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Issue #1699      August 26, 2015

A tale of two histories

Writing in the Murdoch press last week, former ASIO officer Molly Sasson repeated allegations that a Soviet mole operated within ASIO after WW2. She also revived old suggestions that Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon once had a covert working relationship with former Soviet diplomat Vladimir Alexeev, described by Sasson as an agent of the Soviet intelligence organisation, the KGB.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.

Ms Rhiannon undoubtedly knew members of the Soviet diplomatic corps because of her membership of the Socialist Party of Australia, which had strong and friendly ties with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

However, Sasson and others imply that Rhiannon’s relationship with Alexeev necessarily involved betrayal of Australia’s national interest. The one piece of evidence upon which that implication rests is that in 1970 ASIO intercepted a phone call from Alexeev to the 19-year old Ms Rhiannon (then Lee Brown), in which he arranged to meet her on the Soviet liner Shota Rustaveli just before she sailed for Britain.

Aleyeev himself did not sail on that voyage, and there is no evidence whatsoever that they discussed anything other than the trip before cheerfully saying goodbye. Ms Rhiannon, who has accused ASIO of being both unethical and incompetent, commented: “I spent the whole of that long voyage reading Lord of the Rings and socialising”.

Nevertheless, Sasson notes proudly that when she told her boss, ASIO head Peter Barbour, about the phone call, he flew “into a panic”, contacted his opposite number in Britain, and ordered his staff to compile a file on Ms Rhiannon.

Memories of the Accord

The Australian newspaper also published an article recently in which former Prime Minister John Howard claimed “… many of the economic changes of [the Keating] government were only made possible through the co-operation of the Coalition.”

Howard cited privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, removal of official controls on interest rates, the reduction of tariffs and the floating of the Australian dollar.

He gloated: “In opposition the Coalition parties supported most of Labor’s expenditure cutting measures, and did not oppose the introduction of the HECS scheme for university fees, thus ending the Whitlamite fantasy of free education for all.”

Nevertheless, he reprimanded Labor for not supporting subsequent Coalition initiatives, including the GST, workplace relations changes, and waterfront reform.

Predictably, Keating erupted, snarling, “From the exchange rate through to the product markets and down to enterprise bargaining … I didn’t need to ask John Howard, and I didn’t”.

Although the articles by Sasson and Howard were concerned with the past, they have implications for the future course of Australian politics.

Behind the two histories

The ruling class regards Australia’s political-economic system as God-given. It considers anyone who favours radical alteration of that system as a traitor, and bitterly resents the activities of the organised working class or any person or organisation that opposes any aspect of the economic rule of the major corporations in Australia.

All the articles in The Australian, including Sasson’s, are filled with menacing implications about Rhiannon’s associations with Soviet diplomats. Yet a journalist for The Australian, Christian Kerr admits that “There is no evidence that Rhiannon … ever worked as a Soviet agent”.

Quoting former ASIO head Peter Barbour, another journalist for The Australian, Cameron Stewart, uses nearly identical words but substitutes “member of the Communist Party” for “Soviet Agent”.

The identification of communists with espionage activity is irrational, because if a foreign communist government wanted to covertly gain access to another country’s state secrets (as every intelligence organisation around the world tries to do) it would certainly not recruit someone who was entirely open about his or her commitment to the communist cause.

Nevertheless, such accusations serve the interests of right-wing governments because they foment discord within working class and progressive organisations, obstruct the work of those who are most active within them, and lay the ground for their repression.

There is no evidence to confirm Sasson’s insinuations about Ms Rhiannon, who has acted throughout her parliamentary career with great dedication and integrity to improve the lot of ordinary Australian workers, promote peace and protect the environment.

The never-ending attempts to smear her reputation are intended to discredit her and persuade the Greens not to adopt a militant position on industrial relations or other policy matters.

For his part, Howard couldn’t resist the temptation to take a piece out of the ALP in his article. Old habits die hard! Nevertheless, the article is addressed to the Labor leadership, and argues that the Coalition and Labor should adopt bi-partisan policies on a wide range of issues, regardless of whether they’re in government or in opposition.

With the Coalition facing disaster at the next elections under Abbott’s leadership, Howard is attempting to ensure that the reactionary Coalition policies continue, whether the Coalition or Labor win the election.

At the end of his article Howard states: “Political parties have a responsibility to advocate sound policy in opposition as well as in government. My own experience in opposition, particularly in industrial relations in the early 1990s, was that a particularly well-argued case from opposition can shift public opinion. The current opposition may well try that approach. It could be surprised at the dividend.”

So will the two major parties cooperate, as they have over citizenship stripping or participation in US-led wars in the Middle East? Howard’s argument for a more friendly relationship is more likely to be welcomed by Abbott’s possible replacement Malcolm Turnbull than by political attack dogs like Abbott and Scott Morrison, another candidate for the top job.

They’re much more likely to favour continuation of character assassination and fear-mongering, characteristics of the Cold War when the Menzies government denounced communists as traitors and attempted to ban the Communist Party.

Or will the two major parties engage in fierce competition to adopt the most reactionary policies, as they have with their brutal treatment of asylum seekers? Or is it possible that Labor will actually adopt a principled, humane and independent stance on immigration, defence and other issues?

In the run-up to the elections the Australian people will have to watch very closely not only what happens within Liberal ranks, but also within the Labor Party.

Next article – Privatisation threatens TAFEs

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