The Guardian July 16, 2003


Nest of traitors
The Brisbane Line: A Reappraisal


Book Review by Rowan Cahill

Late in December 1945 in Osaka, Melbourne Herald journalist Denis Warner 
interviewed Japanese journalist Kennosuke (Ken) Sato. Warner believed he 
was interviewing a soon to be apprehended war criminal.

Sato was more than a wordsmith. During recent hostilities he had been 
seconded by both the Japanese army and navy for special duties, including 
the interrogation of Australian POWs, and arranging for a willing few to 
engage in pro-Japanese radio propaganda broadcasts.

Prior to World War II Sato had toured Australia as part of a high level 
Japanese goodwill mission. During an eight-month stay the charming, English 
speaking, American trained journalist reconnoitered Australian commercial 
life and established contacts and friendships amongst politicians and 
business figures interested in establishing and extending trade links with 
Japan.

Sato told Warner that when Japan conquered Australia, he would have been 
Chief Civil Administrator, heading up a specially groomed team recruited 
from Japanese business personnel well known in pre-war Australia, supported 
by a good many highly placed, willing, Australian collaborators.

Unbeknown to either Warner or his employer, a large cache of documents in 
Australia suggested that Sato was not spinning a yarn. These documents were 
in the care of the Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs Dr H 
V Evatt; they had been seized by Australian authorities from the Japanese 
consulate in Sydney on the eve of war with Japan.

Japanese officials had tried to destroy the consular documents, but enough 
material remained to show the way Japan cultivated pro-Japanese sympathies 
in Australia prior to 1941, variously courting opinion and policy makers, 
disseminating propaganda, gathering intelligence: bulk loads of propaganda 
material were distributed through pro-Japanese cultural and business 
organisations; there were gifts to politicians, generous entertainment 
accorded to diplomats, politicians, business and media heavyweights, and 
cash payments to some journalists.

In 1946, anti-fascist Commonwealth Security Service operative Major R F B 
Wake (later, and briefly, deputy to the first Director General of ASIO, Mr. 
Justice Reed) examined the documents. In a preliminary report to Dr Evatt 
he hinted there maybe was substance to Sato's claims, and strongly urged a 
long-term rigorous analysis of the material in conjunction with 
representatives from the Departments of External Affairs, Commerce, Trade 
and Customs; he wanted the decoding of coded material, and access to 
material ferreted out of Tokyo Archives by US Counter Intelligence.

The Melbourne Herald gave Warner's story prominence, but the notion 
of wartime collaborators slipped under the carpet of post-war Australia. 
Sato never faced war crime charges for what had been brutal interrogations 
of Australian POWs. And Cold War politics took care of the rest. The ALP 
was increasingly alarmed by the power of militant trade unions, and battled 
against itself.

The Country Party and the emerging new force of the Liberal Party 
successfully focused the nation on anti-communism, and in government placed 
Australia on a national security footing with scare mongering about the 
imminence of World War III. Ferreting out potential wartime quislings 
amongst Australia's conservative and business elites never had a snowball's 
chance in hell.

Until now. Historian Dr Drew Cottle (University of Western Sydney) examines 
Sato's collaboration claim in his recent book The Brisbane Line: A 
Reappraisal (Upfront Publishing, Leicestershire). He begins by 
revisiting the Brisbane Line controversy; were there plans during the early 
war years under the Governments of Menzies and Fadden to respond to a 
Japanese invasion of Australia by abandoning the area North of Brisbane, 
and then defending the rest, or, as some believed, coming to an 
administrative arrangement with Japan?

Conservative historians and politicians have tried to bury the controversy 
ever since its cover was blown in 1942 by Labor MHR Eddie Ward. Official 
documentary evidence for the strategic plan does not seem to exist, 
although Ward was adamant it once did. Nonetheless a rich diversity of non-
official sources, memoirs, letters, private papers, physical evidence, 
military and civilian strategies, attest to the existence of the Brisbane 
Line, as a military, if not collaborationist, strategy.

