That one time the CIA overthrew the Australian government and there was a fascist police state in Queensland

by Wholesome Rage | 16 May 2018

So here’s a bunch of fun stuff I’ve been learning about recently; I was born in New South Wales and moved to Queensland as a teenager, so I’ve never actually known its history or had as much of an interest in this state as I should.

This was my mistake.

Queensland is fascinating for the 1970’s, when it went from being one of the most left-leaning states in the world — known to some as the ‘Red North’ — to being our most right-wing nationalist in the country, a veritable joke to the rest of the country and seen as a bit of a banana republic. We grow a lot of bananas, certainly.

So what happened?

The CIA and British Intelligence used Queensland as a staging point to overthrow the Australian government.

No. No, really. 

Long story short, Gough Whitlam was a legend in Australian politics, and did as much as he could to assert Australian independence and sovereignty which we haven’t really attempted since. From the Guardian article:

When his ministers publicly condemned the US bombing of Vietnam as “corrupt and barbaric”, a CIA station officer in Saigon said: “We were told the Australians might as well be regarded as North Vietnamese collaborators.”

As is my usual drill for writing these articles, I recommend reading the whole link as it’s not very long, but the TL;DR of it is that he tried to pull us out of Vietnam and close a CIA base in the Northern Territory — the Pine Gap station — that was ‘vacuuming up’ information without the Australian government’s permission or explicit knowledge. You know, as allies do.

 “Try to screw us or bounce us,” the prime minister warned the US ambassador, “[and Pine Gap] will become a matter of contention”.

Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who had helped set up Pine Gap, later told me, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House … a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.”

British intelligence, meanwhile, went through the Governer General — the Queen’s representative in Australia — to conduct the 1975 double dissolution, in which the Governer General fired the Prime Minister on behalf of the British government.

Which is kind of fucked up, isn’t it?

It’s one of those things I don’t see brought up much, even here, but it’s just a thing that happened. One time the CIA and British intelligence worked together to overthrow the Australian government. An ally, and to a supposed first world country.

I suppose these sorts of things just happen nowadays though.

The report finds that Moscow conducted an “unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign” against the nation’s voting infrastructure. Through its investigation, the committee found that Russia-linked hackers were in a position to “alter or delete voter registration data” in a small number of states before the 2016 vote.

The Daily Beast can confirm that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a company controlled by Putin-aligned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

The allegations were initially made Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, porn actress Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, and confirmed by a source familiar with the matter.

“How the fuck did Avenatti find out?” the source asked The Daily Beast.

But it’s still an interesting thing to look into.

It’s also interesting because of what happened earlier, the staging ground that was Queensland. What happened to make the Red North go so far to the right, that it’s now the core heartland of our nationalist movements?

Enter Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Sir Joh is an interesting character, in the most flavourful sense of the word. He’s most famous for what he did with our police force, and I think it’s worth talking about the legacy his regime has left. Recently in Queensland a former ASIO officer — our intelligence services — sued the Queensland police.

Again, that’s a short article that I highly recommend reading in its entirety, but the core of it is; Allegedly the man asked officers to wait patiently while he helped a woman in a hotel lobby before opening the door for them. When they got aggressive he started filming them on his camera phone, at which point they shine a torch directly into the camera, put him in a choke hold, slammed him to the ground, held a gun to his head and said;

 “See this, this is my authority to enter.”

“Hell, we can put a bullet in your f***in’ head and get a medal.”

They then held a gun to his head until he unlocked his phone, at which point they deleted all the data on it.

Now, all of this is extremely interesting because it was in a hotel lobby. All of this was caught on security camera. All of it. Like, the footage is in that link you see up there, you can watch how unambiguous it is for yourself. The only punishment these officers faced, after internal investigation, was ‘minor reprimands’ — they got told off — due to lack of evidence.

The small bit of humour is this:

“[He] is also claiming $50,000 in economic loss because he “lost the ability to sell the recording of the incident to the news media”.

Ocker as.

All of this is, obviously, something terrifying to know about your police officers, who also routinely encourage victims to not make reports, or misfiling reports, to hide crime statistics and otherwise have a reputation for being a bit corrupt. 

