“The enemy inside is far more powerful than the enemy outside.”
― Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others
With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan tells an extraordinary and shocking story of how three children were programmed to spy on local trade unionists, anti-war activists and community groups opposed to the Vietnam war in Brisbane by their parents, Dudley and Joan Doherty. The parents were both ASIO agents. The children were used by their parents to memorise number plates of people attending meetings and rallies. They were used as cover for parents eavesdropping on so called ‘fifth columnists’ during the cold war. What better cover for a spy than a suburban Brisbane housewife with three kids.
The author dedicates the book to her mother, Rosa, who kept her own secrets about life in Europe during World War II. Sandra pursues the secrets of this curious family spying business with the same vigour as she did trying to find meaning behind her mother’s deception about her past and her roots as a Jewish woman in Poland. Hogan has a real feel for Brisbane, her vivid description of this backdrop is authentic.
In ‘With My Little Eye‘, the protagonists, the Doherty family, had the added responsibility of being minders for the USSR intelligence officers, Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov during Cold War Australia, then hosting the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. Vladmir was a drunken Russian peasant – what better cover for a Soviet spy. His wife developed a friendship of sorts with Joan Doherty based on a shared interest in fashion, food and sex.
The three Doherty children were sworn to secrecy by their parents, Joan and Dudley who, on the surface were public servants living in the Gap, in Brisbane, Queensland, but were actually working for ASIO.
Dudley Doherty, who had only one leg, was a protege of the murderous gangster Abe Saffron (pictured) in Sydney. Abe Saffron is suspected of the arson being responsible for the 1979 Luna Park Ghost Train fire killing seven people, a male adult and six boys. Saffron is also implicated in the murder of Juanita Neilsen, a campaigner to Save Victoria Street (near the Rocks) on Sydney’s harbourside from the clutches of avaricious developers like Saffron.
Saffron’s mate, Dudley Doherty, was a serial adulterer while Joan was the family ideologue training her kids to keep secrets. This would affect them psychologically for the rest of their lives.
The kids would help Joan and Dudley collect information on trade unionists marching in Brisbane’s annual May Day procession. People like Geoff and Nancy Wills, both members of the Communist Arts Group, marching in the Seamen’s Union contingent on May Day in 1963. Geoff was a seaman and instrument maker and Nancy was an author and playwright. The Wills became friends with Afro-American singer and activist, Paul Robeson; and, in 1987, Nancy wrote a play about Robeson’s life called Deep Bells Ring.
Image: The Communist Arts Group marching with the Seamen’s Union in the 1963 May Day Parade in Brisbane
Meanwhile the Doherty family were lurking on the fringes of May Day marches, taking photos and observing the participants who owned the People’s Bookshop, offices and ballroom at 264 Barry Parade Fortitude Valley. Ironically one of the kids, Mark Doherty, would frequent the same building later in life as a 4ZZZ announcer. Mark compered the long running Blues show on 4ZZZ. No doubt dismayed at what his parents had him do for ‘Queen and Country’.
Sandra describes the activities of the Doherty kids, Sue-Ellen and Mark, at the 1959 May Day parade like this:
Setting aside the pejorative nature of the description, what is the Doherty’s justification for doing this work? According to Hogan, Dudley Doherty was a cold war warrior tempered by a curiosity and a non-judgemental interest in human nature:
This was the ‘ban-the-bomb era‘ that developed into a robust opposition to Australian government’s policy of All The Way With LBJ in the Vietnam War. Ordinary people were upset that the only country to drop a nuclear bomb was determined to wage war in Indo-China and wanted Australian conscripts as canon fodder. They were concerned about the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and the existence of an American spy base at Pine Gap. By the 1970s the government’s sycophantic policy towards the Americans brought it down and ushered in modest Whitlam Labor government reforms … until sacked by the biggest spy of them all, the Australian governor general, Sir John Kerr.
But With my little eye does not attempt to trace the political, it is more an insight into a family caught in cold war politics. The story is more about the dynamics in a family and how the children eventually found a way out of ASIO, its secrets and lies that had drawn in Joan and Dudley.
Hogan’s account is well worth a read but it is a shame that the author did not approach the topic with more empathy with and insight into the people whom Joan and Dudley Doherty spied upon. For example, Alex MacDonald, the former Secretary of the Trades and Labour Council, who during the depression ‘humped his bluey’ and reached Queensland in June 1932.
The Depression had deepened and labourers’ wages were cut. Alex refused the ten shillings a week then being offered on small farms, preferring to take seasonal work around the State. Involved in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, he was present when the jobless clashed with the Mackay City Council in January 1933 over the issue of their shelter-shed. He learned much from this experience, and was soon committed to the U.W.M., and to organizing and educating the unemployed. Alex rose to lead the trade union movement in Queensland until his life was cut short by a heart attack in 1969.
Both the author and the Doherty kids, now grown ups, Sue-Ellen, Mark & Amanda, seem to have missed the significance of the former Queensland Commissioner of police, Ray Whitrod, having been an ASIO spy and confidant of the governor general, Zelman Cowen in the early 1970s. Both Whitrod and Cowen tried to contain anti-apartheid protests against the 1971 Springbok Rugby Union tour and the 1970-71 Moratorium campaign against the Vietnam war.
Mark Doherty was born in the apartment at Kaindi (pictured) in 1951, and this placid baby became an unwitting player in ASIO’s first covert operation. Joan Doherty continued with the listening work where possible. She was eavesdropping for ASIO on Russian journalist journalist Fedor Nosov. Joan let Mark sleep in the room furthest from the living room, but she was supported by a male ASIO operative (Ray Whitrod). If she needed to take Mark out for a walk or go shopping, ASIO had the job covered.
Often touted as liberals, Cowen and Whitrod combined to give academic favours and to pay informants to surveil the nascent radical movement at Trades Hall and at the University of Queensland. Whitrod made Qld Special Branch files available to assist ASIO in undermining anti-war and democratic rights struggles in Queensland. [The longest period of mass defiance of a government in Australian history occurred later from 1977-79 – save for the aboriginal resistance.]
Instead the author chose to focus on what was a rather tawdry tale of a family growing up in Menzies-era Australia run by a racist and war mongering elite determined to retain power at all costs by kicking the communist can. It was left to ASIO to create their mythic narrative of subversion and threat from within and without.
However the Australian working class were not so gullible as to wear it, they voted at referendum to prevent a ban on the Communist Party – the first Communist party in the West to come out against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, supporting Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring. Finally the people voted out a government that wanted conscription to fuel American imperialism in Indochina. The incoming Attorney General Murphy, so distrustful that the old guard at ASIO were withholding information from the Labor government, raided their offices in Canberra and Melbourne in 1973.
Image: Actor and playwright Errol O’Neill trying to calm the situation at the Tower Mill Motel where the pro-apartheid Springbok tourists were housed. A police riot followed soon after with many activists injured and Trades Hall nearby invaded by police without warrant to beat up and arrest Peter Beattie and other activists.
With My Little Eye
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Available from public libraries
10 June 2021