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Sex, spies and lies? The spurious case against ex-department head John Burton

Former departmental secretary and diplomat Dr John Burton in 1954.
Former departmental secretary and diplomat Dr John Burton in 1954. 

A claim that a top-level diplomat and permanent head of a Commonwealth department was a Soviet spy is indeed dramatic, the more so when the subject was a handsome young man of known progressive views.

John Burton, left, with Australian foreign minister H. V. "Doc" Evatt at a United Nations executive meeting.
John Burton, left, with Australian foreign minister H. V. "Doc" Evatt at a United Nations executive meeting. 

John Burton was appointed secretary of the Department of External Affairs in 1947 at the age of 32. Herbert Vere "Doc" Evatt was his minister. Burton, once described by historian and commentator Norman Abjorensen as "one of our great unsung heroes, who brought intellectual rigour to bear on foreign policy", might not have fit the traditional mould of the conservative diplomat. Ahead of his time, he questioned Australia's focus on links with Britain and the United States, advocating instead a foreign policy based on Australia developing a better understanding of and engagement with our Asian neighbours. He was interested in building relationships with Asia's emerging political leaders, supporting Indonesian independence from Holland and Indian independence from Britain, and recognising Mao's China to give Australia a platform for influencing Chinese policies. It is important to remember that Australia at that time was seen as an outpost of "the old country" with very recent wartime links with the US. Burton's view of Australia's position in the world was radical, innovative and controversial. One can readily imagine the anger and hostility of some Western intelligence agencies.

Burton attracted many accolades. Writing in The Age after Burton's death in 2010, Greg said "he attended the UN foundation meetings in San Francisco and played a back-room part in reworking the charter … With Evatt, Burton helped reshape Australian foreign policy, which had previously … largely shadowed that of Britain. Australia began to take a greater interest in its immediate region – most notably helping Indonesia gain independence from the Dutch. Australia also challenged the belief that China was tied inextricably to the Soviet Union."

In 2004, Phillip Adams, introducing Burton as a guest on his ABC show Late Night Live, said: "John Burton was probably the most controversial and visionary public servant of the 20th century. Branded a pink eminence of the Labor Party by conservative critics, he was clearly one of the most important intellectuals and policymakers associated with the Curtin Labor government of the 1940s. As a close associate of 'Doc' Evatt and head of the Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs), he did more to shape Australian foreign policy towards Asia and the Pacific than any other person before or since."

After leaving external affairs, Burton had a distinguished academic career: law academic Dr Gregory Tillet said Burton had "a towering intellect whose extraordinary genius laid the intellectual and scholarly foundations for the study of conflict resolution". His progressive views made him a natural target of conservative critics.

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At Burton's memorial service in July 2010, the director of the Department of Foreign Affairs' historical publications and information section, Dr David Lee, said: "Few diplomats since have matched his achievements. He was the youngest ever secretary of the department. He was one of the department's most significant and successful secretaries and his prominence in Australian official circles in the 1940s makes him a crucially important figure in Australian and South-East Asian history … Besides Indonesia, the groundwork for the Colombo Plan was laid under Burton." In June 2010, the department's then secretary, Dennis Richardson, a previous head of ASIO, wrote a warm and glowing tribute, describing Burton as "a distinguished and highly respected member of the Department of External Affairs" and referring to "his contribution to Australian diplomacy at the time of the establishment of the United Nations and its specialised agencies. His most important contribution, however, was to improve Australia's standing in the region when we championed the independence of the Indonesian Republic."

But Burton was not without critics. Perhaps his progressive views invited suspicion? A prominent Australian National University professor, Desmond Ball, has made the extraordinary claim that Evatt and Burton "were probably agents of Soviet intelligence". Now, one of Burton's daughters, Canberra lawyer and author Pamela Burton, has subjected Ball's claims to meticulous scrutiny and appears to have demolished them with forensic skill.

Ball is not the only one to have cast aspersions on Burton's loyalty. On the other hand, as will be seen later, the very recently published authoritative Official History of ASIO does not substantiate his allegation.

Writing in The Australian in 2011, Peter Wilson referred to Menzies' suspicion of Evatt and Ball's conviction that either Evatt or Burton must have supported a group of officials in the department, who had later been found to have given information to the Soviets. The only "evidence" cited was Ball's view that somone at the top must have provided cover. Ball claimed it was "for legal reasons" he did not air his view earlier in Breaking the Codes, the book he co-wrote with David Horner in 1998. Wilson also cited several other authors who rejected Ball's view, including Robert Manne, who said he had interviewed former ASIO head Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, who never once suggested Evatt was a traitor. Having regard to Spry's known hostility to Evatt and Burton's policies, Manne's interview would have given Spry an opportunity to air any suspicions.

A few days after Wilson's article was published, Anthony McAdam, writing in The Spectator, speculated on whether Burton (and Evatt) were Soviet agents and praised Wilson "for bringing into the limelight this long-neglected story of treachery in high places". McAdam's sources were Wilson and Ball. Curiously, McAdam wrote that he knew Spry well: they talked about every aspect of Spry's ASIO years but "he never told me that he thought Evatt was a Soviet agent". Again, Spry did not take the opportunity to air any suspicions.

