Chapter 7: Political surveillance and the South Australian Police
Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector / P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989
ISBN 0 642 14605 5
(Australian studies in law, crime and justice series); pp. 113-128
Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic, perpetuating
William O. Douglas, 1898-1980
Justice of the Supreme
Court of the United States
To be afraid of ideas, any idea, is to be unfit for self-government.
Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872-1964
American Educator and Legal Philosopher
Citizens of South Australia have been known to take pride in the fact that
theirs is the only state in the Australian federation which did not originate as
a penal colony. Unlike their counterparts in the east, the people of Adelaide
have a reputation for civility and tolerance. The reputation is not entirely
deserved, however, as some aspects of life in the City of Churches have had more
Involvement of South Australian Police in political surveillance dates to the
First World War. Three officers were seconded to Military Intelligence to
infiltrate the German immigrant community of Melbourne. In the immediate
postwar years, detectives were assigned to monitor trade union activity in
mining communities and to report on political speakers in Adelaide's Botanic
Gardens (Cain 1983, p. 143 and pp. 178-82).
In 1939, following discussions with other state police forces and the Department
of Defence, the South Australian Police Department set up an 'intelligence
branch'. The purpose of the new branch was to identify persons of 'potential
enemy nationality' or 'Members of hostile Associations who might obstruct the
National War Effort.' (Huie 1967, p. 80).
The Intelligence Branch ceased to exist in 1945 when the war ended and when
responsibilities for alien registration were assumed by the Australian
Department of Immigration. In 1947, the Commissioner of Police established a
'Subversive Section' to collect and record information on persons engaged in or
suspected of 'subversive' activities. The primary attentions of the section
were devoted to members of the Communist Party of Australia.
Similar sections existed in the police departments of other states and at a 1949
conference of police commissioners, it was agreed that each be known as 'Special
Branch'. The South Australian Special Branch thus began its institutional life.
It was not a large Organisation; in 1977 it consisted of only five officers.
Special Branch officers kept a low profile in the bowels of police headquarters.
Assignment to the branch was not regarded as particularly prestigious; those
officers with ambitions of rising to the rank of inspector and above would have
been well advised to avoid a Special Branch posting.
What Special Branch did was collect information about various individuals and
groups in South Australia. Whilst their guidelines were not explicit, Special
Branch officers were concerned with Communist and related organisations, and
other activities which they regarded as extremist or subversive. Although it
relied primarily on newspaper accounts, Special Branch also received information
from police in the course of normal duties, and engaged agents who infiltrated
target groups and reported back to Special Branch. Special Branch was the
primary point of liaison between the South Australian Police and ASIO, the
federal government's counter intelligence Organisation.
By 1977, the amount of information which Special Branch had amassed was
considerable. It held about 3,000 separate dossiers and over 40,000 index
cards. Individual persons were the subject of some 28,500 cards. Aside from
the existence and scope of such a surveillance system, its most significant
characteristic was its political bias. There were extensive files on Labor
Party parliamentarians including some evidence that, from time to time, they
were under physical surveillance at public meetings. All but two of the state
and federal Labor parliamentarians were in Special Branch files; the proportion
of Liberal parliamentarians who were the subject of files was much less than
Files were kept on the leaders of the trade union movement and on individual
unions. There were cards on judges, magistrates, and at least one former
governor of South Australia. Even religious leaders were under surveillance:
Clergymen of the main denominations 'come under notice' and were indexed. Some
have special files. Most, if not all, of the activity was peaceful and
non-subversive. Even prayer meetings for peace were watched and recorded (South
Australia 1977, p. 12).
The Council for Civil Liberties and its members, never among the most favoured
citizens of South Australia in the eyes of the police, were all on file.
Long before the Council was formed, the public utterances of many prominent
persons who advocated any form of civil rights or liberties were indexed (South
Australia 1977, p. 13).
Other causes whose exponents had aroused sufficient suspicion within Special
Branch to warrant systematic attention included women's liberation, the
anti-apartheid movement, and a group favouring reform of South Australia's
divorce laws. Materials on conservatives and their causes, not to mention
right-wing extremists, was relatively rare.
Among the most fundamental values of a liberal society are freedom of expression
and freedom of association. The uninhibited exchange of ideas is a hallmark of
democratic political life. Thought and discussion of public issues may be
suppressed explicitly, through censorship or outright prohibitions of public
assembly. But the exercise of democratic political freedom may also be
inhibited more subtly. The mere possibility that one's movements and utterances
are or might become the subject of police attention may suffice to discourage a
person from exercising his or her rights and responsibilities as the citizen of
a democratic society.
