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Type
Essay
Category
Activism
History

A person of very little interest

I became a person of interest to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) at 5:40 pm on 14 November 1969.

At the time, I was a Year 10 student at Telopea Park High School in Canberra, and I was becoming increasingly interested in radical politics. I was not unique: several activist groups had sprung up already among secondary students. These were generally formed in response to the Vietnam War, and then focused on more local issues, often within schools. I was involved with the clumsily named High School Students against the War in Vietnam, which published Student Underground and operated out of Bob Gould’s Third World Bookshop in Sydney.

On 14 November 1969, I heard that some students were organising a demonstration against the dismissal of one of their teachers. I rang my science teacher, Ian MacDougall, for more information. Not long before, MacDougall, a well-known Trotskyist and soon-to-be founding member of the Socialist Youth Alliance, had been pictured in the Canberra Times scaling (unsuccessfully) a wall of the Lodge during an anti-war demonstration.

MacDougall’s telephone was being tapped. As soon as I made that call – and a subsequent one the following day – ASIO’s cogs began to turn. After establishing my identity, ASIO set up a file on me, L/40/80, and continued to track my movements, even after I relocated to Melbourne in late 1977.

Between that fateful day in November 1969 and August 1983, ASIO compiled twenty-two volumes of files on me. I hasten to add that this was not because of my intrinsic importance to revolutionary socialism in Australia. It was, mostly, because ASIO’s main source of information on the International Socialists (IS), of which I was a member, was the wire tap on the telephone in our Melbourne office. I worked in that office for several years, and each time I answered the phone or made a call, a report was written. Since we had frequent lengthy phone conversations about our internal politics, ASIO was able to put together an occasionally accurate picture of how the group functioned.

Founded in 1975, the Australian version of the IS consciously modelled itself on its UK and US namesakes. Its Melbourne branch was, by the late 1970s, a medium-sized radical Left organisation, with membership fluctuating between twenty-five and fifty. The thing that distinguished the IS at this time was that it realised – much earlier than its rivals – that the student and worker movements were declining. The group wanted to maintain a high level of political activity while recruiting like-minded activists. The best way to achieve this, the group determined, was by concentrating on street demonstrations and similar high-profile stunts (while conducting any work possible with working-class militants). Street demonstrations were not the end goal, but rather a way to show that the IS was the most active, organised, loud and militant group. By doing so, we stood a good chance of recruiting the most active, organised, loud and militant participants.

ASIO was not watching and listening to the IS in the belief that it stood a good chance of bringing down the state. Rather, ASIO took an interest in our approach because we were reasonably successful in what we did. It is, after all, one of the functions of ASIO (together with the police, Special Branch, military intelligence, etc.) to maintain the capitalist order. Being forewarned of the plans of those they believed most likely to challenge that order – at times physically – was clearly to ASIO’s advantage.

What they expected from the IS in this regard was made clear in a ‘Minute Paper’ prepared for the 1980 federal election. The paper notes that the IS was expected to organise and attend demonstrations against the Liberal government, and that it was ‘likely that members of the IS will be involved in violence and confrontation with police’. It cites a demonstration during the previous year’s Victorian state election at a Liberal Party dinner ‘at which IS members distributed eggs and cumquats to other demonstrators and encouraged them to throw those objects at the Prime Minister.’ It went on:

Stink bombs, the throwing of missiles, unauthorized entry and disguises have all been used or attempted by the IS during demonstrations and throughout the General Election they may be used again or new tactics implemented. On a national basis, the IS has been involved in at least 25 demonstrations in the first six months of 1980. At five of those demonstrations IS members were involved in violent incidents.

Whether this assessment was accurate or not is irrelevant – the fact that ASIO believed it to be true meant that the IS was worth watching closely.

