Meredith Burgmann [ed.], Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files

Released under the 30-year rule, the ASIO files that form the focus of Dirty Secrets cut off in the early 1980s, making this a generational history.

Most of the 26 contributors were Vietnam-era “subversives”. In reflecting on the contents of their ASIO files, some of them make much of little; others make little of much. Some write with humility of their younger selves’ passions and transgressions; others still stoke the old fires. The manifest harmlessness of their activities back then is a recurring theme. Most are bemused by the trifling, random observations to which ASIO accorded significance and by the extent to which humanism in its broadest sense was equated with subversion in its narrowest.

Film critic David Stratton infuriatingly (but characteristically) refuses to be riled. Regarding an informant within the Sydney Film Festival, he says, “… what does it matter in the scheme of things? They thought they were doing the right thing and no real harm was done.” Besides his file’s many inaccuracies, Stratton is most struck by “what a boring job” surveillance must be.

 The book’s responses exhibit something of the same tedious repetition and triviality as characterise the files themselves.

Stratton was surprised to learn he has an ASIO file. Frances Letters is astonished to find that she, alone of all her activist friends, does not. “I protest!” she writes, half-joking. “What about all my writing, arguing, cajoling about the Vietnam War, apartheid, racism and Aboriginal rights…? All those anarchist and Communist Party friends and lovers?” Journalist Wendy Bacon finds it ironic, given ASIO’s covertness, to discover that her file has already been digitised and released online, without her knowledge or permission.

Dirty Secrets addresses itself to readers who came of age during the Cold War. Anyone under 50 would likely be mystified to read that a pamphlet “had been hurriedly roneoed on an old Gestetner”. The “Combe-Ivanov affair” gets two mentions with only an elliptical explanation. Gary Foley thoughtfully parenthesises a “note for young people”, explaining that a telex was a “different sort of text message”.

Shaped as it is by the 30-year rule, Dirty Secrets risks casting ASIO surveillance in the quaint light of antiquity. Who among the book’s contributors is still being watched? And who counts as subversive now?  FL

NewSouth, 384pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Meredith Burgmann [ed.], Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files".

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