Academic journal article Flinders Journal of History and Politics

ASIO's Surveillance of Brian Medlin

Academic journal article Flinders Journal of History and Politics

ASIO's Surveillance of Brian Medlin

Article excerpt

This paper has been peer reviewed.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, thousands of South Australian protesters took to the streets, publicly demanding social justice and an end to what they regarded as the unwarranted and imperial ventures of the western world. In Adelaide, authorities noted what they saw as the use of a 'Paris-style' charge at demonstrations, with participants marching ten abreast with linked arms.1 At Flinders University, students threatened to burn a dog to death as part of an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.2 In Adelaide, the man who more than any other personified the Moratorium movement was Flinders University philosopher Brian Medlin, who advocated for a peaceful end to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. As his former student John Schumann has pointed out, an enduring image of that time is of Brian Medlin, 'the long-haired professor of philosophy, spread-eagled between two policemen, being dragged from the front of the anti-war march in the September of 1970'.3

Unsurprisingly, Medlin attracted the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which at the time of the Vietnam War took measures to identify and monitor individuals of interest within the anti-war movement, searching for communists and their fellow travellers connected with the cause.4 ASIO's extensive monitoring of communists 1 2 3 4 had begun well before anti-Vietnam War protests. Founded in 1949 in response to strong and well-founded suspicions of a Soviet spy network in operation in Australia, ASIO had continued through the 1950s, 1960s and beyond to focus its surveillance work on supporters of left-wing causes in Australia, even after the existence of the Soviet network had been revealed and the dangers it posed averted.5

A close study of the acute interest ASIO took in Brian Medlin offers insights into the history of the organisation and the way in which its role changed after the Soviet network was revealed and broken up, largely as the result of the 1954 defection of Vladimir Petrov. It illustrates the growing emphasis in ASIO's work on perceptions of 'home-grown' threats identified overwhelmingly with progressive political ideas and their advocates. Beyond that, the Medlin files give a clear indication of the sorts of strategies ASIO adopted in order to counter the threats to Australian security it identified. For this reason, a targeted study such as this provides pertinent historical context for understanding the broader aims and activities of ASIO, a topic of great importance in the current political climate in Australia.

This essay will therefore use Medlin's ASIO dossiers to demonstrate why he was placed under surveillance and what kind of information was recorded. It will trace the course of his surveillance over an extended period, establishing what the nature of ASIO's interest in Medlin was, how it went about gathering that information, and how the intelligence gathered reflected ASIO's understanding of the alleged threats confronting Australia at that time. These security files are valuable examples of ASIO's reach into academic life, yet they must nonetheless be treated with appropriate caution. There are clear limitations to the knowledge they provide, both in relation to the observers and the observed, and they are replete with gaps, redactions and inconsistences. Consequently they need to be read alongside other sources documenting a tumultuous period in Australian history. Bearing those caveats in mind, the ASIO files nonetheless allow historians to paint a portrait of Brian Medlin as seen through the eyes of ASIO.

Brian Medlin at Flinders University

Brian Medlin was born in Orroroo in South Australia's midNorth in 1927. He was educated at Richmond Primary School and then Adelaide Technical High School, although he was often to contend that much of his education came from his extensive reading in the State Library of South Australia and from his experience of life in the Australian bush. …

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