Evan Smith on counter-terrorism policy under Whitlam and Fraser

Evan Smith from Hatful of History made a comment below “The Murphy raid” that’s worthy of a post in itself. This post presents the comment then adds some further points:

“….I’m very interested in how the Australian government reacted to the prospect of political violence in Australia in the 1970s. It seems that under the Gorton-McMahon governments, the primary concern was potential violence stemming from the left, such as the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements. Only under Whitlam is there any real assessment of the threat posed by Croatian nationalists and other anti-Communists in Australia.

When the Public Order Bill 1971 was introduced into Parliament (which included a Part dedicated to the protection of foreign embassies, consulates and representatives in Australia), Whitlam asked for the details of attacks upon foreign embassies and consulates over the last decade. The reply from the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates (written answers), 7 April, 1971, 1651-1652) showed that 22 attacks had occurred since 1966. Of the serious attacks (such as arson or bombings) the embassies of Yugoslavia and the USSR experienced more (5 each) than those of the USA, South Africa and South Vietnam (4, 1 and 2 respectively).

Labour MP Horace Garrick complained that despite the emphasis by the Liberal Government on the issue of ‘law and order’ and the protection of foreign representatives, it ‘was not interested in law and order… when bombs were thrown by Fascist terrorists into the Yugoslav Embassy in Hawthorn’, adding ‘it appears that the Government condones this type of violence, as the only reaction to date has been to declare the Embassy a public nuisance and to ask the occupants to vacate the premises.’ (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 20 April, 1971, 1711)

Shortly after the POA came into effect, an internal report by the Commonwealth Police showed that during 1971 there was an increase on attacks on the South African embassy, coinciding with the demonstrations against the Springboks rugby tour, but these were mainly limited to anti-apartheid slogans being painted on the embassy walls, compared with the bomb attacks directed against the Yugoslavia and USSR embassies (Commonwealth Police Force Central Crime Intelligence Bureau, ‘Politically Motivated Violence and Vandalism in Australia 1971’, January 1972, pp. 7-13, A432 1985/6648, NAA).

Despite Labor’s suspicion that the Liberal Party and the security forces were in close contact with Croatian terror groups, a secret Cabinet document on political violence and terrorism in Australia prepared by the Attorney-General, Ivor Greenwood, for the McMahon government shows that the A-G believed that the ‘Yugoslav problem’ was ‘the greatest single problem’ for Australia’s national security. However Greenwood did advise against a Royal Commission into terrorism and violence (into the Yugoslav migrant community and/or wider political/terror organisations). (Ivor J. Greenwood, ‘Terrorism and Violence in Australia’, 28 September, 1972, pp. 8-9, A432 1972/5776, NAA)

However the issue was taken more seriously by the Whitlam and Fraser governments, who were concerned with the rise in international terrorism during the 1970s and were particularly warned by ASIO about anti-Communist emigres and the Ananda Marga. Disturbances outside Old Parliament House in the late 1970s by both groups encouraged the government to believe that these groups both posed a significant security risk. Also, with the number of sieges occurring at embassies in Europe increasing during the 1970s, as well as the kidnapping of foreign representatives, the Fraser government introduced the Crimes (Internationally Protected Persons) Act 1976 to give greater powers to police to stop potential acts of terrorism against foreign representatives and far greater penalties for those found guilty of offences against the Act. Andrew Hiller observed, the maximum penalties for offences under the 1976 Act, such as assaulting an internationally protected person, were ‘considerably in excess’ of those offered under the Public Order Act. (Andrew Hiller, Public Order and the Law, Law Book Company, Sydney, 1983, p. 195) The Fraser government drafted a report to examine whether further powers were required to stop AM and the Ustashe from conducting attacks inside Parliament House, but National Archive records seem to show that the report was not followed up.