But most telling is how people responded to that ASIO incident, to me; “It reminds me of how things used to be.”

There was a time when this was just the accepted norm here. When it was even worse.

In 1971 there was the Springbok tour. This caused a lot of protests all around Australia, as South Africa was still doing apartheid, and we were supposed to be embargoing their sports teams from international events. But still the Springbok rugby team came.

There’d been protests against it in every state leading up to Queensland, and everyone waited to see what the Red North would do. The recently elected Bjelke-Petersen took it as an opportunity to consolidate his power and make an overwhelming show of force.


Operation: SATOUR was used as a playbook for protest smashing for decades to come. He declared a state of emergency in the month leading up to the event, to give himself unprecedented power. He used these powers to bring in more than 600 police officers from around the state. These officers were promised pay rises and a superannuation in exchange for complete loyalty.

The police also seeded the peaceful protests with provocateurs, whose instructions were to attack the police from within the crowd, justifying whatever use of force the police wished to follow up with.

There are accounts of the police ripping off their badges in front of the protestors, a show that they could not be identified. Of course this was illegal. But who would enforce those laws, when it was the police committing the crime on behalf of the government?

They attacked the crowd viciously and with overwhelming force.

Ray Whitrod, the Queensland police commissioner at the time, “known as a man of high professional standards, with a commitment to justice, equity and integrity”, would resign in protest in 1976 of the corruption and brutality of the Bjelke-Petersen administration.

As an aside, the problem with good men resigning because of their morals is… well, the people they’re resigning over take their power. Whatever we see happen leading up to ’76 only gets worse after Whitrod was forced out.

Actually, let me take this section from Whitrod’s Wikipedia page to summarize why I’m bringing him up right now:

Ray Whitrod became Queensland Police Commissioner in 1970 and immediately set out to eradicate corruption, raise educational standards and bring women into all fields of policing. He organised for the Queensland Education Department to provide officers with classes in literacy and basic arithmetic. As an inducement to attend classes, he offered an extra week’s leave for every subject they sat. The Police Union objected with such vehemence that they by-passed both Whitrod and his Police Minister, Max Hodges, and complained directly to the Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Bjelke-Petersen, himself a former Police Minister, endorsed the union’s stand and he publicly declared that “the Queensland people do not require their police to be Rhodes scholars”.

He would say that the country police brought in had lost their temper, lost discipline, and charged the peaceful protesters. But journalists in the crowd such as professor Alan Knight saw evidence the attack was carefully planned: Plainclothes officers made their way through the back of the crowd, the police were forming up in riot gear long before any incidents occurred. The police also established a second force behind the crowd and parked paddy wagons in the escape route, to attack the protestors on the retreat and crush them utterly.

A future premiere of the state, Peter Beattie, was bashed by police trying to hold the door open for women to get to safety from the police. One woman was heard to cry: “You herded us down the slope like animals. What did we do wrong?” The police had used batons on the retreating protesters.

Bjelke-Petersen praised police for their “restraint” during the demonstrations and rewarded the police union for its support with an extra week’s leave for every officer in the state.

And what of Whitrod? Whitrod’s resignation was over the corrupt Terry Lewis being named his Assistant Commissioner. He named a preferred candidate, and two others who would be acceptable to him, but instead Terry Lewis was named by the state Cabinet. He was less qualified than at least 60 other men for the position, however 60 other men hadn’t been the bagman for the former, extremely corrupt, Commissioner Francis Bishop.

Wikipedia has a good summary, and I see no reason not to use it:

Whitrod believed all his efforts for seven years to eradicate corruption would be undermined if the appointment went ahead, and he asked to speak to Bjelke-Petersen. However, the premier refused to see Whitrod, nor would he allow him to address the Cabinet on the matter. That night, Whitrod wrote out his resignation. Terry Lewis was then appointed Police Commissioner. Prior to leaving Queensland for Canberra, Ray Whitrod and his wife were subject to harassment and intimidation. He would have unordered taxis turning up during the night, sometimes three or four times a night, to take him to the airport. He would receive calls from strangers enquiring about his health, although he had an unlisted number. A heart specialist came to his house at three o’clock in the morning because he’d been told by police headquarters that Whitrod was having a heart attack. He had a large load of gravel he had not purchased dumped on his front garden. He became so frightened for his and his wife’s safety that he took to sleeping with a revolver under his pillow. A large number of personal files, detailing police corruption, were mysteriously lost in transit between Brisbane and Canberra.

