Category Archives: 7. Protection

Protection · Prologue

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At about 11.30pm on 5 October 1948, a student walking through the grounds of the University of Melbourne noticed a fire in one of the ex-army huts used by the physics department. He raised the alarm, but little could be done to save the building or its contents. The results of two years research into cosmic rays were destroyed, along with much valuable equipment. 1 This was the third fire at the university in the space of just three months, still the chief fire officer believed there to be no suspicious circumstances. Instead he criticised the university for housing such work in a ‘highly-inflammable hut’. 2 The wiring in these huts was notoriously bad, and it seemed that this fire had simply been caused by a fault in one of the electrically-driven recording instruments. 3

In Canberra twenty-four hours later, the Opposition member, WJ Hutchinson, rose to speak on an issue which he believed to be ‘of sufficient importance to warrant a reply…even at this late hour’. 4 Hutchinson drew attention to the fire at Melbourne University, and quoted from a newspaper report that claimed that the facilities destroyed ‘were used by the CSIR and the university in carrying out vital defence experiments in nuclear physics’. Leslie Martin, the professor of physics and the scientist in charge of the work, was quoted as describing his laboratory as ‘the main Commonwealth defence research centre and the only one in Australia undertaking such work’. Given these facts, the fire could be seen in a rather more sinister light. Hutchinson argued that communist fifth columnists were attempting to infiltrate defence research activities around the world, why then was this hut not guarded? Was the fire really an accident or was it sabotage? ‘If the laboratory at the University of Melbourne could be burnt down because no-one was on guard’, he thundered, ‘it was equally possible for the records to have been stolen from the building’. 5

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Notes:

  1. Herald, 6 October 1948, p.3
  2. Herald, 6 October 1948, p.1; SMH, 7 October 1948, p.3
  3. Argus, 7 October, 1948, p.5
  4. CPD, vol.198, 6 October 1948, p. 1317.
  5. CPD, vol.198, 6 October 1948, p. 1318.

A choice between the quick and the dead

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It was December 1954 and the Royal Commission on Espionage was on the hunt for atomic secrets. In a session closed to the public, lest any dangerous secrets slip, CSIRO physicist George Briggs was questioned about the contents of his safe. 1

Perhaps better known as the Petrov Commission, the Royal Commission on Espionage was well advanced in its investigations. 2 Gone were the days of high drama when the leader of the Opposition, HV (Doc) Evatt, had clashed heatedly with the commissioners over his allegations of a right-wing conspiracy. The Commission had settled down to a methodical examination of the documents that Vladimir Petrov had handed over upon his defection to ASIO. These documents gave names and brief details of certain individuals whom Soviet intelligence (the MVD) believed to be of potential value. As the Commission itself recognized, to be included in these lists was no evidence of wrong-doing, but still it did not hesitate to call many of those named before the enquiry, opening their private beliefs and associations to public scrutiny.

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Notes:

  1. For more on Briggs see Tim Sherratt, ‘A physicist would be best out of it: George Briggs and the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission’, Voices, vol. 3, no. 1, 1993, pp. 17-30.
  2. For contrasting viewpoints on the ‘Petrov affair’ see: Robert Manne, The Petrov affair: politics and espionage, Pergamon, Sydney, 1987; Nicholas Whitlam, and John Stubbs, Nest of traitors: the Petrov affair, Jacaranda Press, Milton, 1974. See also Jack Waterford, ‘A Labor myth?’, in Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (eds), Better dead than red, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1986, pp. 99-119.

Girding themselves for the fray

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‘One has only to turn to the map, and see how unpeopled our northern lands are, to realize the obligation upon us’. In July 1909, Littleton Groom introduced legislation for the Commonwealth takeover of the Northern Territory. The ‘emptiness’ of Australia’s north was a reproach, a failure of responsibility and imagination, that threatened the ‘welfare of the Commonwealth’. By taking control of the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth could, Groom argued, begin to meet the obligations of nation, empire and race, and justify its ownership of the continent. Urgent action was demanded in the interests both of progress and security. ‘We have in the north a rich, fertile country’, Groom continued, ‘and no matter what means of communication may be determined in the future, that Territory, as it is today, … is a menace to the Commonwealth’. 1

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Notes:

  1. CPD vol. 50, 30 July 1909, pp. 1878-91.

The badge of the outsider

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The war, when it came, only lasted for a month, but that was long enough. All life was quickly extinguished in the northern hemisphere, and the clouds of deadly radioactive fallout gradually diffused to shroud the whole globe. For the people of Australia, it was a lingering, drawn out journey to oblivion. Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel On the Beach presented a new threat from the north, something invisible and unstoppable. ‘It’s going to go on spreading down here, southwards, till it gets to us?’, Moira asks, ‘And they can’t do anything about it?’ ‘Not a thing’, replies Commander Dwight Towers, ‘It’s just too big a matter for mankind to tackle. We’ve just got to take it’. 1 All they can do is wait helplessly for their own death. In this final act of surrender the people of Australia are united with the rest of humanity. One world or none.

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Notes:

  1. Nevil Shute, On the beach, Heinemann, London, 1957, pp. 39-40.

Means must be taken to control what men shall know

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In March 1947, David Rivett delivered an address entitled ‘Science and responsibility’ at the annual commencement ceremony of the Canberra University College. Rivett, the much-respected chairman of CSIR, pursued a number of his favourite themes, rhapsodising upon spirit of scientific inquiry, and urging governments not to focus too narrowly on the application of science to industry. The importance of fostering fundamental research in science was always one of Rivett’s most passionate credos, a cause inherited from his friend and mentor, Orme Masson. But in the postwar world, the utilitarian bias of government and society was not the most dangerous threat to the health of science. There was a ‘cloud’, Rivett warned, ‘that has been present in a minor degree for a long time but has grown more starkly in recent times’. It was a cloud that threatened to overshadow ‘that free-trade in scientific knowledge of all kinds, which has been the glory of these last three hundred years’. 1 It was a cloud of secrecy and mistrust.

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Notes:

  1. David Rivett, ‘Science and responsibility’, Melbourne University Magazine, 1947, pp. 9-12.

Border protection

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‘What does a woman want from life?’, asked a Liberal Party advertisement some months prior to the 1949 election. Was it socialism, which entailed ‘government supervision and direction of every phase of family life’, or liberalism, which offered the ‘freedom to manage your own family life’ as well as ‘independence’ and ‘prosperity’? 1 The integrity of family life was at stake, as it was again a few years later during the Menzies government’s campaign to boost defence preparedness in response to the communist menace. ‘When Australia is in danger our children are in danger’, readers of the Australian Women’s Weekly were warned, ‘in striving to make Australia strong we also make secure the future of the children we love’. 2 Communism was not merely a threat to Australia’s political system, it was threat to Australia’s way of life, to the family itself.

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Notes:

  1. Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 October 1949, p. 38. See also Alomes, ‘The social context of postwar conservatism’, pp. 25-7.
  2. Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 November 1950,p. 67.