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Political surveillance in Victoria - a recent history

On October 6 1997, The Age newspaper in Melbourne published information, documents and allegations leaked from the Victorian Police Force, presumably by a former police officer or an internal whistle blower, that sent shock waves through Victoria's diverse social change networks.

The leaks about Victoria's Secret Police were front page for a week, detailing how undercover police officers had infiltrated, spied on, bugged, taped and collected files on just about every group in society that had something to say. The surprise for many activists was not that the Victorian Police were infiltrating and spying, but the extent to which the covert police targeted relatively mainstream and 'conservative' lobby groups. Aside from that, the leaks revealed a fascinating insight into police operational procedures and the way police view all activists as potential 'threats to society'.

The confidential dossiers, records and files obtained by the Age date from 1985, compiled after the then Victorian Government disbanded the Special Branch in 1983, and cover the years up until 1992 when the Unit's role was taken over by the 'Protective Security Intelligence Group' who continue to gather information today.

The Melbourne Peace Fleet, The Melbourne Rainforest Action Group, Friends Of the Earth, the East Gippsland Coalition, Duck Rescue and Animal Liberation, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society and many other groups and campaigns were all infiltrated by undercover police officers at various times, and had dossiers compiled on their activities and files kept on many individual members.

Alongside these groups were a few far-right and neo-fascist groups such as National Action. However, there were also hundreds of other groups such as the Council of Single Mothers, The Australian Conservation Society, Friends of the ABC, Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, Koorie Information Centre, community legal centres, feminist groups, migrant groups, HIV/AIDS and gay activist groups, tenants groups, community radio stations 3CR, 3RRR and 3JJJ, disabled groups and elderly groups.

On the massive but incomplete police list of 1240 individuals obtained by The Age are teachers, lecturers, trade unionists, and even Democrat and Independent politicians, church ministers, an Order of Australia recipient and many names of nonviolent activists involved in the groups above.

The activities of secret police units like this represent only a part of the wide spectrum of police harassment and organised repression of social change groups. The acts of bugging, phone tapping, use of listening devices, infiltrating and compiling of files not only constitute an invasion of privacy but can also be a subversion of the state's own laws and politically motivated corruption. In many cases the activities described were 'illegal', operated without the knowledge or consent of the then government, in fact, against the stated wishes of the Cain administration, which made it clear that it would not tolerate surveillance of community groups when it disbanded the Special Branch. It was alleged by the former head of the police complaints authority that senior police defied state government orders to incinerate thousands of secret Special Branch files and instead had them stored in suburban police stations and continued updating and using them. (The Age 16/12/97) What is not clear is whether or not, or at what level, the government knew about these activities, or whether senior sections of the Victorian Police were operating and giving orders independently.

The existence of files such as these is pertinent to activists for several reasons. By remaining where they are, they pose an ongoing threat that they will be used by a future authoritarian government. Secondly, the activities of the undercover operatives often involved actual internal meddling or sabotage within the activist group. For example, according to a former member of the unit, an undercover officer infiltrated the Melbourne Peace Fleet and managed to sabotage its ability to campaign by almost sending it broke. The Peace Fleet, which blockaded US nuclear warships in Port Phillip Bay, was persuaded by the undercover officer to spend most of its money on paying for rubber boats and canoes for one large action. Strapped for cash, the group was unable to mount an effective protest for several years, the former member said.

According to Joseph O'Reilly, then from Liberty Victoria the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties,

"the deeply rooted culture of excess [in the Victorian Police] has given birth to actions with grave implications for fundamental human rights and democracy. To bug, tap, and infiltrate meetings and organisations without the approval of a judge or magistrate is to open the floodgates to totally unfettered police powers, which can be used against anyone, anywhere."

In other cases, information from undercover operatives was passed on to security staff, and other police units, to diffuse the impacts of several actions that were supposedly planned in secret. The records show that operatives were so successful in infiltrating groups that many became trusted members, taking part in planning meetings, drawing up membership lists and helping the groups in their day-to-day activities.

Over a four year period up to 1990, the police unit worked closely with Army Intelligence units and ASIO, often swapping information and jointly "assessing" the peace movement in Victoria. In July 1989, police infiltrated a Nurrungar planning meeting at RMIT and passed the info and photos to ASIO and Army Intelligence. The former member said the ASIO database of domestic-level protesters must be massive. The unit also briefed and passed information on activists to interstate police forces such as the identities and activities of Victorian conservationists working in NSW forest campaigns.

The unit conducted numerous searches without warrants, hid secret files from the police ombudsman during an investigation, and routinely photographed protests, marches and rallies, including the Palm Sunday, Reclaim the Night and May Day marches, candlelight vigils and even the family-oriented 'Teddy Bears Picnic' organised by the Victorian Childcare Action Group. The unit often sought information that the police could use in the media to discredit activists groups, particularly those involved in legal rights, police powers or campaigning about police shootings. In some cases the unit was involved in spying upon and deliberately undermining community efforts to bring other police to justice.

Community groups in Victoria reacted angrily to the revelations. Holding a joint media conference on 7 October 1997, a coalition of ten groups, including Friends Of the Earth and Liberty Victoria (Victorian Council for Civil Liberties), condemned the activities of the secret police and called for a full judicial inquiry into the Operations Intelligence Unit and the current version. This call was joined by many other groups and individuals over the next few days, including the former premier John Cain, and 500 people attended a public meeting. Many groups and individuals lodged Freedom of Information Requests to obtain their files and a public campaign against the existence of 'Secret Police' was organised by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

For activists, the leaked information serves as a valuable insight into the culture and attitude of police, and into the range and extent of their abilities to spy, sabotage, undermine and provoke violence from within a campaign. In the face of such information it is well worth remembering that all governments, no matter how openly 'democratic', have both overt and covert aims and methods of achieving them. Also, for all their efforts and expense, they have consistently managed to fail to stop ordinary people struggling for and creating change.

Political Surveillance in Victoria adapted from an article by Anthony Kelly, Published in Nonviolence Today 57.

Also see Dealing with surveillance