Who do you call when it’s the police doing this to you? When you feel powerless even as the Commissioner?

This has been an incredibly fun article to write, let me tell you. Especially when some of your best memories come from the places you recognize in the history books as hosting terrible, tragic moments. Is this what it’s like to be European?

The Police claimed the second charge of the night was ordered when a stone was thrown that allegedly broke a window in the Tower Mill hotel where the Springboks were staying. However, the stone was never found and glaziers insisted that the fall of the glass strongly suggested the window has been broken from inside the building. It was next to impossible for a demonstrator to throw a stone and break the plate glass window as the police had claimed.

This was rightfully seen as an absolute farce.

All of this crowdbreaking Bjelke-Petersen leveraged into a stance of firm authority and strength, and won the following elections in a landslide. These detestable actions were rewarded and lauded. Joh’s strength was in his ability to manipulate the way the media worked to his advantage and shape public perception of events, giving daily media updates in a strategy he called “Feeding the chooks”.

“He worked the system to stay Premier for as long as he did (1968-87). His Government dominated Parliament, not allowing committees or impartial speech, and ran a very sophisticated media operation, sending press releases out right on deadline so journalists had very little chance to research news items.”

As well, Bjelke-Petersen and Whitlam had a hate/hate relationship. in 1975 Gough called Joh “a Bible-bashing bastard … a paranoic, a bigot and fanatical”. Bjelke-Petersen also vehemently opposed the Whitlam government’s proposal for Medicare, a battle he lost. On a personal note, Medicare is Australia’s publicly funded healthcare system and is the reason I have survived my appendicitis from last month without having a bill that put me into crippling debt.

In October 1974 Bjelke-Petersen called an early election, setting the 1974 Queensland election for 7 December, declaring it would be fought on “the alien and stagnating, centralist, socialist, communist-inspired policies of the federal Labor government”

I’m just going to quote Wikipedia again, after checking the cited sources and deeming them good. I’ve been finding a lot of grim humour in how they’ve tried to recount these events in a neutral tone. Notes in square brackets are my additions.

The premier visited 70 towns and cities in the five-week campaign and attracted record crowds to public meetings. The result was a spectacular rout for the Labor Party, which was left with just 11 of the legislature’s 82 seats after a 16.5 percent swing to the Coalition, leading observers to call Labor’s caucus a “cricket team.” The only seat Labor retained north of Rockhampton was Cairns, by fewer than 200 votes. The National Party [Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s], contesting its first state election under the new name [It was formerly The Country Party] and fielding candidates in just 48 seats, lifted its vote from 19.7 percent to 28 percent, creating a threat for the Liberal Party, and also picked up a number of city seats including its first in Brisbane, the eastern suburbs seat of Wynnum [Pronounced “Win-em”]. The Nationals even managed to oust Labor leader Perc Tucker in his own seat. The Australian newspaper named Bjelke-Petersen, whom it described as the “undistinguished” Queensland premier, “Australian of the Year”, citing “the singular impact he has exerted on national political life”.

Joh also precipitated a lot of what led to the double dissolution election. He- look, it’s a complicated story involving senate seats, parlimentary convention known as ‘pairing’, and then the same funding bill blocking you see in the US that shuts down their government for a few weeks at a time. But during the double dissolution that resulted — which I talked about above — Bjelke-Petersen also alleged that Queensland police investigations had damning evidence against Whitlam in relation to the Loans Affair — the choice political scandal of the time. This documentation was never made public and these allegations remained unsubstantiated, because truth doesn’t matter before the votes are counted.

He cut taxes a lot as well, making Queensland Australia’s tax haven for most of his tenure.

When street marches came back around in 1976, and street cameras showed a police inspector hit a 20-year-old woman about the head with his baton, Commissioner Ray Whitrod — remember him? — demanded an inquiry. Joh declared there would be no inquiry, so there wasn’t one.

