Australian Biography

Ray Whitrod - full interview transcript

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How did you get on with Colonel Spry?

Oh very well. We ... we seemed to be on the same wave length for some reason, although we were both from quite different backgrounds but I got on well with him. I think he liked the fact that I was enthusiastic and worked hard and had come from a service background, at least during the war. But we got on very well together and I thought he'd ... he rather sharpened up the organisation in a way that the judge had been rather loose in his controls.

And what happened to develop that? Where did you go from there?

Well, I went to the Commonwealth Investigation Service to ... at Spry's request to ... to ... to ensure that there was a easy relationship between the two organisations. It was a ... it was a fairly stiff relationship when I went there because CIS had been relegated to a lower ... a lower status because ASIO had come over and taken over its main important function: security function, and so CIS was quite a low grade affair and I was looked upon not as a rescuer but as an undertaker by the mandarins of the Public Service Board, who ... who thought that maybe I was a good choice to see that the CIS had a very quiet death, but I had other ideas and I must have told Spry that I was thinking of forming a national police force and I think that might have put me off side with him, because he was not keen, I don't think, on a national police force. He preferred to work through the state police forces, unlike the Canadian system. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are the premier law enforcement authority in Canada and they also run the security service, so I think that Spry might have seen the writing on the wall, that at some stage a ... a national police force might take over the independent role of ASIO and so, I think, he tended to shut me out from going back and talking to my old mates in ASIO, attending their meetings with the state police and so forth. In fact, I don't think I ever spoke to him again after I left in ... in '53, although we'd been very, very close while ... when he first came in.

What did you think about the direction he took ASIO in? I mean, particularly in relation to the enthusiasm for looking at fellow travellers and so forth.

Yes, yes. Well, he'd come from being director of military intelligence and they had a fairly, I think, far flung target area, whereas we in ASIO, when I joined it, I think I told you, we were concerned with a possible Russian espionage network, at least my section was. So ... so I suppose Spry's background predisposed him to being more suspicious of socialist bodies.

With a security force like ... a security group like that, an investigative group, it is very open to the possibility of becoming a tool of political ... a political tool of whatever government is in power. Do you think that ASIO strayed into that territory of being a sort of conservative political instrument?

Yes, yes. I really don't know, Robin, because as I say I had very little contact after I left and I suspect that ASIO members had been sort of warned off about talking to me so that I ... I got very little gossip coming ... feeding back to me about what was going on and really all I know was what I've read in the newspapers about it. In a way I was disappointed because I'd been one of the founding members. I felt a sort of feeling of ... of parenthood in a way. I'd been their first field investigator and set up certain programmes and so forth, so I felt ... I felt a bit put out by ... by what I assumed to be Spry's pushing me off the planet.

What would be the way that you would envisage that you would ensure that a security service did the job it's supposed to do, and not stray into those political arenas? How would you ensure that?

I ... I don't know. I ... Experience shows that most security services at some stage do respond fairly closely to ministerial directions, and once you get that then of course you ... you get some political activity going on. MI5 in ... in England, as far as I know, has been fairly ... fairly free of that, but on the other hand, I think they develop their own ... their own objectives and their own targets and, and maybe they weren't always approved activities, I don't know, but it's a difficult area. I know there was some trouble with the police special branches, because the special branches grew up like Topsy with no ... no training and no experience, and they tended to over reach themselves, both I think, the ones I know in South Australia and the ones in Queensland. I think we cast a net far too wide and maybe that was one of the dangers.

Do you mean by targeting people who were no threat to the country at all?

