Commonwealth Police

Commonwealth Police

The name Commonwealth Police was used by three separate policing organisations in Australia at various times in the 20th century.


Commonwealth Police Force (1917–1919)

The nation of Australia was established in 1901, but until 1917 there was no police agency to enforce national (Commonwealth) laws. Instead State police were called upon in an ad-hoc fashion by the Commonwealth as required.

During the latter stages of World War I there was considerable tension within Australian society, particularly over the issue of introducing military conscription. On 29 November 1917, at a public rally over the conscription issue in the rural Queensland township of Warwick, an egg was thrown at Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. The offender was charged under Queensland state law, whereas Hughes wanted a Commonwealth charge preferred. The incident, and the perceived lack of action on the part of the Queensland Police, was the last straw for Hughes, who had spent months arguing and fighting with the government of Queensland, led by its anti-conscriptionist Premier T.J. Ryan, over a range of issues. Hughes doubted the loyalty of several prominent Queensland politicians and public servants, and felt that it was necessary to create a Commonwealth Police Force to ensure that Commonwealth law was adhered to in what he regarded as a "rogue" state.

Under the War Precautions Act, 1914, Hughes quickly created a plain-clothed police force, which commenced operations in mid-December 1917. Hughes claimed Australia was at risk from possible revolt or similar action by subversive elements, particularly those associated with Irish nationalist movement Sinn Féin and the Industrial Workers of the World. At its peak the Commonwealth Police Force numbered about 50 men, almost all of whom were based in Queensland. despite the force notionally being a national one. Commonwealth Police had full police powers for federal offences, but their main task was to report on subversive activities of those opposed to the war and / or the Commonwealth government. Tensions between the Queensland and federal governments flared up a number of times, including during and after a federal police raid on the Queensland Government Printer's Office.

As 1918 passed it became apparent that the subversive threat was not as serious or widespread as feared and the Government began to wind the force down. In 1919 the force was formally disbanded and the few remaining officers at this time were merged with the remnants of the military's Special Intelligence Bureau to form the Investigation Branch (later to be called the Commonwealth Investigations Branch or CIB). Like the Commonwealth Police Force, the CIB was administered by the Commonwealth's Attorney-General's Department.

The Commissioner of the Commonwealth Police Force from 1917 to 1919 was William Anderson, a retired New South Wales Police Inspector. Major Harold Edward Jones replaced Anderson just before the Commonwealth Police was formally disbanded. Jones had been the head of the Special Intelligence Bureau and would go on to lead the Investigation Branch until his retirement in 1943. He would also lead the Commonwealth (Federal Capital Territory) Police from its establishment on 28 September 1927.[1]

Commonwealth Police (1927–1957)

This name was used by the police force in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) between 1927 and 1957. For more details see ACT Police.After he retired Lt. Colonel Jones, as he was then, wrote a secret report on CIB activities and sent it to his Whitehall spymaster, the head of MI5, Sir David Petrie. When the Commonwealth Security Service (CSS) was formed in March 1941 to take over some of the duties of the old CIB, Jones refused to hand over his codes given to him by MI5. In his letter dated 31 December 1943 Jones told Sir Petrie:

' The Government having decided that my retirement should take place at the end of the present year (1943), I am sending you a brief review of the work of the Security Section, which I have had the especial (sic) honour of controlling, particularly as your representative, for the past 27 years.'

Jones' letter refers to a mistunderstanding that had arisen between the Director General of Security (DG), Brigadier Simpson and himself over the use of cyphers. Jones says in his letter that when the CSS was formed the then DG W.J.Mackay (a former NSW police commissioner) had requested that Jones should hand over all cyphers and secret documents. Jones refused to recognise Mackay's authority. Jones referred the matter to the Attorney General, Dr. H.Evatt, who decided that the codes, the personal codes of Sir David Petrie, should remain in Jones custody. Jones was given the responsibility of handling all overseas security cables and passing them on to the CSS when appropriate. When Mackay was replaced by Simpson, Simpson repeated the request for the codes. Evatt maintained his earlier ruling. While Jones was away from his office there was a report that Jones had refused to give Simpson decoded messages sent for him by London. The Solcitor General gave instructions to Jones' deputy to release the information to Simpson.

