Petro's Problem


Last Wednesday, Federal Liberal MP Petro Georgiou, said this:

The social justice constantly proclaimed by [Liberal Party founder Robert] Menzies as one of the Party’s cornerstones has been forgotten by many members of the Liberal Party, and reviled by others. Our traditions of civil liberty have been curtailed, and in some cases overturned, in pursuit of a war on terrorism.

Petro is lining up with the angels in his criticism of recent abrogations of civil liberties. But there is a breathtaking delusion at the centre of his argument that is, that the Liberal Party ever had ‘small l’ liberal traditions or attitudes.



The Liberals first attained Federal office in December 1949 with the defeat of the Chifley Labor Government. Four months later, they introduced into Parliament the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and destroyed any claim they had to libertarian inclinations. Under the Bill’s provisions, the Communist Party was to be immediately outlawed, its assets confiscated without compensation, and alleged communists were to be ‘declared’ which would result in immediate dismissal from the public service, the armed forces and any position in a trade union which operated in a ‘vital industry.’

Declarations of individuals could be made by any three Federal Ministers without a court hearing or trial. Party members who carried on the activities of the Party after the ban could be jailed for up to five years.

The then Federal Labor leader Ben Chifley condemned the Bill and described it as striking at the very heart of justice:

It opens the door for the liar, the pimp and the perjurer to make charges and damn a man’s reputation and to do so in secret without having either to substantiate or prove charges they might make.

Fortunately, the High Court of Australia was having none of it and struck down the entire Act the following year after the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Dr HV ‘Doc’ Evatt, a former High Court Judge, took the extraordinary step of appearing in the case for one of the parties who was applying to have the Act invalidated. (I should acknowledge David Marr’s award-winning book Barwick a biography of Garfield Barwick who appeared against Evatt in the case as a key source for this article.)

Menzies promptly called a Federal election and used the slogan ‘Menzies or Moscow’ in the campaign. Menzies’s strategy before the poll was to exploit public fears of communism to the hilt and to attempt to paint his Labor opponents as being soft on the issue. He was successful and the Government was returned.

With a new mandate, Menzies proposed a referendum to amend the Constitution to validate the struck-down Act. If the opponents of the original Act thought it was extreme, they must have been amazed at the terms of the proposed changes. Not only was the Act to be validated, it was to be entrenched in the Constitution to prevent its repeal, and the Parliament was also to be given a power to expand the Act’s provisions without a Constitutional change being necessary! If that was not enough, Doc Evatt argued that the Constitutional amendments would even override the limited human rights guarantees in the Constitution religious freedom, trial by jury for serious offences and ‘just’ compensation for confiscated property.

Evatt, by then the Opposition Leader, fought the referendum tenaciously and without fear. Against the odds, he was successful and the people voted ‘no.’

Another example of Menzies’s illiberalism was his attitude to ASIO. Prime Minister Chifley had reluctantly created ASIO shortly before the 1949 elections at the insistence of the Americans and British who were worried about a high-level security leak within the Australian Government.

Australian anti-communist comic, image from here

Shortly after Menzies was elected, he appointed a new head of ASIO and authorised telephone tapping even though it was unlawful. There was no attempt to legislate to give ASIO that power, but illegal tapping continued throughout the 1950s with the support of the Government. There is no doubt this was going on: the then Clerk of the House of Representatives, Frank Green, discovered that ASIO was tapping all telephone calls between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra, from its premises at Potts Point in Sydney. This became expensive, and in 1953 ASIO installed equipment in the post office in Canberra to do the job. The Prime Minister repeatedly denied to Parliament in the 1950s that such a thing was occurring but by 1960, the jig was up and the Government was forced to introduce legislation to validate the tapping.

Even that legislation was extreme. It allowed ASIO to tap any phone call unless long-term tapping was required, when the Attorney-General had to authorise it, at the A-G’s absolute discretion. It was not until 1979 that a safe-guarded process was introduced. The Howard Government has, this year, given tapping powers to numerous government departments, and introduced the tapping of emails and text messages with a watered-down test.

It gets worse. The activities of ASIO from 1950 right through to 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government was elected is probably the best long-running example of the conservatives’ disregard of individual rights. With encouragement from successive Liberal-dominated governments, ASIO concentrated its efforts on fighting the alleged communist threat to the exclusion of other legitimate intelligence activities. It virtually ignored the terrorist activities of Ustasha, a Croatian Nationalist organisation active in the 1960s and 1970s, to the extent that its violent actions had to be investigated by the Federal Police.

The reason was that Ustasha was a Right-wing organisation opposed to communist Yugoslavia and ASIO was prepared to tolerate it. Under the Liberals’ watch, ASIO was encouraged to take an extremely wide view of who might be dangerous. As a result, it kept records of a huge number of ALP Left-wingers. It is claimed at one stage it had files on every ALP Branch Secretary in NSW. In the early 1980s, as a Branch Secretary not of the Left, I was approached to supply information, by a person I assume to have been an ASIO agent. (I declined)

ASIO is now a changed organisation, but it is concerning that the Howard Government has doubled its size and given it unprecedented powers to detain and interrogate persons, including non-suspects, in relation to terrorism offences. By giving it those powers, the Liberals have converted ASIO, at least in part, into a secret police force, rather than just an information-gathering body. The powers are limited and the detention power has not yet been used. However, the interrogation powers, which remove the right to silence and to some extent abridge personal liberty, are now quite regularly used.

Removing the civil liberties of foreigners is a Liberal specialty. Vietnam, Iraq, SIEV X thousands were killed as a result of bad policy, in each case initially justified by misrepresentation.

Lastly, the treason offences ‘up-dated’ by the Howard Government in 2002 are repressive. The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in its recent review of sedition, stumbled across the new treason laws. Despite it being beyond their terms of reference, the ALRC recommended that they be substantially narrowed. The Co
mmission suggested that it is possible under the current law for a person who strongly opposes illegal military action by our army, to be convicted of treason and jailed for (a maximum of) life!

Petro Georgiou should, and likely does, know this tawdry history. He may not support it but why does he deny it?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.