Well, it's difficult to know. See, one of the things I did in CIS was to develop a ... a black book. How this came about was that Sir William Slim was one time Governor General in Canberra and Slim was a man I admired very much. He ... he ... he felt very strongly the sort of ... that he was the Queen's representative, and in his thinking in the British Empire, the old British Empire, the Queen represented the last court of appeal. You could go through the law courts, or any other form of judgement, but in the end the one who could pardon you and so forth, was the Queen. It's the old English tradition going way back because we talk about the Queen's Courts and so on, and Slim saw himself in Australia as representing the Queen and he used to get lots of letters addressed to the Governor General from all sorts of people who had some idea that it was a court of appeal in that form I talked about. And he had a very efficient official secretary called Murray Tyrell, and Murray Tyrell, I think, over years gone by had got fairly brutal about dealing with all sorts of quibbles and qualms and I don't think Murray would send out a very nice, smoothing sort of letter but really not do much about it. Slim wouldn't have anything to do with that. He ... he insisted, he would read those letters and found some that really appealed to him as worthy of a second look as a representative of the queen. So he called me in and said to me, 'Ray, I want some of the background of some of these letters investigated. It may well be there has been some form of misjustice and I should ... I should, as a matter of duty inquire into it'. So he used to send me over the letters that he felt were marginal ones, ones that maybe there was some justification for. And so I got my field staff to go out and check on who the people were that wrote them, where they were, what their grievance was like. Many of them were in ... in closed units, mental units because they were a bit ... a bit off - crazy and so forth. Others had obsessions they'd had for years and years. Most of them, most of them were what we would call cranks. Some would write in and threaten - threaten the Queen or Slim that if they didn't do anything that Slim or the Queen would die. And so we looked at these fairly carefully and we sorted out those that we thought might be a threat to the safety of ... of Slim and any visiting royalty. And we made a little dossier on them, mainly, just a photograph with a description and put them in a little handbook, which our escorting teams used to carry around. So in a sense I was one of the people who started that collection of non-criminal people. Some of them were political people, being included in our target range, but it was justified. Once when I was in ... oh, some years ago, when I was in Canberra, still as the director, we had a small guard out at Government House. They'd been there for donkeys years, mainly for ceremonial purposes, at Yarralumla. And I know one day a man had driven in in a car, a New South Wales car, into the front gates and there the sentry box was and the ... and the uniformed guard had inquired as to what time his appointment was and the man had said, 'I don't need an appointment, I've come to hold Slim to account. He's responsible for the way the country's going'. So, the, the guard very, I think, very diplomatically said, would he mind stepping in out of the car where it was hot, into the guard room, and he would ring the Governor General personally and fix a time. So he got the man out of the car and went in and rang up ... rang us up, as a matter of fact, and while he was doing that his colleague went around to the boot ... the boot of the car, searched the car and there was a loaded rifle in the car.

And so we ... I got an extra man to go out to Government House and we brought this chap into the Department of Health, where two doctors examined him, and decided that he really posed a real threat because of a mental defect and he went out to Kenmore, the nearest mental institution, for a couple of months and then was released because that was the only thing wrong with him was that he felt that Slim was going ... letting the country go down and he wanted to call him to account. So the man got in the car and drove away and we ... we retained the rifle and so forth. And then nearly a year later, the same man drove up in the car again to ... to the gates of Government House and luckily, lucky the same crew were on duty, and ... and luckily they recognised him because he said, 'I've come to call the Governor General to account'. So they lured him into ... into the guard room and so forth and, and we got the doctors to certify him and he went to Kenmore. He did his two months, and he got released again. But that's really the sort of person we had in the black book. We needed that sort of recognition because in any community there are some people who have got some sort of mental disability in that way, and so Slim of course was pleased that we'd done that and ... and that gave us a sort of approval to develop the little black book further. Later on, when we were ... we had some guests of the Commonwealth, one I remember was the ... was the ... the Vice President of the United States of America. He came out and he was driving from the airport out to Government House, where he was going to reside. No, no, going to the American Embassy, near Government House.

Who was it?


Who was it?

