in the 1950s had turned into an obsessive failure to distinguish between genuine subversion and legitimate political dissent. ASIO spent far too much time and effort watching people who didn’t pose any serious threat to Australian security, while disregarding other appropriate targets, such as right-wing Croatian extremists. It was that failure that prompted the notorious ‘raids on ASIO’ by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in the Whitlam government’s first weeks.
Whitlam could easily have made one of his grand gestures, taking steps that would’ve inevitably led to ASIO’s demise. Labor supporters would’ve cheered, while conservative opposition would’ve been easily overridden. Whitlam did no such thing. Perhaps filial pride played some part. Gough’s father Fred Whitlam, as Solicitor-General, had helped to draw up ASIO’s initial charter when the Chifley government created ASIO in 1949.
Instead Whitlam appointed Justice Robert Hope, of the NSW Supreme Court, to undertake a Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security. Hope, who had a reputation as a civil libertarian, was given an extraordinarily wide charter, to review all of Australia’s intelligence and security agencies (including those, like the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Defence Signals Directorate, which weren’t publicly acknowledged at the time) and to make recommendations on the structure and operations of the entire intelligence system.
The Hope Royal Commission produced a total of eight reports, some in more than one volume, that defined the roles and appropriate practices for all the agencies, including their relations with each other, with ministers and with other government agencies, and making appropriate arrangements for oversight and accountability. A principal innovation was the creation of what became the Office of National Assessments at the centre of the network of agencies. As Hope prescribed, ONA is dedicated to assessment but not to intelligence collection or operations. It has thus avoided the fundamental structural flaw in Washington’s Central Intelligence Agency, which combines the roles Hope carefully allocated to ONA and ASIS respectively.
By the time Hope completed his eight reports, Whitlam had been dismissed, so they were received and implemented by Malcolm Fraser. Fraser also commissioned Hope to undertake an inquiry into protective security, following the 1978 explosion at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. When Bob Hawke succeeded Fraser, one of his first actions was to commission Hope to undertake a second Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence agencies, to assess how well the recommendations of Hope’s first Royal Commission had been implemented. Public attention was dominated by two other controversies that Hawke referred to Hope, the ‘Combe-Ivanov affair’ and the Sheraton Hotel incident.
One of the highly talented researchers on Hope’s second Royal Commission was Michael Thawley, just appointed by the Abbott government as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Perhaps Thawley could recommend to his new boss a suitable appointee for, in effect, a third Hope Royal Commission, to re-examine the legislation, structures, policies and accountability provisions appropriate for the intelligence agencies in the 21st century.
Peter Edwards is the Official Historian of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-75. Image courtesy of the Office of National Assessments.