We added grist to the ASIO mill with incidents such as the following. The Coalition against the Fraser Government (CAFG) – an IS-sponsored group – held a meeting on 16 April 1980 to plan a demonstration at the Moonee Valley Racecourse a week later. There was some discussion about the advisability of taking eggs and tomatoes along. The ASIO operative reported:

There was a general murmur of assent through the meeting … Then David Lockwood added as an aside that he (Lockwood) always carried a tomato for such occasions such as a demo against the Prime Minister.

Later that same month, at another CAFG meeting, I was at it again:

David Lockwood stated that he never went to a demonstration unarmed (with eggs, tomatoes, etc.). There appeared to be a very strong anti-Police feeling and David Lockwood spoke of the need to resist Police violence.

That I am reported to have made this swashbuckling statement twice makes me think I may have actually said words to this effect (which will come as a great surprise to the comrades who considered me to be excessively cautious). That I was saying such things conveys something of the atmosphere in the IS at the time, and the Left more generally.

A clearly disappointed agent wrote of a demonstration against Prince Phillip at the Footscray Institute of Technology in March 1981:

This demonstration was totally uneventful … The only item of interest occurred … when H [not an IS member] was heard to ask David Lockwood whether or not he had any eggs or tomatoes because he wished to hurl objects at the Prince.

Clearly, H had got wind of my self-publicised habit of never being without a tomato or two. On this occasion, unfortunately, I was out of stock.

I suspect ASIO’s interest was further piqued by the lengthy discussions we had on tactics in the lead up to major demonstrations. Much of this went on in open branch meetings easily accessible to ASIO agents. Any nuances missed in this forum could be filled in by listening to endless commentary on branch decisions on the tapped office telephone.

 

So was ASIO right? Did the IS organise and attend demonstrations with the sole aim of bringing about confrontation with the state? Well, no. The IS attended demonstrations for a number of reasons: to register protest; to sell literature, especially its newspaper; to engage other demonstrators in political discussion; and to recruit new members.

One method for building our ranks was militancy, which, on occasion, led to confrontation with the police. This meant that we turned up at major demonstrations very thoroughly prepared. A ‘command centre’ of two or three people was appointed to determine the actions of the group, everything from where to sell papers through to if and how to resist police. Members were expected to carry out instructions without question. The IS did not launch into reckless battles with the police, but if a battle occurred, the group was prepared to fight. Any other attitude to confrontation was regarded as faintly ludicrous.

Reporting on a telephonic meeting to plan a demonstration against CHOGM in August 1981, the ASIO agent notes my apparently dismissive attitude:

David [Lockwood] sarcastically related that there was a lot of pious talk about how this is going to be a peaceful demonstration – ‘we won’t have any hotheads there will we? … and we’ll do what the police tell us and all that sort of thing’. David added that the IS sat silently through this discussion and did not commit themselves either way.

Sifting through the records, I was amazed to discover that elements in ASIO believed their troubles with the IS had come to an end by late 1980. After a demonstration against unemployment on 17 October 1980, an agent commented:

The violent aspect of the IS now seems unimportant. This is due both to the quality of IS members and the restrictions which the Police have placed on demonstrations. Whereas in the past members would plan the throwing of missiles, this is no longer done. Members are also reluctant to get arrested.

My amazement was compounded when I discovered that ASIO had ascribed this change in attitude, in part, to me. An agent commented in October 1981 that I had exercised a calming influence on IS members at recent demonstrations:

He has cautioned members on carrying anything which could be construed to be an offensive weapon, and has sent any person using abusive language to the rear of the IS lines.

I can well imagine the grim smiles of vindicated satisfaction on the faces of my erstwhile political opponents in the IS leadership if they were to read this report.

ASIO’s agents clearly had difficulties understanding the nuances and implications of the group’s internal politics. They were wrong in their assessment on two counts. First, the IS – far from being anti-confrontational – continued to be heavily involved in a blistering series of anti-government demonstrations, including mass attacks on the Melbourne Club and the US Omega base (near Sale in Victoria). In another instance, after a successful confrontation with Right to Life in August 1982, an IS member is reported to have declared at a branch meeting that the action ‘revealed our military capabilities and our capacity to bring down the State.’ (Still plenty of work to be done there.)