This was Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson, of all the American presidents I've met, I haven't met many, but he was a sort of astute politician, he really was. And we were going through Yarralumla, there was a big crowd assembled because it'd been advertised that the ... the American President would be going through and we got to the Yarralumla cross-roads leading to the Embassy and the car stopped. It got have got through I think if ... if Johnson wanted but he got out of the car. Stood up in the car, that's right, because it had a roof and he could stand up inside, and he addressed ... addressed the crowd and they cheered and clapped him, and he liked it very much. And I was sitted ... seated in the front seat alongside the driver and I saw in the crowd, coming towards us, one of these men that we had in the black book as one of our possible violent offenders, and he was shoving his body through the crowd towards Johnson and I tried [to say to] Johnson, to sit down, but Johnson was having nothing of that. He was fine. He was having the adulation of this crowd of people, and so I sat there. I tried to get out of the car door but the crowd was so thick I couldn't push the car door open, and I saw this fellow reach up to Johnson and shake Johnson's hand [laughs] and he said, 'Welcome to Australia, Mr. President', and the President gave him a hearty shake and the fellow walked away very happy. And later on I told Johnson the story and he thought it was good fun, and then I happened to say to him that the crowd that had been assembled in Canberra for his arrival was in fact larger than the Queen had had on her last visit - the Queen of England. So he said to me, very abruptly, he said, 'Son, don't tell me, tell the press'. Of course what I should have told the press it was not the Queen's first visit, but her second visit. The first crowd had been far bigger than the second visit, but Johnson was a great, great politician.

Now you took over the CIS and it was really in a pretty poor shape at the time.

Yes it was.

What was it doing? What was its task when you took it over?

Well, it ... it ... What did it do? It didn't do much. It ... it investigated sort of little petty crimes that occurred in Commonwealth departments: some cashier had borrowed some money out of the till and hadn't repaid it, or some ... there was some missing stock out of the warehouse or ... or there was some postal articles that hadn't arrived. They sort of sat there and waited till a Federal government department called on them for assistance to do something. It was a very moribund sort of state of affairs and they were what we called, fourth ... fourth grade clerical assistants, which was the sort of ... that was the lowest form of public service we had at the time. It meant they had not passed a matriculation certificate to get into the third grade, which the clerical division, and so they had no training. There were a few ex-policemen from overseas, from Hong Kong or one of the British colonial forces that had disbanded, but on the whole they ... they were not very competent and their supervisors were clerical officers who'd had no legal or investigational experience. So, you know, generally speaking it was ... Everybody knew that they weren't very competent at their job, and I tried to do something to improve that.

What was your vision for a proper Commonwealth police force? What did you have in mind?

Well, I thought, it seemed to me Australia was developing as a federation and clearly state boundaries didn't interfere with criminal activities and therefore we needed a Federal force as opposed to state police forces whose jurisdiction stopped at state boundaries and then you had to get an extradition in order to get one man from Melbourne to Sydney. He had to be extradited. It was a long, formal process. Had different training, different standards and different supervision and I thought we could do something like the Canadians. The Canadians had got by much more effectively than we had, so what I had in mind was that we might have a ... a national police force, like the Canadians.

What would you see as its main responsibilities in comparison to the state forces? What did you see as the main responsibilities that you would give to the Federal police that ... that was different from what the state police did?

Well it seemed to me the Federal authorities ought to be responsible for the safety and the law enforcement of all Federal acts: safety of property and safety of people that are covered by Commonwealth laws. For gold ... gold smuggling was one, for instance. Currency counterfeiting was another. There were a number of obviously national crimes which were covered by the Crimes Act or some other national legislation. It seemed to me that we ... a Commonwealth police force could quite easily be charged with that responsibility and follow it through. Gold smuggling from say an old mine in Bendigo might leave this country through ... through a ship leaving Perth to go to India, where gold was always sold at a high price, and that was obviously an interstate activity which required a better arrangement than two or three different police forces. And so that's the area I had in mind - not that we would take over any of the state responsibilities, but take over those responsibilities which were peculiarly Federal matters.

Did you succeed in your vision?