A healthy democracy requires that the expression of contending viewpoints be
encouraged. But under a system of state surveillance the costs of dissenting
may be such that some citizens will exclude themselves from public life. The
uncertainty over whether or not one is under surveillance may erode the sense of
self and sense of autonomy which are requisites of active citizenship. In a
society where surveillance is undertaken on any significant scale, a climate of
suspicion is created. Trust, a central element of the social fabric, is
Clandestine surveillance and records thereof pose other threats as well.
Malicious accusation or merely erroneous recording practices may result in false
information being kept on a person. Secret files and their keepers are not
accountable; they are not accessible to their subjects for review and possible
In South Australia, these risks were not merely hypothetical. In the words of
the judge who first reviewed the Special Branch files:
Material which I know to be inaccurate, and sometimes scandalously inaccurate,
appears in some dossiers and on some cards. Some of this information appears to
have been used in 'vetting' procedures (South Australia, 1977, p. 7). 1 have
seen a number of cards where information, patently false to my own knowledge,
has been used to the attempted disadvantage of certain persons (South Australia
1977, p. 55).
A familiar refrain of police commissioners past and present is their professed
chronic shortage of personnel. Moreover, one of the more onerous aspects of the
policeman's lot is paperwork.
Small irony, then, that not inconsiderable resources were devoted to political
surveillance and the maintenance of records arising therefrom. The costs in
question were not merely those relating to the five officers serving in Special
Branch. Indeed, it appears they relied for their intelligence material on many
of their brethren on patrol. A portion of the material was based on physical
surveillance by informers and notes of meetings:
From 1953-1954 onwards the ordinary police (at the request of Special Branch on
behalf of ASIO) gave reports on persons buying 'The Tribune' in suburbs and
towns from one end of the State to the other. Police also kept watch on all
meetings of communists at factory gates, at street corners and near polling
booths. Police were also attending various meetings in industrial country towns
where communists were expected to show up but did not. Reports on these
meetings resulted in many innocent persons being watched and being clumsily and
adversely reported upon (South Australia 1977, p. 55).
There seems little doubt that the difficulties involving the South Australian
Special Branch arose from lack of proper supervision by senior officers in the
Department. The unit was small and kept a low profile, to say the least.
Organisationally, it was attached to the Criminal Investigation Branch. For
those heading the CIB, faced with a regular supply of unsolved crimes to
investigate, suspects to apprehend, and cases to prepare for prosecution, it was
convenient to ignore Special Branch. Indeed, the senior officers of CIB
traditionally left Special Branch and its affairs to the Commissioner of Police
personally. In turn, Commissioners were inclined to allow the Sergeant in
charge of Special Branch to manage its affairs without supervision:
The Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner both said that they had never made a
physical search of the large quantity of files and cards, that they rarely even
visited Special Branch and that they relied upon information supplied by staff
(South Australia 1977, p. 67).
This excessive degree of delegation was to prove more than embarrassing. Lack
of supervision by senior police was one matter. Lack of accountability was
Identification Of the enemies of the states is one of the highest functions of
responsible government and should not be delegated, without ministerial
supervision, to a police or other force (South Australia 1977, p. 61).
But ministerial supervision was not easy to achieve. As it happened, the South
Australian Police concealed the extent of political surveillance in which its
officers were engaged on at least three different occasions between 1970 and
1977. The circumstances were to culminate in the dismissal of a police
Australia's constitutional arrangements placed the activities of state police
special branches beyond the purview of the federal minister responsible for ASIO
(the Attorney-General of Australia). At the same time, neither Special Branch
officers nor the Commissioner of Police at the time considered themselves to be
responsible to the state government on many matters under Special Branch
purview. In the words of the then Commissioner of Police, Harold Sainsbury:
As I see it the duty of the police is solely to the law. It is to the Crown and
not to any politically elected government or to any politician or to anyone else
for that matter (quoted in South Australia 1978, P. 19).
Events proved this contention to be both politically unwise and legally
incorrect. Indeed, the constitutional status of the South Australian police had
only recently been formalised, in the aftermath of a royal commission arising
from anti-war protests in the early 1970s (Waller 1980).