So far as Cottle is concerned, the collaboration notion has legs. Logic 
suggests that if collaborators did exist, then they would have been amongst 
Japan's pre-war Australian friends. According to his research many 
Australians, the majority of them rich, powerful, and influential, 
developed deep relationships with Japan between the wars, steadfastly so at 
least until bombs rained down on Pearl Harbour.

Cottle trots out a who's who of people in business and industry, pastoral 
industries, politics, and opinion formation. Some were awed by the military 
power of Japan, hence the need to snuggle up close; others saw Japan as a 
civilising source of 'law and order' in an otherwise chaotic, turbulent 
Asia; others saw Japan as an economic opportunity and trade partner, 
Japanese imperialism suiting their class interests; for some it was all of 
these.

Whatever; Japan had to be accomodated, appeased, helped, joined, supported, 
even through its worst atrocities in China during the 1930s. And if the 
Australian Left or the Port Kembla wharfies got in the way of the 
relationship, then they had to be dealt with; Japanese money bankrolled 
some spoiling operations against the Australian Left. Overall it was a 
relationship akin to that John Howard and his mates have developed with the 
US.

An extensive Japanese intelligence network in Australia saw to it that pro-
Japanese sentiment was cultivated and groomed; this provided opportunities 
for collecting data, particularly economic intelligence, influencing public 
opinion, and who knows what else; in 1939 the office bearers of the Japan-
Australia Society included five members of Japanese military and naval 
intelligence rubbing shoulders with leaders of Sydney's legal and business 
worlds.

A leading pro-Japanese politician was Percival Spender (later Knighted for 
his services to the Australian nation), Minister for the Army in the 
Menzies Government; typical of his closeness to Japan is the two months of 
unrestricted access he gave Major Sie Hashida, a senior Japanese 
intelligence officer, to Australian strategic installations in early 1941, 
including east coast military installations, the Lithgow armaments factory, 
and the Newcastle BHP steelworks.

A couple of months later Spender broadcast from Singapore, assuring 
listeners that Australia had no "quarrel with Japan" and that "Australia 
and Singapore are far removed from the theatre of war". Japan's plans for 
the conquest of South East Asia and Australia were well in hand.

Japan's activities in pre-war Australia did not escape the attention of 
Australian security services; nor did the activities of the pro-Japanese 
sympathisers. Naval intelligence in particular was increasingly concerned, 
and may have had a role in engineering the collapse of the Fadden Coalition 
Government in October 1941.

In the end, however, Cottle cannot prove that Sato's Australian 
collaborators existed. Japan did not invade Australia, and Japan's friends 
never had to decide where they stood once it came to the crunch. Nor do 
potential traitors tend to leave paper trails indicting themselves, and 
during his research Cottle turned up tantalisingly empty, and missing, 
files, as did Major Wake in 1946.

In the end we will probably never know whether or not Percy Spender was 
earmarked for a major role in a Vichy type Australia, as some believed; nor 
the truth about Japanese funds finding their way into the coffers of the 
United Australia Party, the forerunner of the Liberal Party, on the eve of 
war with Japan. These and other questions are canvassed by Cottle, and he 
is to be congratulated for bringing them out of the shadows of history and 
into the light of day.

Cottle's book is the result of patient historical detective work. Apart 
from drawing on a huge body of secondary material, he has deeply immersed 
himself in the murky world of Australian security and intelligence records, 
interviewed key players, trawled private papers where available, along with 
the records of business and private organisations; the documentation is 
detailed.

The political and economic tour of pre-World War II Australia that Cottle 
takes the reader on, casts light on some dark places in the national soul, 
and rattles skeletons in the closet of the ruling class; it is almost like 
taking a trip through a parallel universe.

Australian political and business heavyweights who were lauded and honoured 
as fine, upstanding citizens during the 1950s and 1960s, are revealed as 
players in a pre-war shadow world of economic imperatives, shifting 
allegiances, and possibly headed for collaboration and betrayal. Some of 
the leading pro-Japanese shifted their allegiance post-war to the US, and 
got in on the ground floor in that department.

The Brisbane Line: A Reappraisal is only available through 
http://www.amazon.co.uk, but it is well worth the effort in tracking down.

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