Again from Wikipedia:

He told reporters he was tired of radical groups believing they could take over the streets. Police officers passed a motion at a meeting commending the premier for his “distinct stand against groups acting outside the law” and censured Whitrod.

I love the matter-of-fact nature running up against the surreal levels of brass-balls anti-intellectualism that Joh would get away with for decades. But let’s talk more about the largest group acting outside the law: The Queensland police force.

The police then went to a hippie commune, ostensibly to look for marijuana, and burned the place to the ground. Bjelke-Petersen rejected calls for an inquiry into the raid, declaring the government would believe its police and claiming the public clamour was “all part of an orchestrated campaign to legalise marijuana and denigrate the police”

Whitrod went ahead with the inquiry anyway, and charged four officers with more than 25 counts, including arson. This is the same day he publicly announced his resignation, in which he said Queensland showed signs of becoming a police state and he compared the growing political interference in law enforcement to the rise of the German Nazi state.

Less than a year later, Bjelke-Petersen announced that “the day of street marches is over”, warning protesters: “Don’t bother applying for a march permit. You won’t get one. That’s government policy now!”

I’m going to quote an account written by a Liberal member at the time, Colin Lamont.

Now, this might get confusing, but a Liberal in Australia is our center-right party, and Labour is our center-left wing. Joh’s National Party is our far-right, but ostensibly allied with the Liberals, forming the Liberal-National Coalition. Got that? Alright, good. Square brackets are again mine.

In 1977 Joh Bjelke-Petersen resolved to ban street marches. Seven Liberals crossed the floor [Crossing the floor means voting against your party] protesting right of association and assembly. On the morning of the debate, I addressed the students at St Lucia campus [University of Queensland] on the issue advising the bill was a tactic to incite their opposition and deliver the government a law and order issue for the ‘77 elections. I also warned of the 300 police armed with batons just out of sight of the campus. Wise heads prevailed and the students dispersed. Bjelke-Petersen was livid. Two hours later, he lunged at me across the floor of Parliament, waving a tape recorder and spluttered, “I’ve heard every word. You are a traitor to this Government”. I told him I was not a member of his Government but a member of the parliament charged with keeping his Government in check. The point was lost on him. He never understood finer philosophical points: the concept of the people electing a parliament to keep check on the government was simply not part of his awareness. That night members of the press gallery spotted a photo of Rosemary Kyburz, member for Salisbury, in a file on Bjelke-Petersen’s lap. We learned, Special Branch had been keeping files on Liberal rebels and reporting, not to their Commissioner but directly to the Premier. The police state had arrived.

It’s worth noting that under cross examination later on, it would become clear that Joh never actually understood the concept of ‘seperation of powers’. It had been a thing that had never happened to him, I suppose.

This next part wasn’t what I was looking for, but Lamont’s recount has a paragraph in it that I feel I would be doing him a great disservice by not adding here:

Keen students of the era should never forget the member for Toowong. Ian Prentice, barrister at law, who knowingly sacrificed both a parliamentary career and one at the bar when he made his courageous stand on financial accountability. Bjelke-Petersen demanded, and got, a ban on solicitors’ firms giving Prentice work as a barrister. The success of that “fatwa” is a cold reminder that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. One of the reasons Bjelke-Petersen survived was because business and the professions valued stability over integrity.

Emphasis mine. I have been informed by a friend, at this point, to mention that Joh’s slogan during the 1977 election was: “Don’t you worry about that”.

The effects would be far-reaching. When the Electrical Trades Union withheld labour for a change in practices that would marginalize union labour, Joh reacted with fury, jailing hundreds of protesters, de-registering the trade union, and killing superannuation for government electrical workers, resulting in dozens of blackouts throughout the state. Our infrastructure hasn’t really recovered.

Let that stand as a warning to my American readers.

In 1980, police raided the bank account of Opposition Leader, Ed Casey, seized account statements and delivered them directly to the Premier who promptly made public the private details of Labor’s election donations. Who do you go to when that happens? What do you do?

