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Guest post on Queensland police special branch: “Lest we forget” or “best we forget”?

24 November, 2009
This is a guest post by Agent 006.5.

This piece provides a general overview of the history of the Queensland Police Special Branch and focuses on the special branch files and their controversial shredding which occurred during the week commencing 23 November 1989. This caused much public outrage at the time.We thank Agent 006.5 for this informative contribution and hope he makes contact again in the future.
You can watch a short segment from 7 news flashback program here.


“LEST WE FORGET” OR “BEST WE FORGET”?

Twenty years ago, on 24 November, 1989, most Queensland Police Special Branch files were shredded in the basement of Police Headquarters in Brisbane.
Queensland historian, Professor Ross Fitzgerald was understandably appalled at the destruction of those files.  Most information gathered over the previous fifty years was destroyed in a few hours, and he implied Queenslanders might never know the undisclosed details of the contents.

How can one learn from the mistakes of the past if the public record is destroyed? And do not be mistaken; those 22,000 or so files would have produced ample evidence, at the very least, that the state special branch of the highly politicised Queensland Police Force acted not as a servant of the law, but as an arm of the National Party Government of the day; as, in effect, a secret police (Fitzgerald 1989:61).

Fitzgerald, in suggesting Special Branch acted as secret police for the National Party Government, was expressing sentiments shared by several other critics that the Branch was ‘Joh’s Special Branch’.

During December 2001, following the release from Queensland State Archives (QSA) of Queensland Police Service documents from 1971, three Brisbane journalists fortuitously recognised (carbon copies of) Special Branch reports amongst material about to be released.  During the first week of January 2002, they compiled several newspaper articles based on the 1971 Springbok tour of Queensland, but focused principally on the Special Branch material they had uncovered.  The Courier-Mail on 1 January 2002 reported:

Cabinet documents released today show the Queensland police’s notorious Special Branch officers targeted Labor politicians as well as alleged communists among the (Springbok) demonstrations (Page 5).

The same newspaper on 5 January:

…the release of documents from the early 1970s confirmed Special Branch detectives kept thousands of files on political and community leaders, trade unionists and other police.  The documents, released after a request from The Courier-Mail, revealed the Special Branch was used as a political weapon by the Bjelke-Petersen government in 1971 (Page 4).

Fitzgerald lamented in 1989 that ‘the public record was destroyed’; this is not quite the case.

The Queensland Police Special Bureau was first approved in 1939, officially commenced operations on 30 July 1940, became dormant during the war when all officers were seconded to other agencies; was very clearly “re-formed” ( 7 April 1948) during the Rail Strikes of 1947/48 and was re-named Special Branch in 1950. So the Bureau/Branch, as a unit within the QPS really existed from 1939 to December 1989. Fifty years….

“Files” on individuals and organisations were therefore generated within the unit named Special Bureau (and then re-named Special Branch) for the same fifty years.  It is well documented that many of these files were passed to ASIO and that ASIO paid to operate Special Branch informants or agents.

How many files were shredded?  No one knows.  They were never sequentially numbered, and many had been “culled” and destroyed over the years as part of the Branch’s internal file management process.

A Special Branch “file” probably needs some explanation.  When an individual/organisation first came to the notice of the Branch, the initial entry was made on an “index card”.  The second time, another entry, and generally the third time meant a third entry.  At about the third entry, a more formal “file” was generated on the individual/organisation.  Therefore, there always were far more “index cards” than “files”.

Between December 1979 and 30 July 1987, just over 15,000 ‘files” and just over 33,000 “index cards” were culled and destroyed by Branch administrative staff.  In October 1989, one month prior to the shredding, an external audit of Special Branch was conducted.  As it was physically impossible to count all the holdings, the Auditor provided an estimate, based on the numbers of “index cards” and “files” in each “pigeon hole”, multiplied by the number of “pigeon holes”.

His estimate?  It cannot be published in Queensland just yet, but about twice the number of “index cards” culled (above) and about half the number of “files” culled (above) were there in October 1989.  99.9% of them were shredded a few weeks later.  Following the shredding of files, and disbandment of the Branch, there were widespread rumours that rather than files being despatched to the industrial shredder, they were despatched to ASIO.  This rumour is not correct.

