There is an irony in the circumstances surrounding Lynn Arnold’s discovery that he was under ASIO surveillance throughout several decades of his life.
- Former SA premier Lynn Arnold recently applied for and received his partial ASIO file
- The document has prompted mixed feelings, admitting he is shocked by some of the contents
- He’s unsure when the surveillance stopped
It was only when the former South Australian premier found himself detained — by chance rather than by force — that he decided to investigate the investigations that he had been subjected to.
While SA’s COVID lockdowns were hardly house arrest, they provided Dr Arnold with the opportunity to apply for his ASIO file.
“It took about 15 months but I finally got it,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Simon Royal.
“I certainly knew I was under surveillance during the anti-Vietnam War movement.
“[But] I hadn’t actually guessed I was going to be under surveillance while I was a member of parliament.”
As a Labor MP, Dr Arnold was premier for about 15 months from mid-1992 until late-1993, but his commitment to left-wing causes dated back to the 1960s.
An Anglican priest today, Dr Arnold was an “ardent pacifist” in his student years and heavily involved in “the Vietnam moratorium, which I was the chair of in 1970”.
His ASIO file is an eclectic compilation of summaries of meetings, newspaper clippings, and photographs of anti-war rallies.
Certain details, including names, were redacted.
“They indicate that there were six folders of information. I’ve got 150 pages out of it,” Dr Arnold said.
“A lot of information they haven’t released for various reasons and other information’s been destroyed, and I don’t know the balance between the destroyed and the not-yet-released.
“Their main concern with me was to find out whether I was a communist or not, and at some point in the files it actually makes the conclusion that, ‘No, he’s not’.”
Mixed feelings about file’s contents
The revelation that Dr Arnold was not a red did not determine the intelligence service.
As one of the papers, from 1981, states:
“[T]here is no evidence at this stage to suggest that Arnold is being used to promote pro-Soviet attitudes in Australia. However, his position as a World Peace Councilor makes him worthy of future study.
While much of the material relates to Dr Arnold’s anti-war activism there are also later references to activities after his 1979 election to SA parliament, including meetings he held in a ministerial capacity with the East German consul.
Dr Arnold’s feelings about his file are mixed.
On the one hand, he accepts the necessity of a strong national intelligence agency.
“I don’t have a problem with Australia having a security service. I think it’s essential that we have, and I felt so then,” he said.
“The issue is how it was administered in terms of the national interest.
“I accept the fact that in the period of the Cold War there really was a specter of communist infiltration that did have to be monitored, did have to be watched.”
Resorting to code names
But some of the episodes reflected in the file disturbed him, such as one involving a trusted ally who was later revealed to be an infiltrator.
Dr Arnold was surprised to discover details about a meeting that occurred in the lead-up to the September 1970 Moratorium where anti-Vietnam War groups stopped work and turned out in their tens of thousands.
“The room wasn’t bugged, it turns out that one of the 15 people in the room — one of our own committee — was reporting back to ASIO and had written these copious notes,” he said.
“I’ve been quite shocked by that. To know that one of these people, whom I knew, shared a drink with and shared a cause with, was actually reporting.
“That I found a violation.”
Dr Arnold does not know for certain, but presumes his activities were monitored even after he became premier.
But that assumption is not a new one — he suspected it even at the time and responded accordingly.
“When I had conversations with family members or colleagues we sometimes resorted to coding about what we said on the presumption that we might have been tapped,” he said.
“You’d have replacement names for key figures and you’d also have code names for topics.”
How much further material relating to his past is still locked away in archives remains unclear to Dr Arnold.
“What you don’t know is what was destroyed,” he said.
“It does beg the question as to how much more there is, and I don’t know how one gets to find that out.”
But the thought that ASIO might still have stuff up its sleeve is one that prompted a moment of mirth.
“I don’t keep a file on them, so I don’t know,” he joked.