BBQ Lunch at the Arirang Korean restaurant, drinks at 44 Edgecliff, and Reg Grundy bidding for the rights to the burnt remains of Sydney’s Luna Park on the harbour. The Lionel Murphy files are nothing if not a trip down memory lane, back to the mid-1970s. Henry Bucks, cream safari, man-bling, hair-to-the-collar, a steak lunch in the red room, and the cops, the New South Wales ALP and the crims all gladhanding each other in Kings Cross. And at the centre of it all, or so it was alleged, was Lionel Murphy, attorney-general in the Whitlam government, later High Court judge, and, by the time that an inquiry was launched in the mid-1980s, a cancer sufferer.

In 1985, Murphy had been convicted and then acquitted on appeal for perverting the course of justice, after it was alleged he had tried to help out his “associate” Morgan Ryan, in a court case, calling in a favour to help “my little mate”. But these weren’t the only allegations circulating about Murphy, and the Hawke government decided it had an alternative but to convene an inquiry. By the time it was ready to sift the allegations, Murphy was dying, and nothing was tested.

Thirty years later, they’ve resurfaced with the release of the inquiry files — all 6000 pages, PDFs of typed sheets, wiretap transcripts and handwritten notes. The effect is both dizzying and inconsequential. Of the 41 allegations, made as inquiry submissions, 20 were rejected out of hand. Those that survived, but remained untested, chiefly centre on the relationship between Murphy and NSW Labor premier Neville “Nifty” Wran, and Murphy’s alleged willingness to tap Nifty for a few favours for mates, prominent among them, Sydney gangster Abe Saffron. By current standards, the loot was modest: a lease on the harbourside land occupied by Sydney’s Luna Park, before a 1979 fire there; contracts to refit Central Station. “Evidence” that Murphy was in cahoots with Saffron, included that he used to dine at Saffron’s motel restaurant in Edgecliff. A motel restaurant in Edgecliff! Them’s were the days.

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[Rundle: all facts point to US involvement in the Dismissal]

Yet by another measure, it was more a more brutal time. Saffron had wanted the plum Luna Park site for years. He was associated with half-a-dozen fires ’round Sydney. One of his associates was known as ”The Torch” (he gets a mention). And the Luna Park fire, in the ghost train, killed six children and an adult. One of the “witnesses” to the Saffron-Murphy relationship, James McCartney Anderson, was Saffron’s fixer, and probably murdered Juanita Nielsen, the Kings Cross activist campaigning against large-scale redevelopments of inner-city neighbourhoods in 1974. Anderson claimed that Murphy was a silent partner in Saffron’s nightclub (and upstairs brothel) The Venus Room, and attended orgies, blah blah. His proof? Murphy was seen at the nightclub part, with Saffron on occasion. But Anderson had a big incentive to create as much smoke-and-bulldust as possible, and was also, by all accounts, a drug-addled delusional psychopath.

Amidst this, is another alleged scandal, more bizarre to some, yet really at the core of the pursuit of Murphy: the Watergate style break-in at the Gladesville home/office of Junie Morosi, secretary and lover of Whitlam government deputy PM, and leader of the left, Jim Cairns. This was organised by W.C. Wentworth, Liberal heavyweight, ageing scion of a landed family, and obsessive anti-communist. Wentworth and others were convinced that Murphy was part of a Communist cabal, which was directing the Whitlam government, founded on the, erm, close relations of some of them (the Gietzelt brothers, Murphy’s political mentors) to the Communist Party of Australia. Further evidence was Murphy’s liberal rights agenda on issues such as no-fault divorce, civil marriage, and addressing archaic laws by creating the Law Reform Commission.

What really tore it for them was Murphy, as attorney-general, staging a raid on ASIO HQ in 1973 because ASIO were failing to investigate fascist Croatian terrorists in Australia — thus making impossible a visit by the President of (non-aligned, socialist) Yugoslavia, part of Australia’s re-orientation of its foreign policy. This was, as CIA supremo James Jesus Angleton would later say, the trashing of “the jewels in the crown”, shared intelligence. It was a magnificent rebellion against the shadow state of the spy agencies, but it sealed the Whitlam government’s fate.

[Rundle: proving the CIA-backed conspiracy that brought down Whitlam]

Wentworth had been a leading light in local CIA front, the Australian Congress for Cultural Freedom (along with John Kerr). His break-in to Morosi’s place, a rogue act, it seems — three operatives were hired to do it — was to find documentary proof of their orders from Moscow. One of the breakees shopped the operation to Murphy via Morgan Ryan (see above). Murphy had a sting operation put in place and when the snitch was arrested too, he squealed (Jesus, this vocab, it’s like a year 11 Guys and Dolls production) and Murphy allegedly got him un-arrested. It’s more complicated than that, and there’s a whole other thing about Murphy allegedly trying to groom a couple of cops in the newly established AFP, but with no bribery involved.

So what does it add up to? There doesn’t really seem much doubt that Murphy was pulling strings to help out a couple of mates. But there is no evidence of any deeper criminal involvement. That does not however invite dismissal as simply the different mores of a more colourful time. Murphy was no radical socialist, but he was a fighter for rights, for equality, for law subject to progressive political change, and for elected government against shadow operatives. The obsessive hatred of those who pursued him was real enough — but like quite a few who passed through those years, the lustre of commitment dimmed, and what remained was the comfort, creature and otherwise, of mates. But ah it was a long time ago, worn and faded as the cover of a Carter Brown. We now return you to your usual programming, the plebiscite, where John Howard is rushing to the defence of evangelical smooth-jazz wedding bands, and activists are advocating a yes/no to refute binary logic. No, you can’t stay here. It’s 1976 and the Korean barbecue is over.

*the US used the government’s new tenders for loan-brokers, charged with finding $4 billion ($150-200 billion in today’s terms) to infiltrate CIA fronts into the mix, and then helped persuade their onetime client, Sir John Kerr, that a spy-agency busting government threatening to cancel the lease on US spy bases, and name CIA operatives, might be inconvenient.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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