Second, far from exercising great influence over other members, I was in fact being rapidly outflanked by the Left of the organisation, largely due to my changing views on militancy. Since my tomato-brandishing days, I had come to the conclusion that most confrontations between our little band – even with crowds behind it – and the police served no really useful political purpose. Usually they diverted attention away from the issue at hand and towards the role of the police. Our discussions before demonstrations tended to degenerate into military tactics and manoeuvring, rather than concentrating on the politics we were trying to promote. And with all due respect to those concerned, the members attracted by street confrontations may have been the most militant, but they were not necessarily the most political, innovative, thoughtful or dedicated – qualities that rapidly became more precious as the militancy faded.

Disagreement over militancy came to a head with the demonstration against the Omega base in November 1982. Rumours circulated beforehand that a group of non-IS members was going to launch an assault on the perimeter fence in order to occupy the base. In early September, the ASIO wire tap reported a conversation about the plan:

Lockwood said that if certain people launch a suicide assault on the place he is not going to go and help them and if he has anything to do with it, he is going to tell the rest of the IS not to go and help them either.

Indeed, a group of demonstrators did launch an assault on the fence, complete with grappling hooks. Most IS members, including nearly all of the leadership, participated. In the aftermath, a branch meeting was held to consider the demonstration.

The agent reported the leadership’s view:

A said the demonstration was generally a very successful one and if the numbers had been higher the main gate of the base would have been pulled down. However, there was some confusion because the IS was not informed that grappling hooks were to be used on the gate and the fences.

The agent further reported:

Lockwood … said there was simply no excuse for the IS helping with the use of grappling hooks nor was there any excuse for the IS defending demonstrators who were intent on provoking the police.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I categorically lost this debate within the organisation. My removal from leadership positions followed soon afterwards. The IS continued to do what it did at demonstrations, and, presumably, ASIO revised its view that the IS threat was over, as surveillance continued.

But to what purpose was ASIO’s information put?

I must re-emphasise that what I write here concerns my own experience and what I have drawn from my own files alone. I am well aware that, particularly during the main part of the Cold War, ASIO was able to ruin the lives of its targets, going beyond a mere nuisance to veritable harassment and persecution. But ASIO did neither of these things to me.

I suspect this more relaxed approach reflected changes in the political climate. There were a number of reports made about me (mostly from various tapped telephones) from the time I was marked for observation in 1969 up until April 1972 – but then nothing until July 1975. Yet, the period in between encompassed a number of significant moments for the Left: numerous street demonstrations; the formation of the ANU Labour Club (Revolutionary Communist); the radicalisation of the Australian Union of Students; a campaign against exams at ANU that involved three occupations; and a campaign against plans to build a huge tower on Black Mountain. The lack of ASIO reports on my involvement in these activities perhaps reflects the attitude of Gough Whitlam’s government, elected in 1972, to the kind of intense surveillance of radical opponents that had characterised earlier governments. Reports begin again in July 1975, by which time relations between ASIO and the Labor government had become so strained that the latter was presumably having difficulty controlling the former.

It was around this time that ASIO undertook a comprehensive background check of my past. This revealed that my father had been a naval officer and that he was still employed in the Department of Defence. Was there an issue of national security here? In 1978, an agent wrote: ‘Unless HQS advise otherwise it is intended to discuss this case with the Dept’s DSO with view to possible interview of Lockwood SNR.’

But the higher-ups were not sure of the wisdom of such action: ‘HQS wishes to know what you hope to gain from interview or discussion with: 1. Lockwood Snr; 2. DSO.’ The agent in Canberra replied that he wanted to know whether my father was involved in my political activities – and, if not, whether he was amenable ‘to an approach by ASIO’ to provide information ‘on the activities of his son’s associates and, if he volunteers it, on his son.’ The Department of Defence’s assessment was that my father was, in general, ‘for our system and against those who would destroy it.’ But the Department warned:

He is a North Country man, reluctant to talk of himself … not easily inclined to anger but if roused hard to deal with. That which he does not agree with he questions strongly.

