|Issue No 117||26 October 2001|
Brothers In Arms
Labour historian Marilyn Dodkin explains how she exposed ASIO ties with Labor Council's Cold War leadership.
What is it about the NSW Labor Council that intrigues motivated you to do a PhD and indeed a book on the subject?
It's one of the oldest institutions in the State. It's the founder of the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party. It's older than many institutions. It's older than the Employers Federation and it's certainly older than any political party.
Having looked at the evolution of the Labor Council, what are the themes that emerge?
In the period beginning in the forties you have very large union membership strength. The Labor Council itself is a small institution but it has a great deal of power because once McKell got in it was the partner of the Labor Government. And of course Labor stayed in power in NSW until 1965 when Robin Askin won from Jack Renshaw. It has always been one of the power brokers in the Labor movement in this state.
Your book focusses on the actual leaders of the Labor Council. How important is the personality of the secretaries?
I think it's very important because they brought their own methods of dealing with things. There is an evolution in the book so you see, from the early leaders of Kenny and Marsh and Ducker who were blue collar workers. Kenny was in the glassworkers, Marsh was a boilermaker and Ducker was an ironworker. This was the way that working class people went into politics, through the trade union movement. They weren't politicians to begin with but they all became politicians.
After Ducker when you had the two electricians Barry Unsworth and John MacBean. And then you from that to complete a quantum leap to Michael Easson who was - as I call him - an honours graduate. He had been in the workforce but he was certainly not on the shop floor as a tradesman. From Michael Easson you go to Peter Sams who was an industrial advocate and from Peter Sams you go to Michael Costa who had been in the workforce. He in fact had been in the workforce for the ironworkers at Garden Island and he later trained as an engineman. So he almost encapsulated both sides. He was a tradesman but he was also a highly educated person having done a tertiary degree.
But it is an evolution just as there has been an evolution in education for the majority of Australians from what they could have expected if they were working class in the 30s, 40s and 50s to what working class people can now expect if they're lucky.
How's the relationship between the unions and the ALP changed over the period that you studied?
I don't think it's changed much at all. It is still a family relationship and it's still subject to tension. You cannot say, like some conservative people say, that the unions run the Labor Party. That's not so. The unions contribute to the Labor Party on various levels mainly, of course, in NSW because we have 60 per cent of the state conference delegates are delegates from unions. But we must differentiate between unions that are affiliated with the Labor Party and unions who are affiliated with the Labor Council - because you have major unions like the Teachers and the Nurses who are affiliated with the Council and not affiliated with the Labor Party. Those people and those unions may well go to the state conference as delegates from their local branches or FECs or SECs. But the Labor Council itself is still with the leadership, in a very close relationship with the Labor Party because it is in the interests of workers to have a Labor Government.
In the course of your research you've come up with some very interesting revelations about a number of secretaries, but I guess the most controversial has been the links with ASIO. Can you expand on that?
It's very odd. I must first explain that the major source of my research was done in the two institutions - the Labor Party and the Labor Council - records which are held at the Mitchell Library. It wasn't until almost the last six months of my research that I actually went into two files which I hadn't looked at before. One was called 'Peace' and the other one deals with another matter concerning John Ducker was called 'Rank & File Life Committee'.
In the 'Peace' file there were almost half an inch of documents and I list in the book what they were. There were an explanation of the Communist Party and the Peace movement and there were lists of people that were involved in the peace movement or were alleged to have been involved, up to 23 lines on one person about their activities. They met at private homes, went to peace rallies, they bought Tribune, some highly innocuous things in some ways. I mean a lot of people might have bought Tribune to see what kind of rubbish they were perpetuating. It was obvious that this was a report which only one organization could have prepared and that was ASIO. It's well known that ASIO had people working at all levels report on the peace movement that they considered to be a communist front.
Jim Kenny had been a fervent right winger all throughout his life as well as being a Catholic. Kenny was the architect who formed the industrial group in NSW. He was the one who moved the resolution at the 1945 state conference. He worked with all of the other great right wing unionists like Laurie Short and made the industrial group in the 40s and the 50s big enough to wrest back control from the communist unions like the ironworkers. After we had Evatt denounce the Group, Kenny himself was attacked by Doherty of the AWU as being a stooge for Santamaria and he, who had formed the group and was definitely a member of the catholic social action movement, went on to cut all his ties with them.
That happened in 1965 after the Hobart conference. From then on there's this distinct sea change in Kenny's public attitude. The first was accepting an ACTU sponsored invitation to go to Peking in December 1957. And there he attended a trade union conference and he made a major speech, almost an appeasement speech, saying that all ideology within the trade union movement should coalesce in the fight for peace. That it was the politicians who were the warmongerers, but that the trade union movement right across the world including the trade union movement in China could cooperate in the carse of peace.
Now before that he's never mentioned peace. So at this stage in writing the book I said that this is very, very strange. Why did he go? And then when I found these documents in this file, it all started to make sense because the documents were dated July 1956. Someone had given them to Kenny. It listed all sorts of people. Some were trade unionists but there were many eminent men and women. For instance, people in the CSIRO, people in medical institutions and major hospitals. Someone had sent Kenny this information in '56 so why in '57 does he go to China and start speaking about peace. My thought then was to see what ASIO documents were on Kenny because 1957 followed in 1959 to go to the Melbourne Peace Congress and he continues to go to peace events after that. I thought well, if he's going and speaking about peace there's got to be files on him at ASIO.
So I went through the normal process, sent in my forms and I got back something from the Australian Archives which said that ASIO says there are four folios in the 'open' period - that means the period at that time when I applied that could be released under the 30 year rule. And so I managed to gain photocopies of only two of them and most of them were severely obliterated. But it seems to relate to his visit to China in 1957. Someone had obviously reported to ASIO that he was going to China and that he could be contacted there. But they refused to release the other two folios and the strange thing was they asked archives to tell me that there were no other documents on Kenny in the open or the closed period.