More protests were made to defend basic rights to protest and assembly. More and more Joh asserted his popularity by crushing dissidence and disobedience, saying that even peaceful protest was a threat to law and order.

Even token acts of resistance were crushed with overwhelming force. Take the University of Queensland condom machine.

“The premier, it was alleged, didn’t actually understand what a condom was and his colleagues had to explain. He was, it was alleged, appalled at the concept.”

Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was so socially conservative it’s hard to believe some of the things this state lived through under his leadership – the simple sale of condoms became a controversy. He didn’t want them sold in supermarkets and he certainly didn’t want them easily available in vending machines. The police were ordered to remove vending machines from toilets at the University of Queensland. Imagine that – university students having sex. Historian Phil Carswell is quoted by the Gay News Network as citing Joh saying in December 1986 that the introduction of such machines was like “letting everyone set up prostitution parlours so we can all be raped. If you introduce these things it will encourage young people to carry on in this manner. Are you asking that we escalate this immorality?”

A favourite line from this article is actually;

Vasectomy was illegal in Queensland, although it was freely performed

There were protests to keep the University of Queensland condom machine, to keep this one thing. Police tore it out of the wall, and it was later installed in a police barracks instead. To send a message as clear as ripping the badges off.

So what took him down?

Shown: One of Joh’s ads

It wasn’t the popular vote. In 1977, even as police arrested 400 demonstrators asserting their right to march and assemble, Joh’s National Party won 35 out of 82 seats, the Liberal and Labour party winning 24 and 23 respectively.

Here I end on the bittersweet triumph that is the Fitzgerald inquiries or “The Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct” led by judge Tony Fitzgerald. So, the Fitzgerald Inquiries.

In 1987-1989 these trials investigated the corruption of the Queensland police force, and finally brought down the National Party after a 32 year reign.

A famous investigative journalism program — the likes of which haven’t been profitable for ten years now, but they used to exist — called Four Corners ran a piece called The Moonlight State.

Highlighting prostitution in areas gerrymandered by Joh’s administration, and high levels of police corruption, it wasn’t the first news program to make these allegations. However, decades Joh had been notoriously litigous, suing anyone who made allegations against him and raking them over hot coals in court.

Again, a nice little touch on how the powerful can leverage the rules to suit their own interests.

Originally the inquiry was just meant to be a dog-and-pony show, a demonstration. Had the administration had its way, only a few matters specifically cited in the media, and only over a five year period, would have been investigated. However the presiding judge, Tony Fitzgerald, extended the terms of the commission twice, stretching it from its expected six weeks to a two year ordeal. Practices such as securing indemnity for key witnesses in exchange for giving damning testimony began here, at least in Australia.

The Special Branch — that corrupt wing of the Queensland police that Sir Joh was so fond of using as his enforcers above reproach, the branch that had put provocateurs in protests to justify the police brutality that followed — would be disbanded as a result of this inquiry. Special Branch destroyed its records before Fitzgerald could subpoena them.

Another important result of the inquiry was the establishment of the Criminal Justice Commission, or CJC. For information on how that’s doing thirty years later, I refer you back to the start of this article with the ASIO officer.

Aspects such as loyalty to fellow police officers and police not enforcing laws against other police were condemned because they led to misconduct, inefficiency and contempt for the justice system. I see aspects of this in the Blue Lives Matter movement in the US that scare the hell out of me after reading these inquiry statements.

Three ministers would be jailed over these findings, the police commissioner would be jailed and lose his knighthood, and as for Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen?

There was a hung jury, so no sentence was given. In fact, it was found that the police had manipulated the jury selection, and the foreman was Young Nationalist and member of the Friends of Joh movement Luke Shaw, who misrepresented the deliberations to the judge. As a result, Joh was never convicted of anything, not even of perjury while giving testimony during these inquiries.

Sir Joh faced no sentence and would not be retried because, at the age of 81, he was deemed ‘too old’.

Bjelke-Petersen lived until the age of 94, and enjoyed a prestigious state funeral.

All of this is to highlight something I’ve been finding recently. The common thread of so much civil action I’ve been reading, and especially watching the Ukraine protests, has been that effective action is very rarely legal action. Even when it was as simple as marching at a time when those marches had been outlawed.

