The Making of Australia's Security State
Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2019
Paperback 400pp RRP $39.99
Reviewer: Kevan Sanderson, May 2020
In World War II, Winston Churchill made his now famous statement: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Since then Churchill’s maxim has taken on the force of law. For over 50 years we have lived in a society operating on a "need to know" basis. Files have been kept sealed and truth has been kept from us in the name of unspecified "national security concerns," or in the name of protecting individual rights and reputations. At least, that is the premise of Brian Toohey’s book Secret, The Making of Australia’s Security State.
Brian Toohey, a journalist, lays out his premise in the preface and then presents a litany of events which he uses to demonstrate a history of government misleading the public, withholding information, obfuscating facts, poor, uninformed or ill-considered decisions and ignorant or naive policymaking. He does not however construct a valid analytical expose and his conclusion is simply not supported. In fact, appearing in the very last paragraph of the book it surprises the reader as a non-sequitur.
Secret is organised in ten sections each comprising a number of loosely-related chapters each of which stands alone and is written in the style of a newspaper or magazine article. Maintaining attention and focus on the book’s premise is difficult as there is no discerning trend or continuity in the sequence of articles. In fact, one is tempted to regard Secret as a simple repackaging of the author’s “greatest hits” list.
The book kicks off with a quote attributed to Harold Thorby, Australia’s Minister for Defence in 1938, implying a government has no obligation to full public disclosure and anyone who questions the resultant policy is treacherous. A pretty strong statement but equally one which would probably not surprise many people if made by a politician today. Style notwithstanding, the material is extremely interesting, and Secret works well as a collection of documented questionable policies and actions which raise pertinent questions deserving of consideration and answers by today’s government.
There are a few pages of photographs of people mentioned in Secret but they appear to be randomly selected and do not really add to the book. Extensive notes are included as an appendix and these presumably support additional research or to confirm the author’s assertions.
Toohey is certainly no devil’s advocate; critical of government security policies and diplomatic actions his interpretations are slanted, and he makes no attempt to provide balanced views or alternate explanations. This book concludes with the statement that Australia is headed towards “a cataclysmic and unnecessary war” because of fears spread by the press and an erosion of civil liberties by a national security state evolving from a succession of governments obsessed with secrecy and state power. This conclusion is itself a conflation of two unrelated ideas; the first is Toohey’s partial but unsubstantiated opinion and whilst much of Toohey’s material supports the second he has not proven it.
This is the kind of book that lends credence to, or initiates, conspiracy theories. Theories which flourish, in the absence of truth, when governments don’t tell all and keep secrets from their constituents. Ironically conspiracy theories also flourish if claims such as those made in this book are not properly analysed and justified. Regardless, Secret certainly makes clear that the Australian Government has been keeping many secrets from the Australian people.