The Sydney Hilton bombing of March 1978 raised the issue of terrorism in Australia. The deaths of three innocent people gave this incident a human as well as political significance. Statements of the press and politicians about this absurd and sinister act amounted to a catch cry for the erosion of democratic rights. Many statements by public figures and articles in newspapers also showed an ignorance of the past because, for some time now, Australia has had organised terrorist groups.
In fact, there have been numerous incidents over the last few years which only by good fortune did not result in deaths. Has the attempted assassination of Arthur Calwell in 1966 really been forgotten? Australia has long been the base for overseas terrorist operations. The Croatian Ustasha had been carrying out arms training and a number of bombings under what appeared to be the beneficent arm of Liberal rule at that time. Yugoslav travel agencies and consulates have been attacked and murders attempted in the Yugoslav community. In September 1972 sixteen people were injured by a bomb in a Yugoslav travel agency. Raids were mounted into Yugoslavia by commandos trained in Australia. The September, 1978 raid on an arms training camp indicates that Ustasha is still militarily active. As well, Australian Nazis possessed extensive weaponry (and undoubtedly still do) and petty harassments and announcements of death lists have occurred frequently. Bricks, guns and firebombs were all used by the Nazis to damage property, and terrorism occurred when they bombed the Communist Party headquarters in Brisbane in April 1972. Another attempt was made in Perth. In the Brisbane bombing people at a CPA meeting when the bomb exploded were lucky to escape without injury. The origin of the letter bombs sent to Queensland Premier Bjelke-Petersen and Prime Minister Fraser in 1975 was not discovered and, though it was blamed on the left and a number of left-wing households were raided on flimsy grounds, it is by no means clear that it did not more truly serve the interests of the right at the time. Certainly, no leftists were prosecuted. There have been some incidents originating from the left as well. There were some incidents of property damage during the Vietnam War and, recently, there was the bombing of the woodchip facility in Western Australia. The only personal attack was the bailing-up at gun point of an official by a black activist. None of these incidents has revealed the hand of an organised group of leftist terrorists.
What is noticeable, then, in the history of terrorist activity in Australia has been the existence of organised right-wing terrorism, though even this has been of relatively minor significance. It certainly did not provoke official or media campaigns for military involvement, massive security measures or expanded political police forces.
Fraser took advantage of the Hilton bombing for precedent-setting military histrionics which even security commentators attacked. He announced a new emphasis on security which will soon be seen to be at the expense of rights. Finally, a general attempt was made to exploit the deaths to take the heat off political police under attack after the South Australian investigations of the Special Branch. Calls were made for a strengthening of their organisations.
Despite all this in sections of the press and especially in letters to the editor and street interviews (notably at Bowral) evidence existed that many people were keeping things in proportion. Overseas experience has shown that the most powerful weapon in the hands of those trying to use the existence of terrorism as an excuse to weaken democratic rights has been the creation by the media, police, and politicians of an atmosphere of hysteria. Then the real impact of terrorism can no longer be sensibly gauged. But more than this will be required if people are to stand up to the pressure to acquiesce in a gradual growth of repression. For example, justifying political police activity by invoking the fear of subversion was not really questioned in the 1978 South Australian inquiry into that state's Special Branch.
Subversive activities, according to Liberal-National governments, have not been those of Ustasha and other extreme right-wing groups but those of all leftist, unionist and reform groups and even those of the ALP. This was spelled out by sacked South Australian Police Commissioner Salisbury, who said at a press conference that, before the Second World War, an ASIO equivalent organisation would have concentrated on the right wing, but that, since the war, the left has definitely become the chief object of concern for intelligence services. We have already pointed out that since the war it is the right that has dominated the few incidents of terrorism that have occurred. The current balance of forces within the Liberal Party has resulted in police attention to Croatian rightists. This has not changed the function of political police, which is to limit political debate not to prevent violence. Subversion for today's political police is not merely questioning the status quo - it is questioning the Liberal-National status quo which makes the connection of the ALP with the setting up of the political police all the more reprehensible. It seems that Dunstan's will remain an isolated act in Australian social-democracy. Despite Attorney-General Murphy's raid on ASIO headquarters during the Whitlam government's term of office, the ALP's main concern regarding the political police was not to question their function but merely to make them more efficient. What really upset some people about the South Australian revelations was that judges and other upright citizens were being watched. "What a waste of time", they say, "when the police should be concentrating on those weird folk who think that capitalism should be reformed or done away with." If these people cannot be awakened to a concern for basic rights, they should at least be reminded that one thing leads to another and that it might be their rights endangered tomorrow. Subversion is in the eye of the beholder and the beholder is the ruling class.
Furthermore, the recent past has shown that democracies will use the opportunity created by political violence to disrupt or repress the left as a whole. They will even incite or conspire in terrorism to justify their own actions. An ex-member of a German terrorist group, now living incognito, has written a book critically appraising the guerrilla experience [How It All Began - Baumann]. In it he tells how their first bombs and weapons were supplied by a police agent. "Unwittingly, we were a very specific element of the bulls' (police) strategy." (p. 37) Stupidly he does not follow the obvious implications of this. "It isn't clear to me even today what role one plays in that game." (P.85)
The famous American Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920's is an archetypal case of the preparedness of the police to frame dissenters on charges of political violence. They were charged with robbery and murder. It is now generally accepted that these charges were trumped up. It is officially admitted that the anarchists did not get a fair trial. Despite massive international campaigns over a period of years for their release they were executed in 1927. Such was the determination of the rulers of the time. Cases like this, and there are many others, should be kept firmly in mind when assessing bombings and the court cases arising from them. The state, therefore, can be very ruthless in persecuting such people. However, when left-wing terrorism is being carried out in a consistent way in society, it gives the state extra leverage in using political repression against individuals and the left in general.
When by their own actions terrorists serve such ends, they are contributing to the destruction of politics and the closing of various options for the spreading of ideas before they have been fully utilised.
Of course, the state will readily use various repressive methods if it meets any substantial resistance or if it has to handle a social crisis which is creating resistance. Terrorism and guerrilla-ism cannot be attacked just because they produce repression. Even more important is the fact that there is nothing to have made it worthwhile. In the end the guerrillas get wiped out and there is nothing left but repression (and a law and order mentality amongst the people).
A developing mass movement will produce repression, but it will also produce numbers of people with clear aims and the organised means of reaching them. It will be able to build far more lasting means of armed defence. In a social crisis in which all sorts of positive developments begin, a separate guerrilla or terrorist group dashing about creating ultimately irrelevant confrontations concentrates political debate in too narrow a compass - "have they (government or guerrillas) gone too far?" etc. instead of - "should the workers have occupied those factories?" etc. Terrorism and guerrilla-ism destroy politics.