In an article in the 30 April – 1 May 2011 edition of The Weekend Australian, John Burton’s daughter Pamela Burton writes to defend her father, a former private secretary to Labor Party leader H.V. Evatt and Secretary to the Department of External Affairs during the post-war Labor Government, against charges by ANU academic Des Ball that her father (and indeed Evatt) were “probably” agents of Soviet intelligence (see her Burton was a patriotic public servant, not a traitor here).
In an article in The Weekend Australian the previous week (see The moles at the very heart of government here), Ball had written:
IN the mid-1990s, in the course of researching and writing a book on Soviet intelligence operations in Australia in the 1940s, entitled Breaking the Codes, I became persuaded that H. V. Evatt, the attorney-general and minister for external affairs in the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments, and John W. Burton, the secretary of the department of external affairs, were probably agents of Soviet intelligence.
Ball goes on to outline a highly circumstantial case for this remarkable conclusion, a conclusion which sparked two or three letters to the editor and other rebuttals (see for example former Western Australian Premier Peter Dowding’s ‘Red Evatt’ claims don’t stand up here, also published in this weekend’s Weekend Australian).
In her piece, Pamela Burton outlines her reasons for finding that Ball’s conclusions are “wrong, self-serving and ill-founded”.
I have a distant social connection to John Burton and met him on just one occasion. Pamela Burton’s mother Cecily was the eldest of three sisters, of whom the second, Eleanor, a Sydney medical practitioner, was the wife of my godfather, Frank Hughes, also a GP. Frank and Eleanor were very close to me, like a second family – throughout my school and university days I would have spent some part of one of the holiday periods with them in most years, and they encouraged my interest in history, politics, art, archaeology, music and a range of other things.
At some stage early in my career my wife and I were staying with them, and John Burton, who happened to be in Sydney, came to dinner. Given his background and my interest in matters international we conversed long into the evening about what was going on in the world. I found him very thoughtful and interesting, and there was nothing about that conversation that gave me either at the time or in retrospect at any period since a moment of doubt that he was other than a very senior practitioner reflecting on his time in government, senior international figures he had met, and the work in which he was involved at the time.
Those who wish to believe ill of Burton will insist that a former Soviet agent would of course present himself in that light to an impressionable young man, but for what it is worth, on the basis of that extended encounter, and the odd references made to him within that family on other occasions, I find that Pamela Burton’s account of her father is vastly more convincing than the circumstantial case put forward by Des Ball.
I would take a lot of convincing, supported by hard evidence, that John Burton was other than a loyal servant of the Australian Government and public.