Adventures with ASIO: writing activist Freda Brown's biography

Dr Lisa Milner
27 August 2014
Taken 23 June 1987, this photograph shows a jubiliant Freda Brown with Mikhail Gorbachev when he was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Source: Women of the Whole World
Taken 23 June 1987, this photograph shows a jubiliant Freda Brown with Mikhail Gorbachev when he was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Source: Women of the Whole World

Much of my academic research and writing revolves around the intersection of media and labour history – analysing films made by unions, films about politics and its people.

A few years ago, I co-wrote an article with Rosemary Webb about an SBS documentary on an Australian activist, Freda Brown. That let me to discussions with Freda’s daughter, the Federal Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon. And, as a result, I’ve been working on Freda’s biography for the past couple of years.

Freda Brown worked in the women’s, peace, and anti-apartheid movements, both in Australia and overseas. Her greatest achievements can be seen in her work in establishing and leading pioneering women’s organisations.

But she’s certainly not a well-known name, and that’s because she was a Communist. And a woman. And an Australian. So the last thing I thought would happen was that the Australian Government would come to my aid as I was researching her story.

Here’s how the sanctioned surveillance of the Australian Government paper trails have helped me in the piecing together of Freda’s story.

Firstly, who was Freda Brown?

Freda was born into a working-class family in inner city Sydney in 1919. The family grew up very poor during the Depression. At just 17, she joined the Communist Party of Australia at a time when only about 200 of the 3000 party members were women. Described as ‘young, brilliant and enthusiastic’, Freda became one of the party’s leading women for thirty years.

Freda met Bill Brown at the left-wing New Theatre in Sydney’s inner city and soon recruited him to the Party. They married in 1943, and were together until Bill’s death in 1992.

Freda encouraged Bill to follow his dream of writing, and he became a journalist and author as well as a full-time functionary for the Party. Freda and Bill constantly supported each other in their work.

In 1951, their daughter Lee was born. Family was always very important to Freda, and she always took great joy from Lee, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Union of Australian Women was also to embrace much of Freda’s Australian work for the next four decades. She campaigned on peace, equal pay, opposition to conscription, children’s and indigenous rights, and solidarity with women all over the world.

Freda said of this pioneering women’s body: “I think it played a very valuable role in organising women, in contributing to the peace struggle and in getting women out on the streets, because we were the first ones to get women out on to the streets. It wasn't easy in those days, we were the only women demonstrating.”

Freda’s work with the Communist Party started taking her overseas, where she began working for the Women’s International Democratic Federation. In 1975 she became President of this influential world body, a role she held until 1990, as an activist of the older generation during a period when second-wave feminism was beginning to flourish. She always remembered her work with WIDF as ‘the richest experience’ of her life.

Freda organised conferences and met activists on every continent. She worked in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua at the height of those country’s conflicts, Cuba, Brazil and Mexico, and just about every country in Europe and Asia. She worked with Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, First Lady of Chile Hortensia Allende, American political activist Angela Davis, and many other world leaders and campaigners. And she was instrumental in lobbying the United Nations and other global and world bodies on women’s issues.

Freda died in 2009, just before her 90th birthday. It is wonderful that on her death certificate, her ‘usual occupation’ is listed as ‘Political Activist’.  I never got to meet Freda, and my research has relied on interviews and documents. And, surprisingly for me, one of my most interesting sources has been through previously secret Australian government files.

Freda’s ASIO file

Much has been written about the role of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and how it has affected people’s public, and private, lives. Established in 1949, for decades ASIO has used undercover operations to identify and investigate security threats. However, their work had many weaknesses; in her new book Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files, Meredith Burgmann writes that “ASIO’s behaviour is at various times improper, incompetent, irrelevant, inappropriate and intrusive”.

Freda’s ASIO file has many dozens of volumes, tens of thousands of pages of documents, photographs, and film footage. It’s one of the most extensive of all Australian communists. It opens in 1943 and it hasn’t stopped yet – just this year a further seven files were released. (Under the 1983 Archives Act, all Commonwealth records are made available to the public once they reach 30 years of age, unless they contain exempt information.) The ASIO Director-General wrote to his London counterpart in 1964 that Freda “has an extensive and adverse security record”.

Firstly, the files contain a massive number of publications of the Communist Party and the women’s organisations Freda ran, which provide a rich history of those organisations. Then, there are the ASIO photographs and cine-film of Freda, showing a busy woman constantly going to meetings, and, as this sample shows, taking her daughter Lee along to some of them.

Another ASIO photograph taken in 1966 shows Freda Brown leaving the Communist Party of Australia headquarters in Sydney with her daughter Lee Rhiannon (nee Brown)

Then there are the surveillance records. As part of their standard practices, ASIO operatives – usually female - spent a lot of time working alongside Freda in her office. They attended meetings with her and went to her classes, including at her home in Waverley. They made copies of her speeches, letters and notes, and intercepted her phone calls.

Freda’s travel arrangements, flight bookings, visa applications are included. It is these records that are helping me to fill in the gaps in my research, as they note her movements in great detail.

There’s nothing in Freda’s letters to indicate her feelings about these operations. As a veteran CPA leader, she would have been well aware of these but maintained a sense of humour about it all, as one incident shows.

On returning to Australia from North Vietnam in 1969, where she had been working with journalist Wilfred Burchett and Eldridge Cleaver of the US Black Panther party, Freda brought back a number of photographs.

When asked how she got them back in to Australia through Customs, she said that she hid them in a packet of sanitary towels, and placed the packet in a prominent position in her suitcase.

‘’It caused the Customs Officer a great deal of embarrassment,’’ her ASIO operative noted.

ASIO operatives often made ‘pen portraits’ of their subjects. One commented on Freda’s “steadying diplomacy”. Another noted: “She is a very good speaker who can size a situation in a split second. She can be very diplomatic when necessary; it would be described as having a hand of steel in a velvet glove. She is a very astute person who can read a person’s character in one meeting.” Still another wrote: “Freda Brown is good hearted, but would be a bad enemy. She is pugnacious and fanatical in regard to all CPA matters. She is a devoted wife and mother.”

This last assessment of Freda really captures what I’ve been finding out about her. She spent her whole life balancing the two loves of her life as a politically astute global activist, and a loving wife, mother and grandmother.

Whilst there’s much in Freda’s ASIO file that I have been able to discount, and which gives me a good chuckle, there is also a treasure trove of details – and some assessments - that, for a biographer, are gold.

Dr Lisa Milner is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.