I think eventually and we now have a ... a national police force and it confines itself to Federal matters and it now is well respected and well organised, with a headquarters in Canberra, but it took a lot of, a lot of steps to get there. I was encroaching on the domain of State Commissioners and they looked at me with some horror as a low grade poacher of their territory. My ... my immediate boss was a professor of law who preferred the status quo, like all lawyers, and looked at any innovations with a great deal of suspicion. So I had to convince him each time that there was some genuine, valid reason why we should go into this thing. And the men themselves weren't trained for it and didn't do have the potential to be trained for it. The supervisors weren't trained for it, so what happened was that with the public ... with the Commonwealth Public Service Board's encouragement, each time there was a time vacancy occurring in any senior rank in the Commonwealth Investigation Service, I filled that vacancy by poaching a very good operator from the local state police force. In Melbourne I got a man called Ernie Craig, who was a well known detective inspector of the Victorian police, who was much admired by the Victorian police, which meant that I could not only liaise officially with General Porter, the Chief Commissioner of Police, but Ernie Craig my ... my number one had all his mates still in place and what he couldn't learn through official channels, we could learn through unofficial channels and vice versa. If they wanted some information which was in Commonwealth files, they didn't have to write to the Commissioner of Police, he sent on to me, they'd ring up Ernie. So Ernie would be able to tell them about custom clearances and about immigration details and so on. And in Sydney, the same thing happened there. I had a man from the New South Wales company squad, and in South Australia and in Queensland and so forth. So eventually I was able to replace my senior operating level with experienced, respected people with whom I could share my vision and that's how we gradually ... We started a training school. I got an Australian Police College established down on an unused quarantine station at North Head, [in] Sydney. It's now the ... now the main training staff college for Australian Police, and gradually, [it] took all of my seven years or more, I forget how long it was: seven years before I got the Commonwealth Police Act through and then I was with another seven years as Commissioner of the Commonwealth Police Force. But it took a long, long time because the ... the men themselves, the old COs, didn't see themselves, it was ... they were ... had an inferiority complex about the matter. And their trade union represented all the fourth division officers, which meant customs then had their investigators; post office had their investigators; and supply had their investigators, and I was talking about taking over their responsibilities, so industrially I got opposition.

So I got it from the Police Commissioners, state wise and from, and from, internally from the Commonwealth Public Service Association and it took a lot ... a lot of craftiness, I suppose, to permeate the closed shop of the Police Commissioners. I was lucky because the Police Commissioner in Tasmania was a man named Bill Delderfield from South Australia and he in 19 ... - oh, what would it have been? 1954 or something, was hosting the annual Police Commissioners' Conference and he invited me to come down and give a paper about the federal, federal investigation service. And I went down and ... and gave a paper to the commissioners of police in the form of my reporting to them for their consideration and their consent and their submission and their co-operation, and they asked me back to the next one which was in New Zealand and I gave a similar sort of paper in which I ... I placed myself as their ... as their [laughs] house boy, to do the work that they wanted amongst the Federal departments and ... and after that I became a fully fledged member of the Police Commissioners' Conference and I think overall I attended twenty-one annual Police Commissioners' Conferences. I was ... I was the grey beard of the Police Commissioners' Conferences when I left to go elsewhere.

As you've mentioned, there was ... an important part of your duties was taking care of visiting dignitaries, like royalty and so on. Did you enjoy that aspect of it?