And my argument is: here's a man, a fervent right-winger who goes to Peking at a time in 1957 when no right wingers are going to be seen there, meets Mao, comes back and starts going to peace councils and becoming a leading figure in the peace movement. Why aren't there any other ASIO files on Mr Kenny? Everybody else in the peace movement was investigated. They couldn't move without ASIO knowing what they could do. And why, especially in 1956 is he speaking out against foreign involvement in Vietnam? Why aren't there any other files on him?
My only conclusion, once I found this document, which was curiously on the front page had a notation - K49 in ink. My thesis was that he was given those documents - but who was he given the documents by? K49 was his code number to the ASIO operative who was supplying him. The answer to that was found in the book, 'Australian Spies and their Secrets' by David McKnight, which listed ASIO connections in the trade union movement and pointed the finger at one Jack Clowes who was alleged to have been an ASIO officer and who was later employed at the Labor Council during John Ducker's reign, as a research officer in the Library after he had retired from ASIO.
What do you think this says about the Labor Council at the time?
What you've got to understand is that the Labor Council, once Kenny gained control of it, was in good safe right wing hands. Before that we had enormous conflict, communist inspired disputes and there could have been - after the war - a takeover in the Labor Council so that they became as far left as they were in Victoria. But that didn't happen because Kenny and the industrial group in NSW managed to stave off that challenge by getting sufficient unions into right wing control so they never had the numbers at Labor Council elections.
And my point is that Kenny was always an anti-Communist. Why suddenly does he go the other. It could only be because there was some reason for it. And my view of this matter is, yes, Kenny exchanged information with ASIO. It's quite clear that he received information from them because of what is in the files. As well as the files there are about four issues of Communist Review with articles in them about the peace movement given him the tools - the jargon to express himself.
He was not a left winger. The only benefit he got from this, personally, was that he rehabilitated himself within the broader spectrum of the trade union movement, not the far right who were actually dead against him going to China and who refuse still today to believe that he could be an ASIO agent.
But the reality was there was a sea change in his attitude. I believe it was caused because he was asked by ASIO to go to China. In fact he should have gone in the May but he went to the extreme step of getting his doctor to write a letter to the Labor Council Executive saying that he had been treated for a heart condition, he had a sinus problem and he shouldn't go. Which meant that instead of going in the May when he would have been well chaperoned with the rest of the ACTU delegation that went for the May Day Parade, he went in the December, only accompanied by his wife.
Yes, while he was in China he was obviously guided around by the Chinese. But when you go into Kenny's own personal record in the Mitchell Library, he wrote a complete handwritten report on his visit to China which he presented to the ACTU on his return. Now if he did that, he could have equally written another more detailed report for ASIO. Because otherwise, why would a man who is in one year - in 1956, accepting information from ASIO suddenly in 1957 going the other way. It also enables him to get a wide range of votes at the ACTU and to become Senior Vice President.
A running joke in recent years was that the Labor Council was always a CIA front. Is there any evidence that you've come up with linking Labor Council to the CIA?
Well I know that Michael Easson has always rumoured to be CIA-minded. I don't think so. There was always, in Sydney, a Labor Attaché attached to the US Consul. And it was their job, especially during the 40s and 50s when communist influence was great in unions, to make duchess union leaders and send them to the States for three months. And yes, Kenny did go to the States in 1951 for three months, as did Doherty, as did Laurie Short as did many other people over the years. And during that time he was obviously friendly with the Americans and there is a letter which another author found d which was to Weiner, who was the Labor Attaché at the time who wrote to the State Department to say look after Jim, he is a very good friend of mine.
When Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower's Vice President, came to Sydney in 1953, he actually came down to Trades Hall to see Jim Kenny in his office. Now Nixon was being taken all over the place but he made a special effort to see Kenny because he was a friend of the Americans. So, if that was the case, why suddenly in 1957 is he cosying up to the communist by giving this spiel that all of the troubles of the world and the nuclear arms race was because of the political leaders and that the trade union movement should be beyond that and be working together in the cause of peace?
So what lessons do you think we can learn today from these stories from decades ago?
We've got a case in point at the moment. I don't want to use the word 'cosying up' to the Americans, we have an alliance since the early 50s - the ANZUS alliance with America and New Zealand, although New Zealand is more or less a silent partner becasue of its ban on nuclear powered vessels.
We are, in fact, under the protection of America. If they hadn't come here during WWII we probably would have been invaded by the Japanese. But I think the lessons we have to learn here is that nothing is ever as it seems to be. In the fight against communists at that time, all weapons were used to win - if it meant exchanging information with security organizations so be it. I mean why would ASIO be cosying up to the Labor Party - ASIO worked to keep Labor out of power; Evatt lost the 1955 eection because of the Petrov Royal Commission. So, what we have to learn from all of this is you have leaders who sometimes have to gain information through various sources. They may or may not give information back if there is a common purpose.
At that time there was a common purpose. The right wing Labor Council wanted to make sure the Labor Council was secure that left wing policies were not pursued and disruption of industry during the war was not going to happen. That is why they fought so hard to get leadership in 1946. That's why they formed the industrial groups.
You can't judge those men by today's standards. I doubt if any Labor Council Secretary in the last 10, 15, 20 years would have had any knowing relationship with ASIO. Although we must remeber that Jack Clowes was still employed in Labor Council through to the early seventies until he died.
Interview: Brothers In Arms
Labour historian Marilyn Dodkin explains how she exposed ASIO ties with Labor Council's Cold War leadership.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005