The initial criteria by which individuals and activities were selected for
attention by Special Branch were themselves vague. ASIO, itself an Organisation
with no dearth of problems (Australia, 1977) provided inadequate guidelines and
training to special branches. There was no in-house training in the South
Australian Special Branch beyond that flowing from day-to-day routine. As years
wore on, Special Branch activities acquired a momentum of their own, as did
those of the Vice Squad*, reflecting adversely on
the managerial competence of successive South Australian police commissioners.
Once embarked on a course, bureaucracies, even bureaucracies as small as Special
Branch, develop the impulse to perpetuate and justify their existence. Where
tangible threats to national security no longer exist, less tangible threats may
be perceived (or even invented). Stated another more general way, bureaucracies
will find work to occupy their energies, even where none may naturally exist.
In other respects, however, the Special Branch was less adaptable. The inherent
conservatism and insularity of police in general was perhaps even greater within
Special Branch than in the rest of the Department. In any event, the sweeping
scope of Special Branch records revealed an inability, if not an unwillingness,
to distinguish between dissent and subversion. It was also suggested that the
excessive zeal of Special Branch may have arisen in part from American cultural
imperialism. Few Australians experienced at first hand the chilling years of
the McCarthy era in the United States when careers and even lives were ruined by
the mere suggestion of leftist sympathies. But then, as now, the American
interpretation of reality is often embraced uncritically by Australian
We have imported many ideas and practices from the United States, usually in a
diluted form and usually late enough to avoid what have been discovered to be
their worst features. Practices relating to security measures to counter
subversion are no exception. I found that most of the FBI's ideas about
'subversion' security risks and information gathering have percolated down to
Special Branch, no doubt through ASIO training and influence (Australia 1977, p.
Ironically, some of the more constructive aspects of American institutions had
been ignored. By the late 1970s the FBI had developed written guidelines
regarding the investigation of domestic security cases:
Under no circumstances is an investigation (to be) conducted of an individual on
the basis that such individual supports unpopular causes or opposes government
policies (quoted in South Australia 1977, p. 39).
Public awareness of Special Branch and its activities grew very slowly. In
October 1970 the South Australian state council of the Australian Labor Party
(ALP) called upon the government to state whether such a branch existed, and
whether it undertook surveillance of trade unions and political parties. In a
telephone inquiry to Commissioner Salisbury, the Premier, Don Dunstan, was
advised that Special Branch did exist, but that it was a small operation
concerned with information relating to politically motivated violence.
In mid-1975, the South Australian government was approached by Mr Justice Hope,
who at the time held a Royal Commission to enquire into Australia's security and
intelligence activities. On behalf of the Royal Commissioner, the South
Australian Premier's Department requested an outline of Special Branch
activities. An outline was provided on 30 June 1975 and was subsequently found
to be inadequate by the Royal Commissioner. Additional information was
requested in August and September. The Police Commissioner's response again
omitted reference to surveillance of political and trade union activities.
In May 1976 the state council of the ALP and one of the party sub-branches made
inquiries of the Chief Secretary (the South Australian minister responsible for
police) regarding Special Branch activities in general. The Deputy Commissioner
of Police replied in general terms that:
the Special Branch specializes in subversive activities that could lead to
crimes against the State (quoted in South Australia 1978, p. 79).
This vague response was then communicated to the Acting State Secretary of the
Over a year later, in September 1977, the Adelaide Bureau Chief of The
Australian newspaper submitted a list of questions to the Premier's office
regarding political surveillance and dossiers on unconvicted people. Before a
response was forthcoming, the journalist, Peter Ward, who had formerly been an
executive assistant to Premier Dunstan, published an article headed 'Exposed . .
. the Secret Police Dossiers on Demonstrations' (Terry & Ward 1977).
The article implied that the Premier had been reluctant to act on the existence
of secret police. When no response was forthcoming to Ward, he brought his
article to the attention of Mr Robin Millhouse, M.P., the lone Australian
Democrat member of the South Australian House of Assembly.
Millhouse placed his own questions on notice. The reply given on 1 November
1977 revealed that the police did keep records on persons who had not been
charged or convicted of crime, but was otherwise vague. There followed another
article in The Australian which criticised Dunstan's alleged failure 'to
ensure that such surveillance of political dissenters and political terrorists
as is necessary is conducted under the right kind of supervision, with the
correct degree of care' (Ward 1977).
Such pressure from press and Parliament moved the government to act quickly.