I think further research should be conducted into this topic (I have a paper currently under review relating to these issues, btw) and you are correct that the ‘Murphy raid’ should resonate more in the recent political history of Australia. It’s great to see someone drawing on the history of counter-terrorism in Australia to illuminate contemporary practices and concerns….”

This comment is most welcome. He has dug up a bunch of interesting sources and the data on attacks against diplomatic facilities is particularly useful.

I’d be interested to know whether the PLO threat has come up much in his research. The Munich Olympics terror attack certainly panicked the government (see below), and from 1972-73 letter bombs were being sent to Israeli diplomats and Jewish businessmen throughout Australia. One PLO faction, the May 15 organisation, is believed to be behind the 1982 bombings of the Israeli Consulate and the Hakoah Club in Sydney. This investigation was recently reopened.


Also, Evan Smith is correct to dispute “Labor’s suspicion that the Liberal Party and the security forces were in close contact with Croatian terror groups”. Many on the left at the time thought that ASIO and the Liberal Party were in cahoots with violent Ustasha groups. But they were not, which is why the Murphy raid didn’t uncover evidence that ASIO was concealing information about the threat.

As he points out, in these Cold War years the Liberal Party and ASIO nonetheless did tend to be dismissive about security threats from the right and paranoid about those from the left. Conceptions of national security are not simply ideologically-neutral, but are often shaped by the dominant political forces of the time. For an example from another context, see this passage from Robin Corey recently cited on Abu Muqawama:

“Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.

… At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.”

Similar cases can be found throughout Australia’s security history. The state’s dismissive approach to the Ustasha threat in the 1960s and early 1970s was a more recent, milder version of this.


For those interested in further research on the history of counter-terrorism in Australia, Professor Mark Finnane gave a fascinating talk which is available here. He argues that one of the first (pre-Whitlam) drivers for Australia’s counter-terrorism measures was neither Ustasha nor Ananda Marga activity, nor Cold War demagoguery. Instead it was the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics during the tail end of the McMahon Government.

The key book addressing the history of Australia’s counter-terrorism architecture is Terror Laws: ASIO, Counter-Terrorism and the Threat to Democracy by Jenny Hocking. However, its central arguments are unconvincing. In effect, it argues that counter-terrorism measures were introduced as a deceitful attempt by ASIO and conservatives to reintroduce “counter-subversion” (such as monitoring of dissidents) in the wake of the 1978 Hilton Bombing. She argues that a similar process occurred after 9/11. As Finnane’s talk shows, this version of events doesn’t match the empirical record.

Another flaw of Hocking’s book is that it portrays the 1954 Petrov defection as simply a plot by Menzies to win an election, when it was a genuine success against serious Soviet espionage operations. As David McKnight argues here (paywalled), abundant archival information released over past decades has made this dismissive view of Soviet espionage unsustainable.

While I agree with her take that the process of conceiving of national security priorities and developing policies is inherently political (as discussed above), it does not follow that security threats like terrorism and Soviet espionage were largely exaggerated or fabricated. One should be able to take a critical stance towards the state without disregarding actual threats or treating all security measures as sinister plots.

The book’s still worth buying, but read it (as always) with a sceptical eye.

I’d also recommend two articles by Mark Finnane. One is Long Gone, But Not Forgotten which is about the Queensland Special Branch, and the other is The Public Rhetorics of Policing in Times of War and Violence: Countering Apocalyptic Visions (paywalled).


Update 1:

Evan continues this discussion over at Hatful of History. Another relevant post of his is UK counter-terrorism and Israel in the 1970s: Correspondence from Christopher Mayhew to Lord Balniel 1973. It discusses of how the UK faced the dilemma of trying to stop the PLO using British territory as a base for violence, but also of stopping Israel assassinating PLO representatives in the UK. This resembles how Australia experienced violence by both Ustasha groups and Yugoslav intelligence in 1960s and 1970s.


Update 2:

In the comments below, Evan answers my question about the PLO threat.