I have also learned that not only may the right thing be unpopular, but that evil may win the majority vote in a landslide. It does not mean that good is destined to fail; it means that evil is unrestricted in the tools it uses to gain power, and gaining power is its sole purpose.

What we learn from Whitrod is that it’s not even that evil succeeds while good men do nothing; The best men can be in the right place, at the right time, and still be powerless. We cannot count on individuals.

The problems we face are systemic. Even in the first world, we see these things happen time and again, and democracy alone isn’t able to prevent this consolidation of power. How can you meaningfully protect yourself from the state? What do you do when the state defends itself from your attempts to correct it?

When the state decides what is and isn’t legal, every effective action you can take against it will be criminal. These are necessary powers granted for the good of a healthy society, and yet we see what we risk when a man like Joh elevates himself to a position to use it.

To quote Colin Lamont again:

It is a mistake to believe that left to its own devices, Government or even society, will protect that fragile thing we call liberty.


Here’s one of my favourite graphs. Simply put, it shows how much public preference indicates whether a law will be passed by the US congress.

The support of wealthy elites has been found to be more influential to maintaining power than the popular vote. Those who wish to have power must cater to those interests, and those who do not cater to those interests will fail to get power.

Voting for different people does not change the underlying system that incentivize the outcome of this graph: Good people who go against it will not have the resources to maintain power and affect public policy. This isn’t to say ‘both parties are the same’. This isn’t that rhetoric; One side will often be better. It is more to warn you against complacency, the idea that you live in a location where this couldn’t possibly happen to you.

I don’t have any answers or solutions for you. I’m not nearly smart enough to offer them. But I urge all of you to read more into your local news, into your local issues, and to be more politically aware than you have been. Allow yourself to get angry — emotion is not a weakness. Don’t let apathy or a sense of powerlessness set in.

We live in a period of unprecedented potential. The ink of history books hangs heavy in the air around us. I hope that those of you still reading give more open thought to the nature of what power is and how it affects you in real ways.

There is rarely a point where things get ‘bad enough’ that people naturally rebel, and speak out, and things get fixed because it’s the right thing to do. Certainly in incompetent regimes, or in times of succession crisis. But North Korea has maintained itself over decades now. Stalin killed millions with impunity before succumbing to natural causes.

Action against injustice starts because people do speak out and say something is bad enough. And effective action is rarely legal, or socially acceptable.

An example of effective action that is currently illegal: public workers striking over crumbling infrastructure, solidarity strikes in the US and the UK, and sometimes offering breakfast programs to children is provocative enough to get you assassinated by the FBI.

It was radical action against established authority that led to the most basic worker’s rights we take for granted after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

I guess if I’m asking for anything here, it’s not for violent action. It’s for sympathy for movements like Black Lives Matter and Antifa and Momentum, and a public understanding of the purpose of unions — even though they have a reputation now of their own for corruption and problems. I don’t doubt or dispute that.

We live in a time of systemic problems, and the solutions for the last twenty years seem to have moved entirely onto the individual, not on the group. A tacit acceptance that some people are poor because they deserve to be, and poverty is a just punishment for laziness. Meaningful collective action outside the power structure, outside what the powers-that-be say is acceptable, is always going to be important.

Politics isn’t just discourse. It isn’t just debate. It isn’t an abstract thing by talking suits who all say what you want to hear but accomplish nothing. It’s how we shape the legal environment we live in.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen thrived because he had a monopoly on enforcement. There was not enough collective support for the unions that stood against him, and those groups were crushed piecemeal. Individuals were beaten and arrested. He is not an outlier. He is not an aberration, because we have seen hundreds of his kind in hundreds of governments across the world.

It only takes one foothold move like the Springbok crackdown for these people to consolidate their power, and use that power to maintain itself, and it takes so much to recover from the damage it causes.

And for those curious what the austerity measures, the budget surpluses, the claims of being a business oriented leader did? For economic growth, supposedly the one thing conservative policy is truly good for? Queensland is now the worst performing economy in Australia.

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