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Sutch: Speaking Ill Of The Dead

Sutch: Speaking Ill Of The Dead

- Murray Horton

Dr William Ball Sutch, economic nationalist, writer, intellectual, public figure and top civil servant, died in 1975 just months after he became the only person ever to stand trial under the espionage provisions of the former Official Secrets Act. He was accused of passing unspecified information to a Russian spy from the Soviet Embassy, at an allegedly clandestine meeting in Wellington.

Sutch was acquitted but suddenly it's all being regurgitated again, nearly 32 years later. Kit Bennetts, one of the SIS agents involved in the case has written a book, "Spy", baldly accusing Sutch of having been one.

Media coverage of the book matter of factly accepted its conclusions and branded Sutch a spy and a traitor. Bennetts called Sutch a "liar", "traitor" and "turd" (Press, 30/9/06; 'Sutch labelled liar", Dan Eaton).

The fact is that Bill Sutch stood trial and was acquitted by a jury. Not on some technicality but because the jury found him to be innocent. He exercised his right not to give evidence and called character witnesses only. Following the prosecution's humiliating courtroom defeat, the media mouthpieces of the SIS set about viciously libelling Sutch, led by the misnamed Truth which ran a concerted campaign trying to goad him into suing, so that the whole case could be re-heard. But Sutch never rose to the bait.

Sutch was asking for trouble by meeting a Soviet diplomat under such circumstances. But there is a whole other explanation that has never been mentioned this time around - namely that he was set up. This was the conclusion of a 1970s' TV current affairs documentary. Specifically, that the Russian diplomat/spy wanted to defect and the US Central Intelligence Agency, who had long targeted Sutch, asked him to do the SIS a favour. But they couldn't make it stick.

Bennetts stated that the prosecution failed because the Police and SIS could not find the package that he said Sutch was seen to hand to the Soviet diplomat. But former Wellington lawyer, Hector MacNeill, wrote to the Listener (14/10/06): ". In the transcript of evidence from the Supreme Court proceedings, no evidence was given by anyone saying that they saw Sutch meet (the Soviet diplomat). Additionally, although under observation by a Police officer when (the Russian) spoke to his driver, Sutch was not seen to have handed over a package. Both of these incidents were vital aspects tending to discredit the prosecution case".

The real reason why the powers that be, both in NZ and the US, hated Sutch's guts and wanted him discredited, were stated by Christchurch historian, Harry Evison, in a letter to the Press (12/10/06): ".Besides visiting Russia and reading Marxism, he outrageously questioned whether selling New Zealand's economic assets to transnational corporations was good for the country. Worse still, he was a Leftwing historian.Yet two of Sutch's books, "Colony Or Nation" and "Takeover New Zealand" actually deplore the loss of New Zealand's economic independence through the foreign acquisition of our assets. Sutch even claims that New Zealand would be better off standing on its own feet economically.".

I never had any contact with Bill Sutch but his books and political and economic views were inspirations to those who founded the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) in the same year as his arrest. His warnings of what would happen if New Zealand allowed itself to be conquered by transnational corporate recolonisation remain even more valid today than when he wrote them in the 1960s and 70s.

Bennetts' claims that Sutch was a talent spotter for Soviet Intelligence. He also thinks that the late Jack Lewin, who died in 1990, was a possible traitor and/or Soviet spy. Lewin was a friend and colleague of Sutch, long time Labour supporter, former President of the Public Service Association, and retired a departmental head in the public service. CAFCA has an extensive collection of declassified historic US Embassy files. There is a 1959 State Department report which reads: "Mr John P. Lewin has been appointed Assistant Secretary in the Department of Industries and Commerce. Reports reaching the Embassy indicate that Mr Lewin has a history of fellow traveller and Communist association. This is of special interest in connection with the history of the Secretary of the Department, Dr WB Sutch..".

I never met Lewin and he was never a CAFCA member. But when we were fund raising in 1974 for our first activity, which targeted the Comalco smelter, he sent a donation and letter of support. He was then the head of the Department of Trade and Industry.

We waited until after Lewin's death, before publishing his letter, which is still very relevant today. "Speaking personally and not for the Department ..you could not find a more perfervid opponent of foreign capitalist penetration of New Zealand than myself. I fought the Comalco crowd in negotiations for ten years. My position was that I wanted at all costs to prevent their even starting up, but all that my obduracy and arguing power did was marginally to improve the position for New Zealand and enable the politicians to present the swindle more positively.

"In fact when it comes to an outfit like Comalco, the operations of which I genuinely believe represent a net reduction in New Zealand Gross National Product .I think that there should be published each year not only a financial accounting which shows the tax take to New Zealand but also an economic accounting which shows how we are bleeding for the multinationals. I would, of course, take this position for every foreign-owned company."

Those who are being posthumously condemned as spies and traitors can no longer defend themselves, so others have to. I'm pleased to have the opportunity to remind New Zealanders of the debt that we owe to Bill Sutch and Jack Lewin, who were both New Zealand patriots and progressive nationalists. Obviously, that was their greatest "crime".

Murray Horton is spokesperson for the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa.


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