The ‘protest’ years
ASIO had arguably secured a place in the Australian consciousness through the ‘Petrov affair’ and more broadly, via the superpower tensions of the Cold War. But by the 1960s, it found itself operating in a changing social environment. Australian society featured, as did many Western societies, a growing commitment to activism and conviction towards political and social causes. The focus of ASIO’s investigations extended to include many organised protest movements, due to a concern some were acting on behalf of, or were unwittingly co-opted by, Soviet and other communist agents.
ASIO referred to these as Communist Front Organisations. Our role was to provide government with assessments and advice to determine whether a communist threat existed behind elements of this activism and to monitor the responsible individuals if a threat was suspected.
This included some members of the active protest movements against the war in Vietnam, social advocacy groups and organisations, and activist groups with a focus on Aboriginal land rights.
Communist Front Organisations
Communist Front Organisations originated after the First World War—as a tool to continue the revolution that had succeeded in Russia, by involving a broad base within the masses to continue the fight for socialism.
ASIO monitored Communist Front Organisations that emerged in Australia as part of its overall focus on the activities and influence of the Communist Party. ‘Front’ organisations were bodies whose membership was not directed at, or limited to, declared communists or sympathisers. Communist control of these organisations was not openly acknowledged, and they were used to increase contact between communists and non-communists to grow support for the Party and promote objectives which—although appearing independent—may have been subversive.
An internal ASIO paper on ‘Communist Fronts in Australia’ around 1963 explains:
the use of fronts, or facades, behind which Communist policies can be advanced in a disguised form, has been a regular feature of Communist strategy since the early days of the Communist International ... The Communist Party of Australia has made great use of fronts throughout its history, and currently regards them as essential instruments for the execution of its programme.
ASIO’s involvement in the investigation of these movements was, and remains, controversial. It gave rise to the popular—although not accurate—view that the ASIO of the 1960s was an anti-left organisation.