A week after Wilson's article, Ball, writing in The Australian, said that in his opinion Evatt and Burton "were probably agents of Soviet intelligence" and he was "convinced that Evatt and Burton were willing parties to the Soviet espionage operations in Australia". So what was the basis for this dramatic claim? First, Ball claimed Burton had lied under oath to the Petrov royal commission. If true, that would certainly cast doubt on Burton's integrity. But Ball's claim was convincingly refuted by Pamela Burton in a spirited response, citing the transcript of John Burton's evidence to the royal commission to show he had not lied.

Ball's claim is also based on two bodies of material said to be unavailable to ASIO or its then director-general, Spry: first, the frequency of visits of a Soviet diplomat, Victor Zaitsev, to the Department of External Affairs in Canberra and to Evatt's ministerial offices; and second, that Evatt's Sydney office was a significant source of leaks to Soviet intelligence. Pamela Burton cites ANU historian Adam Hughes Henry's research that "everything Evatt and Burton did was 'open', on the record and quite obvious". Open visits by a Soviet diplomat to the department hardly constitute a credible basis for a claim the department's dead was a spy.

In her response, Pamela Burton attacked Ball head on. She was scathing of his being "so cowardly as to avoid interviewing my father when he was alive but waiting until he was dead before making unsubstantiated and sensational allegations that Evatt and Burton 'were probably agents of Soviet intelligence' ". She went on to say "Ball either had evidence or he did not … Why then didn't Ball put the 'evidence' for his suspicions to Burton while he was alive?"

Another basis for allegations against Burton could be seen as amusing, were the allegations not so serious. Former intelligence analyst Angus Chapple, in an article in News Weekly in 2011, suggested Burton might have been recruited in the Soviet Union during a visit there in 1934. Pamela Burton showed that a "John Burton" did visit the Soviet Union about that time – but the visitor was not her father, the departmental secretary, but her grandfather, also John Burton, a Methodist minister who, as a clergyman, was curious to see how Russians coped without religion. So much for the reliability of these extraordinary claims.

Ball did not rest. In another article in 2012, he wrote that one of the world's foremost academic experts on international relations, Dr Coral Bell, claimed Burton provided "top cover" for spies in his department. Indeed, Bell believed Burton's involvement with Soviet intelligence went further than his "top cover" role. Many Canberrans with an interest in public affairs will have heard Bell make similar claims, always without any supporting evidence. When I pressed her, on several occasions, to disclose the basis of her claims, her response was always along the lines that "she knew". The only "evidence" for Bell's claims cited in Ball's article consists of amusing anecdotes about lunches on West Block lawns and the general lack of security in external affairs, a situation I and indeed any public servant of the time would know to have existed not only then but also many years later. Pamela Burton's explanation? That Bell "lusted" after the handsome young acting department head, who not only likely rejected her advances but sent her packing to New Zealand. On this one point, Ball agreed with Pamela Burton. He said: "She [Bell] said as much."

Does the official record support Ball's claims? David Horner's Official History of ASIO has just been published. This monumental work contains no less than 23 references to Burton, including that he persuaded Chifley of the importance of security and that Spry concluded there had never been any evidence Burton was a communist. Unlike Ball, Horner had complete access to ASIO's archives. Horner's work deals with many personalities, favourably and unfavourably. In response to a direct question, Horner replied to me that he found no evidence in the archives that Burton was a spy.

So where do things stand? Allegations of this kind are easy to make and difficult to disprove. Having regard to the allegations' extraordinary gravity and inherent unlikelihood, one would expect those making them to do so only on the basis of the most cogent evidence. Yet Ball's claims appear to be based on no more than speculation – such as speculation that, because someone leaked while Burton was department head, Burton must have been involved; speculation that because a Soviet diplomat made many (open) visits to the department, Burton was somehow suspect.

Is this enough for such an extraordinary claim against an undoubtedly brilliant man? No departmental officer is cited as expressing any concerns about the Soviet diplomat's visits. One retired officer who joined the department very shortly after Burton pointed out to me that Canberra at the time was a very small town, and diplomats visited the department regularly because they had very little else to do. This former officer noted that, after Burton left the department, he was active in peace movements, as were many other left-leaning Australians. That did not make them spies.

No contemporary or subsequent external affairs officer (other than one apparently unrequited admirer) is cited in support of Ball's allegations. Two contemporaries I spoke to (now long retired, of course) dismissed Ball's claims as nonsense. We now know that nothing in ASIO's archives supports Ball's claim. The relevant former head of ASIO did not take the opportunity of lengthy interviews to suggest Burton was a spy. It seems recently released MI5 papers similarly provide no basis for the claim. Russian defector Vladimir Petrov denied having come across Burton's name. Historians and commentators lavished the highest praise on Burton. Would Dennis Richardson, as head of DFAT and a former ASIO head, have provided a glowing tribute on Burton's death if he had harboured the slightest suspicion Burton was a traitor?

Ball's claim are incredibly serious yet inherently unlikely. He did not respond to my invitation to comment on a draft of this article. The obvious question remains: does he have access to "sources" unavailable to ASIO? If so, it seems curious that, after the passage of so many years, those sources cannot be disclosed. Or is it time for Ball to withdraw his claims?

Ernst Willheim is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's College of Law and a former senior public servant. Pamela Burton's paper is available at Honest History.