Jones was clearly upset by what he saw a slur on his integrity and hotly denied that he had refused to pass on decoded messages for Simpsons. He writes to Sir David:

'I must, say, however, that after 23 years of continuous service as your correspondent, I felt then, and still feel, that there was an apparent lack of confidence to be inferred from the action taken at your end by communicating on such matters through an irregular channel, particularly in view of my cablegram to you advising you of the official position as defined by Government and not the position as was apparently advised to you without authority.'

Jones goes on to tell Sir David about the work of the Security Service within his own branch which was operated secretly and in his own words gave him 'considerable pleasure.' Colonel Jones talks about a Security Guard which was formed in 1935 and during the war with Japan was being used to guard Commonwealth establishments, especially munitions factories. Colonel Jones said there were some 3,000 members in the uniformed service of the Security Guard.

Colonel Jones goes on to say that there was considerable criticism directed at the Branch by "certain Army officers" and there were unsuccessful attempts to place his operation under the control of the Army. Colonel Jones described Military Intelligence as a "society of Friends and Relations" and that few of the officers were experienced in security work.

Jones' letter refers to the visit of Lt. Colonel Mawhood who was sent by London in 1940 to help with security matters and stay-behind parties to work behind enemy lines. According to Jones, Mawhood was given the run around by the Army. Senior officers claimed that Mawhood was a fraud. Jones writes:

'Lt. Colonel Mawhood may have given vent to his feelings of disgust when faced with this campaign of intrigue and falsehood. If so, it is not to be wondered at. For such a state of affairs to be possible in any Security organisation is incomprehensible to me, and I can only say, as a loyal supporter and representative of your service for so many years, that I am disgusted with the unfair tactics introduced and the treatment meted out to an officer with your credentials.'

In his reply to Lt Colonel Sir David Peterie concludes by saying:

' I should like again to express my deep appreciation for the very valuable services which you have rendered and to wish you good fortune and a long and happy retirement.'

Jones'report, that was included in his letter to Sir David, was headed " A brief review of the world of the Security Service of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch.'

The report stated that at the end of the First World War, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch was created to co-ordiante the records of the Army Intelligence and Censorship, and other records relating to war-time activities. The branch was organised by Jones as the Director of the Special Intelligence Bureau for the following purposes.

1. A Commonwealth instrumentality entirely independent of the States to deal with claims and other matters arising out of the War, and to provide Federal Investigation Services for the investigation of offences against the Commonwealth. 2. To continue under cover of the Investigation Branch the then Special Intelligence Bureau-subsequently General Security.

Jones goes on to say that the Security Service of the branch was concerned with the protection of the Commonwwealth and the Empire. Jones then gave a history of the Security Service which was mostly concerned with watching the activities of dissidents in the community, especially aliens and potential enemy aliens.There were a number of references to the Australian Italian community and Fascist groups within these communities. There were also references to Balkan migrants maintaining links with national groups back home and causing trouble in immigration communities, especially those from former Turkish run countries. " These elements in the former Turkish areas were always at each others' throats, each group aiming to liberate its sphere of influence from the Turkish yoke,' wrote Jones.

Jones continued that in 1931 'the public began to show signs of uneasiness over the growth of Communism and Facism in Australia." Jones said the most famous of the fascist organizations were the New Guard in New South Wales, the League of National Safety in Victoria, the Citizen League in South Australia and the Black Shirts of Western Australia. Jones said that the Branch was acitively engaged in cutting off funds and arranging the disbanment of these " ill-advised bodies."

