Seen here for the first time is one of the most intriguing artifacts of Australia’s post-war history, a real relic of Cold War fear and loathing.

It’s the unique Laissez-Passer Tenant Lieu de Passeport carried by Australian journalist extraordinaire, Wilfred Burchett. For 17 years he was forced to use this peculiar document, which grew to the size of a small telephone book, because successive conservative governments illegally denied him (and his children) an Australian passport. Issued by the Government of North Vietnam, the Laissez-Passers were Burchett’s only travel documents because of the illegal and unconstitutional act of his own Government.

Burchett remains one of Australia’s most controversial figures, loved and loathed in equal measure. To this day he remains perhaps the only figure who can unite the disparate views of Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson who both detest him. Yet others around the world consider Burchett a courageous and principled idealist, and certainly one of the most important journalists of the 20th Century. Burchett’s scoops, including the first report of the devastating aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima were legion and he was a confidant of everyone from Ho Chi Minh to Henry Kissinger.

Too large to fit though the slot at most airport passport control windows, the Laissez-Passer usually caused a sensation wherever Burchett traveled, and more than once prevented his entry. Over the years it grew in size as more bulky pages were added, the collection of stamps from Beijing, Moscow, Phnom Penh and Pyongyang in the 50s and 60s making it surely one of the most exotic travel documents of its kind – certainly the most peculiar ever held by an Australian.

Burchett was required to travel with a special briefcase just to hold it, and it remained his only source of identification – apart from his reputation – for many years until Fidel Castro generously handed Burchett a Cuban passport in 1968 to attend the Paris peace talks. One of the first acts of the incoming Whitlam Government in 1972 was to finally hand Burchett and his children their rightful Australian passports, ending almost two decades of bloody-minded vindictiveness by successive Liberal leaders. Declassified papers held in the National Archives show cabinet was made well aware that its refusal to allow Burchett a passport had no legal basis and was unconstitutional, advice they ignored.

The remarkable travel papers are among several historic documents that have just been recovered from Sofia, Bulgaria where Burchett died in exile in 1983. They include some explosive correspondence sure to tarnish, if not ruin, the reputations of some notable Burchett critics, living and dead. Burchett’s son, George, a noted artist, is attempting to raise funds to save this invaluable archive and return them to a national agency here in Australia and a fundraiser will be held in Sydney this weekend. More details here.

Simon Nasht is currently producing a documentary for SBS/BBC on the life of Wilfred Burchett.

Peter Fray

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