Roger Holdich, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security conducted an investigation into the rumours, inspected the ASIO holdings and receipts, and reported that during 1989, the following Special Branch reports were handed to ASIO:-

January         6
February        19
March             13
April                17
May                 37
June               43
July                 20
August           13
September     36
October          26
November      10
(Files shredded during November)
December      Nil

For readers interested in the transfer of files to ASIO during preceding years, the (public) Holdich report shows:-

1982               207
1983               412
1984               211
1985               167
1986               117
1987               34
1988               161
1989               240

Have you ever wondered how an individual came to have their own Special Branch file?  The files from the 1971 Springbok Tour (mentioned earlier) are in fact an excellent case study of the operations of Special Branch, and the filing “system”.

All Branch correspondence relating to the Springbok Tour was filed on a generated “5K.236”; that is “5K” (Indicating a visit or a ship); file number 236 in that series.  The Tower Mill Hotel featured in this tour.  The Tower Mill had its own file “7E.606”; that is “7E” (organisations, companies etc); file number 606 in that series.

Former Queensland Premier Peter Douglas Beattie (2E. 1528) was arrested during the tour. “2” indicates an individual; “E” indicates Industrial and political – other than Communist, Jew or Jehovah’s Witness. (If he was a Communist he would have been a “2A”; a Jew a “2B”, or a Jehovah’s Witness, a “2J”) Beattie was person number 1528 in the “2E” category.

In 1971, Queensland Police were subject to the requirements of Instructional Circular 7/70, dated 3 March 1970, and headed “Memorandum Re Subversive Activities, Communists, Nazis, Revolutionaries and Saboteurs”. It’s a lengthy (public) document directing all police to report on membership of a long list of target organisations.

“It is also required, that these persons be classified as falling into one of the following categories:-

  1. “Member” of such organisation.
  2. “Avowed” as his being a person of a particular view or opinion.
  3. “Known” to Police as publicly being a person possessing certain opinions and views.
  4. “A sympathiser” with persons possessing certain views and opinions.
  5. “A person suspected” by Police of possessing certain views and opinions”

In 1970, every police officer in Queensland received this circular, and was expected to comply as directed. Sadly, these directions are not extracts from 1984.

While Orwell’s works are renowned, very little is known of the Queensland Special Branch; it was always a top secret and politically controversial unit.

This does not necessarily mean Special Branch should not be studied; “shying away from controversial topics, simply because they are controversial, is an avoidance of responsibility”[i]

Should the Branch be studied? – “Lest We Forget”?

Or should we shy away from it? – “Best We Forget”?


[i] Sieber, J.E. and Stanley, B. (1988) “Ethical and Professional Dimensions of Socially Sensitive Research” American Psychologist 43(1): 49-55.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. ribbet permalink
    24 November, 2009 4:52 pm

    ‘Best we forget’ means we are in danger of repeating the errors of our past.

    Remembering has to be the first part of the process towards hope.

    On a related note, I would be willing to make a contribution on the Terry Lewis trial if you are interested.

  2. 25 November, 2009 7:48 am

    Ribbet, it sounds like you may well have earned an initial entry on your index card. But seriously, we would welcome any contribution.

    I agree – lest we forget – I find this sort of information fascinating.

  3. 25 November, 2009 8:17 am

    I’d be interested to hear what the former Premier Beattie’s opinion is on the best/lest question.

  4. Gary permalink
    25 November, 2009 6:26 pm

    Nothing to see here move on. That the police forces of every state in Australia are corrupt, goes with out saying, it is a matter of degree. A small snippet of my own memory is,the police special branch in South Australia kept a file on the then Premier of the state a one Don Dunstan, they tried to stop him viewing it.In the end it cost a police commissioner his job.

    It is just a matter for the normal law abiding citizen to try and get through life with out coming under police attention, the old adage if you are doing nothing wrong, you have got nothing to fear, of course, are bedtime stories for children.However if you are a political activist, and for mine even putting comments on these blogs is a risk, of being a target.

    The power the state wields through its police arm is mind boggling, years ago I was at the pickets of the Fremantle wharfs when the attempt to shut down the the union movement was in full mode under the Howard government.What I observed the police doing in their surveillance of people made me really wonder, if I was living in a demo racy.