State Cabinet met in the absence of Premier Dunstan, who was overseas, and
decided to hold a judicial inquiry into Special Branch.
The inquiry was conducted by Mr Acting Justice J.M. White of the South
Australian Supreme Court. His terms of reference actually specified the
criteria by which information should thereafter be retained on file:
No records, or other material, shall be kept by the Police Commissioner, or any
person under his control as Commissioner, with respect to any person unless:
- That record or material, either alone or with other existing records or
material, contains matters which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that that
person, or some other person, has committed an offence, or
- That record or material, either alone or with other existing records or
material, contains matters which formed the whole or part of the facts with
respect to which that person has been charged with an offence in respect of
which proceedings have not been dismissed or withdrawn, or
- That record or material, either alone or with other existing records or
material, contains matters which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that that
person may do any act or thing which would overthrow, or tend to overthrow, by
force or violence, the established Government of South Australia or of the
Commonwealth of Australia, or may commit or incite the commission of acts of
violence against any person or persons (quoted in South Australia 1977, p. 57).
The terms also enabled Mr Acting Justice White to require the Commissioner of
Police to examine records to ensure compliance with the above criteria, and to
certify formally that they were in fact in compliance. The judge was further
empowered to conduct random checks to ensure the accuracy of the Commissioner's
certification, and to report annually to the government on continued compliance.
The White Report was submitted to the Premier on 21 December 1977. As
indicated by the extracts cited above, it was extremely critical of Special
Branch, its activities, and its management. The Report concluded that a 'great
mass of irrelevant material (often potentially harmful, sometimes actually
harmful) has accumulated' (South Australia 1977, p. 71).
Moreover, the Report noted that the Commissioner of Police had failed to inform
the government fully about the existence of sensitive files on matters relating
to politics, trade unions and other affairs.
When Dunstan confronted Salisbury with the White Report, he expressed his
extreme displeasure and concluded that Salisbury had misled him and that he in
turn had misled the public. Salisbury conceded that some of his answers 'may
have been pulled a little' (Cockburn 1979, p. 2t) but maintained that the
White Report was an over-reaction to the situation.
When Dunstan expressed the intention of publishing the Report, Salisbury
expressed alarm and suggested that the effect would be 'volcanic' (Cockburn
1979, p. 21).
On 16 January 1978 Cabinet decided that the White Report be published
immediately, that the Premier ask for the Police Commissioner's resignation, and
that if this was not forthcoming the Commissioner should be dismissed from
office. Salisbury refused to yield, and the notice of dismissal was delivered
to him on 17 January.
The matter was far from concluded, however. Salisbury was a popular man, both
within the police department and among Adelaide's conservative establishment.
The Liberal Opposition questioned the rigour of the White Report and the
legality of the dismissal. Liberal members reaffirmed their faith in
Salisbury's integrity and hinted that the government had something to hide.
The Premier continued to reaffirm the principles of responsible government and
argued that he had clearly been misled by the former Commissioner of Police.
The Opposition, which controlled the state's upper house, was inclined to
convene a select committee of inquiry. The government acted instead, and
appointed a Royal Commission on 10 February 1978. At the end of May, the Royal
Commissioner, Justice Roma Mitchell of the South Australian Supreme Court,
presented her report.
In firmly dismissing the former Commissioner's contention that he owed a duty to
the Crown and not to any elected government, Justice Mitchell said:
That statement..... suggests an absence of understanding of the constitutional
system of South Australia or, for that matter, of the United Kingdom (South
Australia 1978, p. 19).
She concluded that the former police commissioner had indeed misled the
government, that the government's decision to dismiss him was indeed justifiable
in the circumstances. Justice Mitchell further concluded that the Police
Regulation Act 1952 (SA) be amended to provide for explicit grounds for a
Commissioner's dismissal by the Governor. She recommended against any
parliamentary involvement in a Commissioner's removal from office.
