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John Wheeldon : A Soviet Spy Never

April 27, 2011

John Wheeldon


His name has come up with Mark Aarons book on communism in Australia (The Family File, 2010) and more recently with release of part of his ASIO file. John Wheeldon was a Labor Senator from Western Australian (1965-1981) briefly a minister in the Whitlam Government and later an editorial writer for The Australian. I counted him and his American-born wife Judy good friends.

The notion that he was at one time an undercover Communist Party member is not credible. It has been eloquently dispatched by Claus Ducker, a former public servant, in a letter to yesterday’s SMH.

      I refer to Philip Dorling’s article regarding Senator John Wheeldon (“The Labor Senator, the French consort and the KGB”, April 22-23). It follows the recent release by the National Archives of part of the late senator’s ASIO file which, Dorling writes, reveals “details of Wheeldon’s involvement with KGB officers”.

      Already last year, the author and journalist Mark Aarons alleged that John Wheeldon had been a secret member of the Communist Party.

      I cannot comment on the veracity of those allegations but any judgement of Wheeldon needs to take into account his actions in the years that followed.

      I got to know John Wheeldon very well from 1976 to 1980 as I was committee secretary for three inquiries undertaken by the parliamentary jointcommittee on foreign affairs and defence in which Senator Wheeldon participated. The third of those inquiries resulted in a 211-page report I drafted for him and the committee, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, tabled in the Parliament in November 1979.

      With the encouragement of Senator Wheeldon, the committee took evidence from many sources, including from several leading Soviet dissidents not long after their release from Soviet gulags, as well as from many specialists on the Soviet Union.

      With considerable skill, Senator Wheeldon steered the draft report through the full committee of 21 members, encountering some reservations from three members of his own party.

      I recall several calls from senior officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs claiming the inquiry would hurt Australia’s exports to the Soviet Union, but I received only encouragement from Senator Wheeldon.

      Although deliberately somewhat understated, the report was highly critical of the Soviet system and hardly the sort of report a member of the Communist Party would want published.

      During the inquires, I had discussions with John Wheeldon on a regular basis and he was scathing of the Soviet system. He was a man of great intellect and wit who liked a bit of intrigue. Fluent in French and German, he liked to keep in contact with diplomats from all embassies, not just from those in the Eastern bloc.

      Quite frankly, he was far too smart to be enamoured for too long – if at all – with any totalitarian regime of whatever type.

    Claus Ducker (Bruce, ACT)

3 Comments
  1. Richie Gun permalink
    April 27, 2011 7:31 pm

    I am fairly sure that Wheeldon started life as a Liberal. He then became a protege of Joe Chamberlain which probably promoted his left-wing image. I knew him fairly well in the period 1969-75. He was quite definitely a critic of the USSR. He was particularly critical of the Soviet intervention into Czechoslovakia, contrary to the views of a few caucus members. As for Mark Aarons’ comments, the Aarons family were decidely anti-Soviet following the Czech invasion, an event which led to the pro-Moscow group in the CPA leaving to form the SPA. Whatever affiliation, if any, JW had with the Aarons group, this would certainly not pigeon-hole him into the category of a KGB agent – to the contrary.

    Interestingly, when Robert Mugabe was entering the Zimbabwe political scene in the immediate post-colonial period and was the darling of the left, Wheeldon was championing the cause of Bishop Abel Muzorewa; in the light of what has happened since, it would have been better had Wheeldon’s cause prevailed in that case.

    Unlike Bob Carr I would not have counted Wheeldon as a good friend, but the notion of him as a Soviet agent is preposterous.

  2. Bob Carr permalink
    April 27, 2011 8:11 pm

    Another thought : I never found Wheeldon knowledgeable about Marxism. Yet he had studied philosophy and always read himself into any subject that caught his interest – Austrian politics and history, for example. If he had been an underground CPA member it would have been as a result of deep reading into the subject. But he never betrayed any particular knowledge of Marx, Engels or Lenin and their works. And as an irrepressible conversationalist he would have had trouble concealing it if he had, in fact, gone through the Marxist mill. His heroes were social democrats. And I recall his passion on Rhodesia and his anti-Mugabe line. That was not CPA orthodoxy in the late 70s.

  3. David Stephens permalink
    April 30, 2011 6:28 pm

    Yes, agree with Dr Gun that John Wheeldon was once a Liberal.

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