    As an aside I stood next to a Professor of mathematics from the U.W.A.at the wharfs who was in tears and mortified 1. That people could be so naive as to let this happen.2. He was putting his own job on the line should he be seen by the sympathisers of the right wing reactionary’s.

    We are slowly becoming a police state of that I have no doubt, when we have the police interfering in the drinking habits of the population, with all the problems this habit brings, as they are in some places in Australia, we are in deep trouble.There job is to enforce the law, nothing else.If they don’t like a law, like us, they have the vote.

    When they involve themselves in making moral judgements on society we are on the slippery slope to a dictatorship.Laugh as you please, some Germans did the same thing.

    By the way, I am an x law enforcement officer from the swinging sixties..

  5. 26 November, 2009 2:25 pm

    Gary, thanks for sharing your experiences. I’d bet there is plenty more from your time as an ‘enforcer’.

    In Qld there is a whole chapter in the criminal code entitled ‘offences against morality’. In it, the offences range from child sexual assaults to procuring an abortion – I can’t see how the latter could be classed as immoral and the fault here lies with the legislators. I have also heard that some police are using public nuisance and move-on powers to stop same-sex couples displaying affection – like a kiss or holding hands.

    I find things like the memo referred to in the post incredible. I can understand the keeping of files on a Jehovah Witness (just kidding), but communists and Jews ? There is no reference in the post about corruption but I take your point about degrees. Perhaps, due to the type of work special branch undertook it was less of an issue. I have no idea, just wondering aloud.

  6. Gary permalink
    26 November, 2009 11:54 pm

    Indeed ileum I could write a book on my experiences.But I was only at the lower end of the pecking order so to speak, and wasn’t in it long enough to change my character (I hope)The police force like our armed forces as you probably already appreciate, are a necessary evil.

    Having said that, It will always draw people to its ranks, who are not suited to the vocation.In my own case I was to far to the left on the political spectrum, and I could never be influenced by others who had ulterior motives, and used law enforcement to ingratiate them selves with people who wouldn’t piss on them normally if they were on fire.

    But hey don’t get me wrong, there were some great men and women in the job, a joy to work with, but they were far and few between.Unfortunately there is no way of really weeding out the arse holes, and it is a wonder the system works at all.So I guess we are stuck with a system that is far from perfect, but until we find something to take its place, we all just have to be careful, and hope we never come into contact with the police.

    Until we need them of course and then the whole mind set changes, with our perception.

  7. 27 November, 2009 12:27 am

    I can’t help wondering whether some Meyer-Briggs Type (personality) indicator test would be best employed in police force recruitment to do some of that “weeding out” that you mention, Gary.

    Although, my guess is they already administer certain personality tests, and quite possibly the people who you mention who you refer to that need to be weeded out may actually have some of the most attractive personalities to those recruiting strongmen/women for duty. (almost an L.A Confidential scenario?)

  8. Gary permalink
    27 November, 2009 1:12 am

    They do have personality tests, and unfortunately the people least able to meet what is the basic needs to socially interact with other people, still seem to get through the process.

    What the answer is? I do not know.I guess at the end of the day you set a benchmark and hope that the right people get selected.It will always be a problem to recruit the right people, and like any other industry, one hopes the good people outweigh the bad.

    But this I can tell you with out fear or favour, politics is as important as skin colour in the promotion stakes.This observation is not up for debate with me, I know it is the reality and always has been since the “Peelers” To state otherwise borders on delusion, and denial of this fact would be a stock response from upper management.The foreigners among the ranks in my opinion are token at best.

    But back to the topic, corruption. I am in my dotage and I have no fear of the establishment, but, I have told my children since they were at primary school, who are now in most cases on the way to forty years of age, do the right thing, don’t drink and drive, don’t do drugs, steal, or anything else to compromise yourself.The police could care less about you or your situation, don’t give them an excuse to ruin your life.

    My children have taken that advice, so my own experience has had some benefit.

  9. 27 November, 2009 6:03 pm

    I would be interested if anyone has seen this ‘shredding anniversary’ anywhere in the media.

  10. 7 December, 2009 2:26 pm

    Last night (6.12.09) Channel 7 news Flashback segment featured the Qld police special branch.

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