Yes, it was, it was rather good fun in a way, but worrying, but we didn't have the terrorist threat that there is now. But soon after I took over the investigation service in 1953, '54, there was a royal visit planned. It had been planned for '53 and I think the King had died and Elizabeth was made Queen and then she and Prince Philip came out to Australia, I think, in '54. It was the first royal visit since about 1928 or something, and it was a great hullabaloo, when the whole country had been whipped up by the media about this royal visit. And CIS had been given a very sort of lowly role in this ... in this business. We really didn't function at all, and for the projected earlier visit, which had ... was deferred, the state Police Commissioners held them responsible for security of the Queen and the Duke. I thought we might change that and I talked to the Prime Minister's Department and pointed out that I had a good security background myself and I was a trained police officer, I knew the states and so forth, and after all the Queen and the Duke were coming out as Commonwealth guests, and maybe the Commonwealth ought to carry out its responsibility ... for being responsible for their safety and luckily Brown who was then the head of the Prime Minister's Department, one of the seven gnomes of Canberra with whom I'd been currying favour, thought my argument had some merit and ... and he sent out a little handbook in which he pointed out that the Queen and the Duke were coming as Commonwealth guests and the Commonwealth was providing the transport and the accommodation and ... and all sorts of coverages. The airline was a Commonwealth matter and ... and Mr. Whitrod would be the overall co-ordinator of security, and that gave me a great sort of status. And so I went around with the planning committee to each of the states, and did the best I could to be diplomatic to the state police, and didn't ostensibly take away of their front functions. They wanted to be in the front motorcar and in full uniform, as been their want in the past, and so I agreed to that. They'd be in the Commonwealth car and I would be also there, but they would be in the prime seat. So with ... with the coming of the '54 we ... the Commonwealth gradually took over the responsibility and then we had a number of succeeding visitors. The Duke came out on his own. There was the Queen Mother came out, and a number [of others] and we gradually assumed a much greater role of being responsible for their protection. But it was a long, hard road and I had to bite my tongue many times, because I was much junior. You see, the state police force at that time were under commissionership, who mostly got there by seniority. So they were there aged fifty-five, sixty years of age. I was thirty-eight, thirty-nine: a boy. What would he know? Looked down on me because by their eyes I would be an inspector in their force, and here I was sort of being in a prominent position, so it was a very delicate job. But I managed to get by and now we've the ... we've got a national police force.

You developed a personal relationship with Prince Philip, didn't you? How did that come about?

By accident, Robin, quite by accident. The prince was an old navy man. He ... he didn't ... I think he found life very irksome being three paces behind his wife but he was very good at that. But whenever there was a possible excuse, a break in the programme, he would sneak away and go on his own somewhere, where there was no crowds and he could look at aspects of Australian society that he liked. And one of the things he was interested in was bird life and of all the bird life aspects he was keen [on], was migratory birds, and this had been one of my hobbies in Canberra. I'd got myself interested in migratory birds and so the Duke and I talked about migratory birds and ... and whenever we had a chance, his equerry would ring me up and say, he'd like to go out for a trip, 'Ray, can you arrange it?' And sometimes because there were formal functions at nine o'clock we would go out at five o'clock in the morning and we'd go to some local bird spot in my old private car which was an ... an old model Holden and he'd sit in the car and we'd go out and bird watch and talk together and ... and he would tell me ... He was much more knowledgeable than I was about migratory birds. He'd been studying them for more than I had, longer than I had, and he would talk to me and in fact teach me about identification of foreign birds and so forth, and we'd have a snack and some coffee. And I took him out mist netting once, from Canberra out to Lake George. Mist netting: you put up an almost invisible net early, before dawn, and the birds would wake up and go searching for food, and they would fly into the mist net and get held there, and then you'd take the bird out and band it with a ... with a national band so you knew what they were doing. He enjoyed that very much. And so I got to know the Duke very much in these moments as man to man, and I ... he ... I always had great admiration for him. I ... He's never stepped out of line. He sometimes passes some wise crack which maybe better not said, but I understand where it's coming from and ... and he's been I think a good husband for the Queen and there's never been any scandal with the Queen and the Duke. You know he used to slip away. We never went to any wild parties. He never asked me to lay on any girls. We always went bird watching or maybe he'd dig up a couple of his old ship mates who'd been during the war, and we'd go and have a few quiet beers with them and come back. He'd drink very little, but he'd meet them again but there was any ... any problems about morality with the Duke. He was spot on.

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