International politics and intrigue – it happened one night in Canberra


I just came across a story in the Age newspaper online regarding papers released from ASIO archives. Most of the papers regarding the star of the story have been redacted which means there is a lot that has not been revealed. However, the bits that caught my interest do not relate so much to the “heroine” of the story, but to the people she associated with, as well as her activities in Australia.

There have been a few high profile spy stories but this particular was buried at the time. Although I was only in high school when it all went down, I was a regular consumer of news at the time. I do not remember ever hearing about Cecile Arnaud being returned to Paris after she was caught spying for the KGB. Neither do I recall any mention of ALP Senator John Wheeldon as having contacts with the KGB. This is a story that was suppressed.

Here is a synopsis of the story. Cecile Arnaud had been recruited by the KGB operative Stenin, who was in Australia as a press liaison officer. From the story I gleaned that Stenin was somewhat of a ladies man and that MI5 had warned ASIO about his activities when he lived in London. ASIO did try to set him up but that proved difficult, especially when two senior Australian government officials prevented Stenin making contact with the woman who was to be a part of the set-up (how interesting). Senator Wheeldon was from West Australia and when he was in Canberra he was unaccompanied by his family. He made contact with Cecile Arnaud, and he set her up with Stenin.

The historical background of the period in question is really quite interesting because it was the year in which our Prime Minister, Harold Holt disappeared when he went for a swim at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria. Portsea is on what is known as the Mornington Peninsular.  The incident occurred before the drowning of Harold Holt, and he had been informed about what had taken place. John Wheeldon was never questioned about these matters, because the incoming Prime Minister, Senator John Grey Gorton was happy to sweep it under the carpet. Also, Cecile Arnaud ended up in a hospital, and was then considered a dead duck witness.

Now here’s the thing, John Wheeldon became a minister in the Whitlam government when the ALP was swept to power in 1972. The ALP had been divided due to the Communists that had infiltrated their ranks and had remained out of power for more than 20 years at the point when they were swept to victory. (it takes that long for people to forget that these are real snakes). There were several suspected and known Communists in the Whitlam Government. Gough Whitlam was one suspected of having Communists links, but other ministers including Jim Cairns were known for their Communist links. It seems that Wheeldon was the one who not only had the Communist links, but he had actively worked for the Russians as a spy – charming. 

The Whitlam government stood out because of its excessive spending and the speed with which the Australian economy had deteriorated with high inflation, high interest rates and high unemployment. The stagnation probably began in the latter part of the McMahon government but it was the excessive spending that caused the prolongation of the stagflation that ensued in Australia. Then there were all of the other scandals including what was known as the Khemlani affair when Rex Connor attempted to get a loan from a Middle East arms dealer.  Eventually, on Dec 6 1975, the Australian electorate gave its verdict to the dismissal of the Whitlam government, and the Liberal-Country Party (now National Party) coalition were swept into government with a landslide.

This story is probably on the same level of the John Profumo affair in England with Christine Keeler as the main star, but it seems odd that the whole story was in effect suppressed until now.

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