23/08/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Democracy shows its dark side

23/08/2005 - 22:00


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Whenever possible, State Scene highlights the bountiful benefits of democracy over its horrific totalitarian alternatives, most especially European fascism, Russian and Oriental bolshevism, and now Middle Eastern Islamic jihadism.

Whenever possible, State Scene highlights the bountiful benefits of democracy over its horrific totalitarian alternatives, most especially European fascism, Russian and Oriental bolshevism, and now Middle Eastern Islamic jihadism.

Even so, one shouldn’t overlook that democracies can embark – rarely, thankfully – upon harsh paths when defending themselves against fanatical adherents to violent ideologies.

Two extreme 20th century examples were the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the protracted air bombardment of cities across Hitler’s Reich during 1940-45.

But there are other less dramatic cases.

A just-released book by accomplished Western Australian-born historian, Barbara Winter, certainly reminds us of one.

Titled, The Australia-First Movement: Dreaming of a National Socialist State (Interactive Publi-cations), the book analyses in great depth the lives, obsessions and treat-ment of members of a tiny home-grown ultra-nationalistic fraternity, 20 of whom were interned for part of the war, including four from Western Australia.

Ms Winter rightly points out that the Australia-First Movement’s “natural heir” is today’s rightist League of Rights, which regularly surfaces in political imbroglios.

The AFM’s best known leading personality was Percy ‘Inky’ Stephen-sen (1901-1965), Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University communist activist, and a leading Australian literary figure.

Stephensen, who ghosted many of Frank Clune’s popular Australiana novels, found a patron in the sinister Sydney businessman, William Miles (1871-1942), who bankrolled this movement’s loss-making magazine, The Publicist.

Both Sydneysiders and their Melbourne members and WA disciples soon came under the watchful eyes of Australian Military Intelligence and various special branches because the AFM, as well as being fiercely anti-British and anti-Semitic, was pro-Nazi and increasingly pro-Japanese. AFM’s backers preferred to highlight their intense nationalism and passionate pro-Australian feelings.

By the outbreak of the war in Europe in late 1939, various policing arms had adequate documentation – through telephone taps, mail intercepts and planted agents – that showed many of the AFM’s backers’ ardent nationalism had the potential to become dangerous if Japanese forces occupied Australia.

The best that can be said of this tiny ideological fraternity is that many of its members were gullible and lacked discretion.

The worst was that some at least were potential recruits for a Quisling-style administration for Perth, and Canberra, if Australia was occupied.

Let’s not forget what former MP Philip Pendal recently highlighted; that in March 1942 – the month four Perth AFM associates were arrested – WA Governor Sir James Mitchell vacated Government House for a Kalamunda residence, while Kalgoorlie was seen as a likely wartime capital if Perth was occupied.

Such a move and plan are a measure of officialdom’s outlook during those perilous days.

Ms Winter’s Chapter VIII, ‘The Western Australian Connection’, is a gripping, blow-by-blow, sometimes hour-by-hour, account of the cloak and dagger way the four – Gallipoli veteran Laurence Bullock of Bunbury and Perth; Chas Williams of Manjimup; Edward Quicke of Balingup; and Nancy Krakouer of Mosman Park – were ensnared during February/March 1942 by police agent provocateur Frederick Thomas, alias Federick Carl Hardt.

This happened as Japanese aircraft bombed several coastal Kimberley townships.

By June, when Sydney was attacked by Japanese mini-submarines, and that metropolis and nearby Newcastle were shelled from the sea, the Perth four faced trial.

Little wonder one military intelligence supporter said: “Why should the rights of 20 cranks be considered against the security of seven million persons?”

Moreover, at this time, many thousands of Australian families had fathers and sons in cruel Japanese captivity in Singapore and elsewhere across Asia.

The magnitude of the American naval Battle of Midway victory was still not fully appreciated.

Ms Winter writes: “The jury retired at 12.15am on June 23; at 3.45 they returned a guilty verdict on Bullock and Williams, and acquitted Quicke and Krakouer.”

Bullock received three years hard labour; Williams two years.

“It is difficult to estimate the damage done by Bullock, less by his unrealistic conspiracy than by his public rumour mongering,” Winter continues.

“Irrespective of whether he meant what he said in the proclamation, of whether he intended sabotage or assassinations, of whether the Japanese would have listened to him or shot him on sight: Bullock was potentially dangerous.

“The self-important Western Australians with their folie des grandeurs were a brief and insignificant aberration with no coherent policy or lasting influence.

“Whether or not they were simply ‘a bunch of lunatics’ is not the point.

“Even lunatics could do real damage.”

That said it must be added that Ms Winter presents all sides of the ongoing wartime and post-war debate on the need, wisdom, and legality of these controversial internments.

She outlines arguments or considerations for and against, and highlights Perth historian and later Menzies Liberal government minister and governor-general Paul Hasluck’s contentions in his study of the home front, The Government and the People (Australian War Memorial) where he criticised the Curtin government’s internment decision.

“The detention of some 21 persons concerned was undoubtedly the grossest infringement of individual liberty made during the war and the tardiness in rectifying it was a matter of shame to the democratic institution and to the authorities concerned,” Hasluck alleged.

Interestingly, however, as Ms Winter points out: “Hasluck and Menzies made no attempt to correct this ‘injustice’ when they won government in 1949.”

It’s also worth noting that, except for Stephensen, who was released in August 1945 – so after hostilities ceased in the Pacific – most were freed late in 1942, that is, when Australia’s political leaders viewed the prospect of a Japanese occupation as having faded.

Moreover, some were financially compensated, though payments were smaller than anticipated.

And Labor’s wartime attorney-general, Herbert Evatt, convened a parliamentary inquiry headed by Judge Thomas Clyne, at the behest of Opposition leader, Robert Menzies.

“Counsel for ex-internees tried to prove official incompetence and bad faith,” Ms Winter writes.

“What they found indicated rather confusion, anxiety, hasty judgment and inadequate resources.

“Some officers were no longer with Intelligence. They no longer had access to files and had to testify from memory.”

No transcript of the trial of Perth’s four AFM members existed, making Judge Clyne’s task even more difficult.

What did the judge conclude?

“I think, however, that it must not be forgotten that the persons who were wrongly detained, were largely to blame for the misfortune which overtook them.

“They were associated with certain persons who were using the AFM to cause dissention in the community to foster opinions prejudicial to Australia’s part in the war.

“In my opinion, they did not fully recognise their obligations to aid the community at a critical time in its history and failed to appreciate the danger which might have been caused to Australia’s war effort by agitation and the stirring up of strife.”

Interestingly, Judge Clyne echoes Hasluck’s view that is found just a few lines after his criticism of the government.

“Perhaps in the uncertainties of the day extreme action might have been excusable,” Hasluck wrote. 

Ms Winter is kinder.

“It [the AFM] attracted some unbalanced extremists whose actions compromised the whole movement, leading to disaster and grief for others who did not understand how their good intentions had been so misunderstood.”

As well as Judge Clyne, Paul Hasluck and Barbara Winter concurring, most Australians in 1942 held similar views, showing, yet again, that democracies can resort to severe measures when their citizens are seen to be threatened.


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