Obituaries: Harvey Barnett

Harvey Barnett's name will always be branded with one of Australia's most sensational espionage episodes in the early 1980s. At the time, Barnett was director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio), Australia's MI5, and it fell to him in April 1983 to present Bob Hawke, the new Labor prime minister, with a torrid scenario involving a Russian diplomat and one of Hawke's close Labor associates barely a month after Hawke came to power.

The Combe-Ivanov affair is still talked about in Labor and security circles today. David Combe, a former national secretary of the Australian Labor Party, was then an influential lobbyist in Canberra hoping to ride a profitable business wave upon the Labor government's election. Valery Ivanov was first secretary of the Soviet embassy in Canberra, and believed by Asio to be a KGB officer. Combe and Ivanov had formed a friendship: they drank together, and Ivanov the previous year had arranged for Combe and his wife to attend a World Conference of USSR Friendship Societies in Moscow, with all expenses paid by the Russians.

When Harvey Barnett called on Bob Hawke in the Prime Minister's office, he said: "I have what I regard as a difficult and delicate task. That is to explain that Mr David Combe is one of the contacts of Mr Ivanov and in fact has had a number of meetings with him." Asio had bugged these meetings. Barnett went on: "On 4 March, technical penetration of Mr Ivanov's home had revealed a long conversation between Mr Ivanov and Mr Combe, and it was this that had begun to cause us some considerable alarm because of the fear that Mr Combe was being assessed and cultivated, perhaps with a view to recruitment."

When the affair broke publicly, it caused shockwaves. Hawke's government expelled Ivanov, banished Combe and set up a Royal Commission into Australia's security and intelligence services. The inquiry vindicated Barnett's actions, although Combe's supporters in the Labor Party never forgave Barnett for what they saw as his over-reaction to an association in which Combe had been, at worst, naive.

Nevertheless, the affair helped to throw light on Asio's workings and to open it up to public scrutiny in a way that it never had been before. Barnett must be given some of the credit for this. He was born on Christmas Day 1925 to a family of shopkeepers in the Western Australian town of Albany. He went to an Anglican boarding school near Perth, served in the Australian navy during the war and then returned to finish his Arts degree at the University of Western Australia, where he was a contemporary of Hawke's.

Travelling in Europe after the war, he taught at schools in the East End of London and in Germany where, in the Cold War atmosphere of the time, he acquired his lifelong fascination with and abhorrence of Soviet totalitarianism. Back in Australia in the mid-Fifties, he was recruited into the secret world through the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (Asis), Australia's MI6, for which he later ran stations in Singapore, Cambodia and South Vietnam, and eventually rose to become deputy director.

Years later, he likened his joining Asis to becoming a member of a Masonic lodge: "One receives an offer, doors open and you decide to step through them."

Barnett always harboured a deep sense of his professional role in guarding Australia's security. Yet he also went against the grain of Asio's old image. Colleagues remember him as a caring person with perfect manners, not cold and remote like many a quasi-military Asio figure. When he was appointed Asio's director-general in 1981, he called a press conference in Canberra to introduce himself.

In 1988, three years after his retirement, he took the unprecedented step of publishing his memoirs. Tales of the Scorpion (named after a former Asio telegraphic address) was a fairly bland book which gave away few, if any, secrets. It caused barely a political ripple. Discussing it with Barnett, I gained the impression that he wrote the book out of a subversive sense of fun in the wake of the more sensational Spycatcher affair two years earlier.

He told me that Margaret Thatcher had been foolish to pursue Peter Wright, the former MI5 counter-intelligence officer, for publishing Spycatcher. "The British are overly concerned with matters of official secrecy and with the preservation of the class system," he said. "They made a big miscalculation in expecting Australian judges to have the same attitudes towards security as British judges."

In case I might think he was turning into a radical, Barnett also saved a salvo for Wright: "Peter Wright set out to destabilise and embarrass his own service. He ratted on his mates and destroyed his life's work. I set out to make easier the public's understanding of Asio."

Robert Milliken

Tudor Harvey Barnett, intelligence officer: born Albany, Western Australia 25 December 1925; deputy director, operations, Australian Secret Intelligence Service 1973-76; director-general, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation 1981-85; married 1961 Deirdre Hartnett (three sons); died Melbourne 23 June 1995.

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