The National Times, week ending May 6, 1978, p. 17
The split between the liberals and the ultra-right of the Liberal Party has surfaced again in NSW. The right was accused of involvement in blood-oath ceremonies. Elisabeth Wynhausen investigated and found a busy but unsinister crew.
Michael Darby, a paunchy, heavy-jowled character who looks a good deal older than his 32 years, usually plays leader of the push. Telephoned the week before last about the split in the NSW Liberal Party, Darby said only he could provide the full story.
We met in his little office in George Street, Sydney, which doubles as Darby Communications and operational headquarters of the ultra-right. The office had a Taiwan flag tucked into one corner, a pennant from the Rotary Club of Taipei tacked to a wall and a glass cabinet containing some of the sandshoes Darby helps his customers flog in South-East Asia.
Darby has featured in the press since he was a busy adolescent helping his father, first a Liberal then independent MLA for Manly, organise lifts for travellers during transport strikes. By now, after a spell in the Army, he has achieved a booming voice and a bossy if not bullying manner.
Some of his allies were in the office but Darby ran the show, meanwhile holding up a telephone so an unnamed party at the other end of the line could listen to the proceedings.
Can there be a threat of a right-wing takeover from people who can’t afford a loud-speaking telephone?
Keeping faith with the spirit of the Famous Five, Darby introduced his colleagues in his office only by their first names. Lyenko Urbanchich, a Slovenian royalist in a smart navy suit, was recognisable from newspaper photographs.
Urbanchich, president of the Liberal Ethnic Council, has been a trooper of the Right for decades. He sees the machinations of the KGB everywhere, and in the past was reported as sympathetic to some views of Eric Butler, the rabid anti-semite who runs the League of Rights. “I know of him,” said Urbanchich. “He’s a very well-informed man. He strikes me as a scholar.”
What of his views on Jews? Urbanchich said, “I’m not going into this. I am co-operating with everybody in the party. I was very keen on Goldwater, who was of Jewish origin.”
Urbanchich presented me with a copy of Liberal Spectrum, a publication of the ultra-right. Leafing through it later, I found photographs and names of others present who’d wanted their identities kept secret.
One was David Clarke, a dapper lawyer in his late 20s. Given Government policy on Rhodesia, he is, curiously enough, both chairman of the Liberal Foreign Affairs Committee and vice-president of the Australia Rhodesia Association.
Another was the Honourable Philip Benwell, who said nothing, but kept on opening his mail, with one arm crooked over the name on the envelope. A friend of Benwell’s later told me: “Philip is from the Anglo-Ceylonese aristocracy.”
Darby was at pains to stress that he and his allies in the party did not necessarily agree. “We all agree on free enterprise,” said Urbanchich. “We don’t need State brickworks.”
He did not concede that the entire show should be run by private enterprise. “You can’t run the army better.”
Darby said: “No, we could debate that.” They did, then discussed whether the police force should go free enterprise. There are some who thought it already had.
Asked what issues he supported most strongly, Darby said: “Sale of the State brickworks to private enterprise, abolition of compulsory retirement ages, reform of rape laws to reduce humiliation of the victims, and a review of motor-traffic legislation.”
He and his friends were united only as a campaign team interested in better door-knocking techniques and the like, said Darby. “We’re good at it, we’re professionals. One-third of all the wrong numbers I dial end up joining the Liberal Party.”
“Think of us as The Goodies,” he said.
At first, none of the Goodies was willing to discuss the accusation of the Left, apart from dismissing them, pooh-poohing all talk of blood oaths, cadets, and Vietnamese. I discovered finally that there was a meeting of the ultra-right and its sympathisers held at a house in Burwood, Sydney on March 8. The group welcomed two South Vietnamese army men — Lt-Colonel Ambrose Dingh Hung and Colonel John Vo Vai-ton, who talked to some people present about a specifically Vietnamese ceremony of blood oaths, and may have invited them to such a ceremony, to be held a few days after. The colonel, leader of a group of 100 refugees dedicated to the overthrow of communism, later said they hoped to join the Liberals.
There were documents circulating about the Burwood function. Late in the week Michael Darby rang me to say that the documents in my possession were fraudulent. I had no documents.
Finally I chatted with Geoffrey Ferrow, a 27-year-old lawyer with a receding hairline, who arrived for the interview dressed in a dark grey three-piece suit and the club tie of a club he later instructed me not to identify.
Excruciatingly polite, and equally pompous, Ferrow spoke for a good 20 minutes on the need to strengthen family life in Australia, the poor position of immigrants, especially those from Croatia and South Vietnam.
I asked about Burwood.
He said he arrived late, heard nothing about any Vietnamese ceremony and stressed that the document circulating about the function was “fraudulent and utterly false.”
More to the point, the document, I understand, failed to mention the most colourful aspect of the affair. The host that evening was Dr Lindsay Grant, president of the North Ashfield branch of the Liberals.
Years ago, Dr Grant, who is a medical practitioner, was married to Del Agnew, leader of the Sinless Perfectionists, a religious sect.
Agnew’s outfit, Tinker Tailor, owns property including The Commonweal Club, a vegetarian restaurant in Castlereagh Street, Sydney.
The place serves only vegetarian food, and is so genteel that you speak in whispers. So do the other guests. The Commonweal Club is a favourite locale of the ultra-right.
When I last ate there, about a year ago, I spoke with the willowy, pallid, grey-haired woman behind the cash register. She took me into the little room next door, stacked floor to ceiling with the literature of the League of Rights, and she described with great emotion the genius of Eric Butler.
Dr Lindsay Grant could be contacted at the Commonweal Club, said Farrow.
But what I really wanted to do was contact Eric Butler and ask what he thought about the sale of the State brickworks.