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Is there a Spy in the House?

Hotel Canberra and the Petrov Defection

On 3 April 1954, Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov, an intelligence officer stationed at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected to Australia.  Two weeks later, and under very dramatic circumstances, his wife Evdokia was rescued from the clutches of Soviet officials on the tarmac of Darwin airport by Australian police, after she declared that she also wished to defect.   On the 13th April, Prime Minister Robert Menzies publicly announced the Petrov defection, simultaneously announcing the establishment of a Royal Commission on Espionage, which would expose a network of spies operating in Australia and around the world.

The Royal Commission examined the material gathered by the ASIO operations leading up to and following the defection. The Royal Commissioners appointed for the task were W F L Owen (Chairman), R F B Philp and G C Ligertwood, judges of the New South Wales, Queensland and South Australian Supreme Courts respectively.  Hearings commenced in Canberra, at the Albert Hall on the 17th May 1954.

The Hotel Canberra played its part in this extraordinary chapter of Australia’s history.  Located adjacent to the Albert Hall, it provided accommodation for the three Commissioners during its initial sessions.   Round-the-clock security was paramount, both for the physical safety of the individuals involved but also against attempts to eavesdrop on confidential discussions by foreign intelligence agencies. The Sydney Daily Mirror coverage of the first day’s hearings includes a report that ‘elaborate precautions are being taken to protect the three Royal Commissioners.  Security officers have been placed at strategic points, including the Hotel Canberra, where they are staying.’  The article is accompanied by a photograph of the three, ‘relaxing’ in the courtyard of the Hotel Canberra Garden.

Image: The Sydney Daily Mirror

The Royal Commission on Espionage was a major turning point in the Cold War, and placed Canberra at the centre of world affairs as it shone a light on the hitherto secret world of spies and their methods. Reports from the hearings were printed and broadcast around the world, studied in detail by governments of all nations dealing with national security in the knife-edge environment of 1950’s East/West rivalry.   Hotel Canberra provided not only accommodation for the Commissioners at the centre of this global event, but also a place of refuge and security to gather their thoughts and compare notes at the end of each hearing day.  A truly fascinating episode of the Hotel’s history.