The history of Queensland’s Special Branch remembered

Barry Kroch speaks at the Queensland Police Museum
Barry Krosch speaks at the Queensland Police Museum

In 2014, Queensland’s police force turns 150 years old. One of the first of the anniversary retrospectives took place at the Queensland Police Museum yesterday. Former Special Branch detective Barry Krosch attracted a full house of over 100 people to the Museum to listen to his talk on the Queensland Special Branch, which existed from 1948 to 1989. Krosch was in the Special Branch for 10 years and today presents his master’s thesis on the history of the secretive organisation. His supervisor Dr Paul Reynolds of UQ said the inception of the Special Branch was related to the start of the Cold War with many jurisdictions across the western world initiating surveillance operations around this time.

Krosch said all the Australian states started Special Branches around 1948 and ASIO began its operations in 1949 – the same year as former policeman George Orwell published 1984. Queensland’s Special Branch started on April 7, 1948 initially called Special Bureau using detectives involved in a similar bureau before the Second World War. The bureau was based on the British model of surveillance dating back to the 1880s and was given the responsibility to deal with “subversive activities”, which at the time meant Communist activities. Queensland Communists controlled many unions and Labor Premier Ned Hanlon was rattled by large-scale demonstrations at Roma St and King George Square during the 1948 great rail strike. Krosch said protesters outsmarted the Government but within a day, the Special Bureau was up and running.

It was renamed the Special Branch in 1950 with 13 detectives and five civilians. As well as Communists, they monitored Socialists, Nazis, Fabians, Women’s movements, “revolutionaries and saboteurs” and even Jehovah’s Witnesses. They followed a strict classification system which divided Communists into party members, “avowed” Communists, known to police as Communists, suspected Communists, and Communist sympathisers. Almost every political activist outside the main parties had a Special Branch file. ASIO paid for Special Branch activities and Branch operatives from across the country attended ASIO conferences so there was much synchronisation between state arms.

The Branch’s autonomous tendencies were noted in 1970 by new Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod. Whitrod reviewed their operation and was unimpressed by its unaccountability and its lack of supervision. Whitrod had a baptism of fire in 1971 with the Springbok tour protests and the high profile arrest of student leader Peter Beattie. Krosch noted Beattie’s file number was 2E 1528 . The E series covered industrial and political figures and 2 meant he was an individual not an organisation (and also not a Communist, Jew or Jehovah’s Witness which had their own codes).

Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen detested Whitrod and forced him out in 1976. Under Whitrod’s replacement Terence Lewis, it was a torrid time of overt and covert action and many arrests. Krosch joined the Branch in 1978 around the time of the Hilton Bombing in Sydney. Krosch said the Branch had two roles. The first was intelligence and the second was VIP protection. Krosch said the two were interlocked but the protection role was often overlooked despite its importance and it took up much time and resources.

The Special Branch passed on much information to ASIO, which would later be a godsend to researchers like Krosch. In the late 1980s, Queensland’s Special Branch came under increasing scrutiny as the Joh regime unravelled. The Moonlight State documentary was instrumental in leading to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in 1988. Krosch remembers being a minder for Tony Fitzgerald during the week and Joh at the weekend, and being quizzed by both camps for information. Krosch wouldn’t say anything to either side. Krosch said the Inquiry looked at 20 Special Branch files out of a total of 9000 so its investigation was lightweight. However in its July 1989 report, one of 242 recommendations was to disband the Branch.An election was coming with Labor expected to win and also promising to disband the Branch. New commissioner Newman authorised the culling of thousands of files and index cards. In November a senior police officer blew the whistle on the Branch to Channel Nine Sydney’s Jana Wendt. Before the election, in what Krosch called the most turbulent week in Queensland politics, Newman oversaw days of shredding files despite public outrage. Labor won the election on December 2 and was due to be sworn in on December 7. In the handover week Newman took the decision to disband the Branch. On the morning of the 7th Newman met incoming police minister Terry Mackenroth who promised him that disbanding the Branch would be his first item of business. Newman told him he’d already done it. On the 8th, officers held a “funeral” for the Branch. Krosch said a further request to cull files in 1992 was denied by the Library Board of Queensland for two reasons. Firstly they documented the activity of the Special Branch and secondly they shed light on the organisations they monitored. “So few Special Branch resources have survived,” the Board said, “all the more important these ones survive.” Krosch encouraged researchers to fully document the Branch while former members were still alive. He doubted many in the audience would be back for the 50th anniversary in 2038.

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