4 thoughts on “Evan Smith on counter-terrorism policy under Whitlam and Fraser

  1. Another interesting post and thanks for the mention.

    I have come across some references to the PLO and Palestinian terrorism, but the files that I have been using usually portray the risk to Australia as slight. I will have a look through my documents next week when at uni and let you know if there’s anything worth mentioning.

    The sources you mention are very handy, especially Mark Finnane’s stuff. He did a really good paper on national security and immigration laws in Australia between the 1920s and 1950s a few years ago, which was an inspiration for my research into the national/border security nexus in the UK.

  2. Pingback: Counter-terrorism in Australia in the 1970s: A discussion with Andrew Zammit | Hatful of History

  3. Hi Andrew

    I’ve had a look at my photocopies from the NAA and found two references to Palestinian terrorism in threat assessments in the 1970s. In a 1972 Cabinet submission by Ivor Greenwood, the document lists ‘conflict between Arab states and Israel’ as a threat, alongside the ‘Yugoslav migrant community’, the ‘Peoples Liberation Army’, ‘National Socialist Party’, ‘Australian Aboriginal groups’, ‘Student groups of various descriptions’, ‘Australian Communist Party’ and ‘Violence in the Painters and Dockers Union’. The submission states:

    ‘Conflict between Arab states and Israel: the recent letter bomb incidents were connected with this conflict. There are a number of organizations in Australia that have the aim of disrupting the State of Israel. Some do not advocate the use of violence of terrorism, but intelligence advice is that others have a potential for violence – namely, the Palestine Australian Solidarity Committee (PASC), formed in Melbourne, and the Australian Palestine Solidarity Committee (APSC), formed in Sydney in 1971. On present advice, the Black September Movement, which was responsible for the atrocities at Munich, is not connected with any organization in Australia, nor it it itself active in this country. Nevertheless, extremist movements of this kind can move rapidly from one part of the world to another.’
    (Ivor J. Greenwood, ‘Terrorism and Violence in Australia’, 28 September, 1972, A432 1972/5776, NAA)

    The second document is a Cabinet paper from 1978, looking at threats to Old Parliament House. Alongside the Ananda Marga, Croation groups and revolutionary groups, pro-Palestinian terrorist organisations were included in the threat assessment by ASIO. The Cabinet paper said:

    ‘Pro-Palestinian terrorist organisations have generally confined their attacks to Israeli or other Arab targets in various parts of the world. Although other targets have been attacked they have generally been against countries closely involved in the polemics of the Middle East situation.

    Although some decisions of the Australian Government might be interpreted as being hostile to the Palestinian cause and possibly attract terrorist attacks against it, Australia’s distance from the Middle East, its relatively low profile and “even-handed” policy regarding the Middle East question suggest that the threat of a pro-Palestinian terrorist attack against Parliament House is negligible.’
    ‘ASIO Assessment of the Threat to Parliament House’, n.d., 1978 Cabinet, Paper 714)

    That’s all I could find at this stage. Maybe a search of Hansard might be fruitful?

    • Thanks Evan, that’s very helpful.

      Those quotes are interesting for a few different reasons.

      The 1972 minute refers to Palestinian letter bombings in Australia, but I only know of letter-bombings that occurred in 1973, so clearly I’m missing some.

      The 1973 letter-bombings were attributed to Black September, while this 1972 minute says there was no known Black September presence in Australia. So maybe the 1973 bombings were wrongly attributed to Black September? Or maybe Black September only established a presence in Australia afterwards? Or the letter-bombs were sent from overseas? Or there was a Black September presence in 1972 and ASIO didn’t know? I don’t know Palestinian terrorism very well.

      Overall, I would have expected more mention of pro-Palestinian terrorism in the documents. However, the assessment of the pro-Palestinian threat to Parliament house as “negligible” makes perfect sense, as PLO attacks in Australia weren’t directed at Aus government buildings but at Israeli diplomatic facilities or Jewish people.

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