By this stage I had moved to Melbourne. HQS told Canberra: ‘An interview with his father at this time would be unlikely to produce significant intelligence. Thank you for your preliminary work on the matter.’ The enraged ASIO operative wrote back:

Am I to infer … that there is no need to explore any reasonable avenue to develop information about a person of interest? … [O]r that to explore the proposition that a person in a position of access [to national security], whose home is used to distribute SLL material [the operative is confusing the Socialist Labour League with the International Socialists here] is of no real interest or concern to ASIO? There would seem to be some deep policy aspect to this case beyond the comprehension of a rustic Regional Officer.

But no further action was taken.

In short, the impact of this vigorous correspondence on my father and me was … absolutely zero. Neither my father’s job nor his security rating was altered in any way – although it seems it was within the power of ASIO and the Department of Defence to do so – and there were no negative impacts on his career. There were also no changes in my life. In fact, I did not have the slightest idea that these investigations were going on. As far as I can judge, this was ASIO’s only attempt to intrude on my personal life or to use my friends or relatives against me.

There seems to be little personal animosity in the reports. In 1980, an agent wrote, ‘Lockwood is the only normal person in the IS’. And when tapped conversations turned to personal matters, the reports cease. Many of the phone conversation reports end with phrases like ‘Trivial chatter followed’ or even ‘The rest of the conversation was of no interest, although entertaining’. My personal relationships are mentioned only in passing.

Moreover, beyond demonstrations, ASIO seemed to take little notice of possibly illegal activities. For example, ASIO was of the opinion that when I worked full-time for the IS, my wages were being supplemented by unemployment benefits, but no attempt was made to inform either the Department of Social Security or the police. On another occasion, at an IS branch meeting in July 1979, there was a call for volunteers to spray-paint the ANZ Bank building, due to its involvement in uranium mining. The time and place of both an organising meeting and the action itself were announced and passed on to ASIO headquarters – but not to the police. In other words, it was used to contribute to ASIO’s general picture of IS activity, rather than to stop or catch us in the act.

So what was the use of all this information? I must confess this remains something of a mystery to me. From my files, it seems that by the 1980s ASIO’s information was not going anywhere much. No-one – including ASIO staff – appears to have been making much use of the intelligence so assiduously and laboriously gathered.

So what was the point? Was it all just silliness on ASIO’s part? I can’t believe that. But nor do I believe that the ASIO operation against the IS was an exercise in post-Cold War time-wasting, or part of the perennial need of defence and security organisations to gobble up resources, though both elements probably came into it. The surveillance had a serious purpose: to ascertain our plans for the next political demonstration. ASIO was serious because we were. Our emphasis on street militancy was, at that time, a thought-out strategy, one that was vigorously applied. And thus my comrades and I were perceived as enemies of the state, of Australia itself – after all, if they did not see us as a potential threat, why bother with surveillance at all?

What is more concerning, however, is how much they got wrong. In spite of all the information ASIO officers gathered, they were misguided in their analysis of the importance of the IS in the political landscape at the time. Moreover, they misunderstood my own role within the organisation, and misjudged where the group was headed. And if ASIO got it so wrong then, will they get it right now? What errors might be made today when investigating, for example, allegedly ‘radicalised’ Muslim youth?

This all happened a long time ago, and a lot has changed in the four decades since I was involved in the IS. And while my personal experiences may seem to offer little more than an amusing glimpse into ASIO’s past shortcomings, such histories are worth bearing in mind when considering the ever-increasing role of surveillance in contemporary Australia. Histories such as this provide an interesting and much-needed counterpoint to the dubious justifications being put forward today for extending intelligence powers, for the capturing and storing of personal metadata, and for introducing new ‘security measures’.

The IS and its successor organisations no doubt remained on ASIO’s radar for years to come – I look forward to discovering the objects of their attention in the post-1984 files.

This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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David Lockwood is a history lecturer at Flinders University.

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