Jones said that the Branch was also studying German Nazism. Late in 1933 the Branch established that a German, Dr Becker, then resident in Tanunda, was in charge of Nazi propaganda in Australia. The Security Section within the branch produced "comprehensive" reports on the Italian Fascists and German Nazi movements in Australia in 1936 and 1937 respectively.

The Branch also maintained a watch of Japanese visitors and businessmen. The Branch reported that the Japanese Consul General, Wakamatsu, had established a Japanese espionage service in Australia.

(The above information is taken from papers possessed by Colonel Jones' family, Alan Anderson of Lorne in NSW. The information was supplied to Val Wake the author of No Ribbons or Medals: the story of 'Hereward' an Australian counter espionage officer who entered the information on this site.)

Commonwealth Police (1960–1979)

The Commonwealth Investigations Branch (CIB) operated for almost two decades with offices located in most of the states' capital cities. The agency, which never had more than about 100 staff, had two roles. The first role was to investigate offences against Commonwealth laws and to better coordinate the investigative capacity of the various Commonwealth Departments. The second role was to conduct special intelligence investigations and mount surveillance on various subversive elements (internal security). During World War II (from 1942 to 1945) the CIB's special intelligence functions were largely handed over to the wartime Security Service. At war's end the two agencies were consolidated into the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS). In 1949 the Australian Government, at the insistence of British and US authorities, established the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and transferred the counter-espionage and associated roles from the CIS to ASIO. This left the CIS to focus on the more traditional investigation duties.

Concurrent to these events the Peace Officer Guard (POG) had been established in 1925 and by the 1940s consisted of several hundred uniformed officers who primarily provided physical security at critical government locations across the nation. For administrative reasons the head of the CIS was automatically in charge of the POG (Superintending Peace Officer). Other senior CIS officers also occupied senior POG positions in an ex-officio capacity.

By the early 1950s the CIS was run-down and largely ineffective; it had lost a lot of its quality staff to ASIO, resources were limited and its role was in reality poorly defined. The POG was in a similar position. In 1957 the Commonwealth Government acted to address the situation and passed the Commonwealth Police Act. This led, in 1960, to the formal merger of the CIS and the POG into the Commonwealth Police (unofficially known as COMPOL). Over the course of the next two decades the Commonwealth Police expanded its roles and capabibilities. In addition to increasing the numbers of detectives to investigate crimes such as money laundering, damage to and theft of Commonwealth property, the Commonwealth Police developed forensic, training and administrative services for not only for Commonwealth matters but also to assist state police agencies. Commonwealth Police assumed responsibilities for policing Norfolk Island and Christmas Island, established intelligence liaison posts overseas and also conducted uniform policing duties at the nation's main airports. In 1964 Commonwealth Police (including a number of state police sworn in as special COMPOL members) deployed to Cyprus as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. In addition to providing physical security at many key government locations, the Commonwealth Police also took on a greater role in providing close personal protection to senior politicians and diplomats.

In early 1975 the then Labor Government moved to merge the Commonwealth Police with the ACT Police and Northern Territory Police (each agency was federally funded). The new agency was to be called the Australia Police and implementation planning was well advanced when the proposal was abandoned in late 1975. On 29 October 1979, however, the Commonwealth Police and ACT Police were merged to form the Australian Federal Police (AFP). This was in response to the 1978 bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, and a subsequent review of Commonwealth law enforcement arrangements which strongly urged the creation of the AFP.

The Commissioner of the Commonwealth Police from 1960 to 1969 was Ray Whitrod, a former Detective Senior Constable in the South Australia Police and early member of ASIO. Whitrod had assumed the leadership of both the CIS and POG in 1953 and spent considerable energy and time in convincing the government to form the Commonwealth Police. After Whitrod left in 1969 to head up the Papua New Guinea Constabulary, Commissioner Jack Davis led the Commonwealth Police until the formation of the AFP in 1979.

See also

Other Australia law agencies:


  • Anniversary of the Warwick incident [1]
  • Some original documents [2]

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