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Peace, for the party and ‘betterment of the whole world’

24 September 2011 1,135 views No Comment

Peace, for the party and ‘betterment of the whole world’

Walter Seddon Clayton and Peace Joy Clayton

Clayton with his wife, Peace Joy Source: Supplied

FOUR days after the Soviet spymaster Walter Seddon Clayton died at 91 in Newcastle on October 22, 1997, I interviewed his wife.

In an interview published in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on November 15, 1997, Peace Joy Clayton (nee Gowland), a committed communist, confided to me that to escape intense ASIO scrutiny her husband had planned to defect to the Soviet Union some time after the 1954-55 Petrov inquiry into Soviet espionage in Australia.

Previously, the leftist view had been that the Petrov royal commission was a scheme invented by Robert Menzies and the Liberals in 1954 to embarrass then ALP leader Bert Evatt and the Left.

Peace Clayton explained to me their plan to live permanently in the Soviet Union was only thwarted when, in April 1957, the Menzies government withdrew her and Walter’s passports.

“Everything was arranged,” she said. The arrangements had progressed to the point where one of Mrs Clayton’s five sisters moved in to the Claytons’ home at Baulkham Hills in Sydney.

Mrs Clayton refuted a claim in her husband’s ASIO file that she was reluctant to go with him, and that he would have had to live alone in the USSR.

“It’s nonsense that I didn’t want to go,” she told me.

“Although I would have preferred to stay in Australia to be close to my family, I would gladly have gone with him.

“But in the light of what happened [in Russia], I’m glad we didn’t go.”

She admitted that revelations of Stalinist purges and atrocities had shaken them both: “We were absolutely shocked.”

Mrs Clayton — named Peace because she was born on the last day of World War I — met Walter in Sydney in early 1940, shortly before the Communist Party of Australia was declared an illegal organisation under the National Security (Subversive Associations) Regulation.

They were introduced by one of her five brothers, George Gowland, who like nine of the 11 Gowland children was a CPA member. Peace Gowland, then 22, and only a recent recruit to the CPA, had travelled from Adelaide to work as a typist in the Sydney office of the party.

Walter Clayton was in charge of organising the CPA’s underground activities during the party’s “illegal period”. That period lasted until December 1942 when, as a delayed reaction to the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies, John Curtin’s Labor federal government (which took office in October 1941) lifted the ban on the CPA.

Walter Clayton was in hiding until he made a surprise appearance at the Petrov royal commission’s hearings.

Although ASIO and state and federal police had unsuccessfully scoured the country for him, Peace still managed to meet with her husband in the bush on the NSW south coast.

She said they would go camping and swimming at a deserted beach, “a lovely secluded place”.

Peace Clayton also delighted in explaining that the security forces had no idea of their eight-year intimate relationship until they were married in 1956.

“They were a lot of nits,” she said.

“They got so many things wrong. So much of what they said just wasn’t true.”

Significantly, though, during the time Clayton was in hiding the CPA’s central committee decided as a precaution that his wife should change her job.

Although it seems rather hard to believe, Peace maintained that she did not speak to her husband about the CPA’s security affairs. Of claims that her husband organised a network of spies, she said: “I knew nothing about it. About such matters I didn’t ask. I would not ask. He was so used to secrecy.”

Mrs Clayton said it was nonsense that her husband and the CPA had a falling out when he moved away from Sydney and became a professional fisherman. She was proud of her husband, and proud of herself as well.

“We were doing our part as members of the party,” she said. “I have no regrets. What I was working in, I believed in. I thought it was going to be for the betterment of the whole world, not just Australia. And I would do the same thing over and over again.”

When I interviewed her, Peace was still a true believer.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian

September 24 -25, 2011