Australia’s early chief of counter-espionage, Brigadier Charles Spry, reportedly warned Britain’s state security service, MI5, in 1954 that Britain should seriously consider withholding intelligence information from Australia in the event that Labor leader Dr H.V. Evatt became prime minister.
Spry’s reported concerns came to light on April 4 with the release in London of thousands of MI5 documents from the mid-1950s.
Ignored in the subsequent media uproar about Spry’s behaviour towards Evatt are three important and well-attested facts. First, Dr Evatt was at the very least a communist sympathiser. Second, a number of his personal staff were actual communist agents reporting to Soviet intelligence services. And, third, Spry, before 1954, had repeatedly warned Evatt of the security risk posed by his (Evatt’s) staff.
Evatt professed a lifelong sympathy with communism and counted several leading Australian communists among his closest friends and advisers.
A large volume of clandestine radio traffic between Moscow and Canberra during 1943-48, which was intercepted by the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service’s code-breaking project (codenamed “Venona”), was declassified in the late 1980s and revealed the presence in Australia of major Soviet spy rings.
As has been shown in Desmond Ball and David Horner’s 1998 book, Breaking the Codes, and in Andrew Campbell’s two-part study of Evatt in Australia’s National Observer magazine, the Venona decrypts revealed that many of Dr Evatt’s staff appointments were not merely communist sympathisers but actual Soviet agents. Those identified included three officials of the Department of External Affairs: the so-called Rhodes Scholar spy, Dr Ian Milner (codenamed Bur/DvorakKhill/TouristAcademician’s Son/Ferro).
Among Evatt’s personal staff identified as agents were his long-serving personal secretary Allan Dalziel (Denis) and one of his press secretaries Fergan O’Sullivan (Zemliak).
In 1948, Dr Milner was identified as having handed over “top secret” British postwar planning papers to a Soviet intelligence contact in Canberra. In 1950 he fled to communist Czechoslovakia.
Evatt himself was not above performing a similar act of treachery.
Australian diplomat, and later Liberal politician, Paul Hasluck recalled that, in 1945, at the inaugural United Nations conference in San Francisco, Evatt, then Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, leaked an important secret British document to Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov.
The British quickly identified Evatt as the culprit, and the following morning British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Dominions Secretary Lord Cranbourne gave him a very public dressing down.
So even if, in 1954, Spry mentioned to a British intelligence contact that Evatt was a security risk, he was not breaching any confidentiality or telling the British anything of which they were not already well aware.
Far from undermining Evatt, Spry before 1954 had gone to pains to warn the Labor leader of the security risks posed by some of his staff.
As Dr Campbell has shown, after Menzies’ Liberals defeated the Chifley Labor Government in the 1949 elections, Spry and other ASIO officers repeatedly informed Evatt (who in 1951 succeeded Chifley as Labor leader) of these concerns.
Gavan Duffy, in his book, Demons and Democrats: 1950s Labor at the Crossroads, reports how, in 1953, a prominent NSW Labor Party official, Frank Rooney, confronted Evatt with reports that his press secretary Fergan O’Sullivan (Zemliak) was phoning the Communist Party’s Sydney headquarters each evening. Evatt refused even to discuss the matter.
John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly and National Observer.
Desmond Ball and David Horner, Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network, 1944-1950 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998).
Andrew A. Campbell, “Dr H.V. Evatt — Part I: A question of sanity”, National Observer, No. 73, Winter 2007, pp.25-39.
Andrew A. Campbell, “Dr H.V. Evatt — Part II: The question of loyalty”, National Observer (Melbourne), No. 76, Autumn 2008, pp.33-55.
Gavan Duffy, Demons and Democrats: 1950s Labor at the Crossroads (Melbourne: Freedom Publishing Co., 2002).
Paul Hasluck, Diplomatic Witness: Australian Foreign Affairs 1941-1947 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1980).