In the immediate aftermath of the dismissal of the Police Commissioner, the
Dunstan government issued a set of instructions pursuant to the Police
Regulation Act. These sought clearly to limit the conditions under which
Special Branch could collect and retain information to those circumstances
involving security, narrowly defined. Specifically, they required that the
information, either alone or with other existing materials, give rise to a
reasonable suspicion that an offence relevant to security has been committed,
that a person might commit or incite the commission to acts of violence, or that
a person might act to overthrow the federal or state government. They provided
for the review of Special Branch files under the supervision of Mr Acting
Justice White, and for the destruction of those materials which did not conform
to the newly specified criteria. In addition, the new instructions required
that approval of the responsible state minister be obtained before any Special
Branch information be disclosed, and that:
Special Branch shall cease recruiting, paying, servicing or otherwise acting as
intermediary for agents of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or
any other Organisation, and shall act in all respects only as a branch of the SA
Police force... (South Australian Government Gazette, 18 January 1978,
Salisbury retired to England, with the $160,000 he would have earned had he
served the remainder of his term as Commissioner. Premier Dunstan resigned from
Parliament on grounds of ill-health in February 1979 and by the end of the year
a Liberal government was in power in South Australia for the first time in
nearly a decade. In November 1980 the Tonkin government replaced the 1978
instructions with a new set which removed the express requirement for
ministerial approval before information from Special Branch Files could be
disclosed. In addition, it relaxed constraints on discretionary decision-making
by Special Branch officers and did not specify how incorrect, obsolete, or
irrelevant data might be corrected or destroyed. New procedures for independent
auditing of files failed to require specifically that the actual 'hands-on'
audit be performed by the independent auditor; rather, the auditing task was
limited to assurance that the responsible police officers had performed certain
functions (South Australian Government Gazette, 20 November 1980, pp.
Another change was necessitated by the unwillingness of the state's Chief
Justice to make a member of the judiciary available for the ongoing auditing of
Special Branch files. Noting that Special Branch was a part of executive
government and that its activities were very much the subject of partisan
political controversy, the Chief Justice maintained that principles of
separation of powers and judicial independence precluded ongoing judicial
oversight of its operations. As alternative, the government appointed a retired
Supreme Court judge, the Honourable David Hogarth, Q.C. as auditors
Labor returned to power in Adelaide in November 1982, and set about rectifying
what were perceived to be inadequacies in the previous government's policy.
Appropriately, it chose the year 1984 in which to abolish Special Branch,
replacing it with an Operations Intelligence Section. The nature of information
which this new body could gather and record was defined precisely to exclude
non-violent activity and peaceful dissent. The new regulations imposed strict
conditions on the disclosure of information, and contained provisions to ensure
that the new unit would remain accountable. The Police Commissioner is required
to report to the responsible minister twice yearly regarding the unit's
activities, and an auditor, independent of both the police and the public
service, reports annually to the Governor. This role continued to be performed
by Mr Hogarth Q.C.
Similar reorganisations had taken place following the abolition of special
branches in Victoria and Western Australia. But elsewhere in Australia,
governments have been reluctant to change the modus operandi of their
security surveillance bodies. Little is known of the Queensland Special Branch.
In New South Wales, however, Special Branch continues to be the subject of more
scrutiny and criticism than it no doubt would prefer to receive (Molomby 1986).
*Dr George Duncan, Adelaide University
law lecturer, drowned in the River Torrens in 1973. Years later former officers
of the South Australian Vice Squad were charged with manslaughter over the
incident. They were eventually acquitted.
Australia 1977, Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, Reports,
(Royal Commissioner, Mr Justice Hope), Australian Government Publishing Service,
Cain, Frank 1983, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia,
Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
Cockburn, Stewart 1979, The Salisbury Affair, Sun Books, Melbourne.
Huie, R. 1967, 'Functions of Special Branch' Internal Memorandum South
Australian Police Department, Reprinted in South Australia 1977, Special Branch
Security Records Premier's Department, Adelaide 1977, pp 78-86.
Molomby, Tom 1986, Spies, Bombs and the Path of Bliss, Potoroo Press,
South Australia 1977, Special Branch Security Records: Initial Report,
(Report of Mr Acting Justice J.M. White), Premier's Department, Adelaide.
South Australia 1978, Royal Commission 1978: Report on the Dismissal of
Harold Hubert Salisbury, (Royal Commissioner, Justice Roma Mitchell),
Government Printer, Adelaide.
South Australian Govemment Gazette 18 January 1978, pp. 287-8.
ibid. 20 November 1980, pp. 1926-7.
Terry, P. & Ward, P. 1977, 'Exposed... The Secret Police Dossiers on
Demonstrations', The Australian, 3 September.
Waller, Louis 1980, 'The Police, The Premier, and Parliament : Governmental
Control of the Police', Monash Law Review, 6, 249-67.
Ward, Peter 1977, 'Secret Police Files a Nettle for Dunstan to Grasp', The
Australian, 3 November.