Phil Geri, who first came into contact with ASIO outside the City Family Hotel. PHIL Geri was not surprised by the description of spy agency ASIO as shambolic, dysfunctional and badly led in a damning report released last month.The disclosures of the Whitlam government’s Hope Inquiry served as both vindication for his ultimate rejection of ASIO, and confirmation of his worst fears about the organisation’s relevance. Bendigo played a vital role in ASIO’s activities during the Cold War years, so it is fitting that locals will have the opportunity in August to revisit this fascinating chapter in the city’s history, through the medium of a play. Renowned playwright Melissa Reeves’ The Spook, inspired by Mr Geri’s story, appears for three nights - August 7, 8, and 9 - at the Capital Theatre. Documents released by the National Archives last month included top-secret details of Justice Robert Hope’s investigation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and they throw a fascinating new light on the play. And if there is a lesson to be learned from the sorry story that emerges, it comes in the form of a warning. Melissa Reeves articulates that warning herself: “Although The Spook is a historical piece, I believe it has great relevance for our own time which, like the 1960s, has its own climate of fear.’’ That climate of fear, she told The Advertiser, is defined by the so-called war on terror, which for many has become a global catalyst for both the erosion of freedoms and the demonising of minorities. There are other factors, such as the annihilation of Iraq, and what was happening in Guantanamo Bay, she said. Ms Reeves first learned of Phillip Geri’s story from a newspaper article in the early 1990s, and was immediately inspired by both its tragic and comic overtones. She said she found the concept - of someone giving up their normal life to spy on a branch of the Communist Party in a country city such as Bendigo - almost ludicrous. But she also saw the tragedy of Mr Geri’s life being shaped by a decision he made while still virtually a boy, a decision that ultimately proved to be pointless and destructive. “For almost a decade after I read his story I mulled it over in my head,’’ she recalled. “I had always had an interest in the Communist Party in Australia, and left wing groups, and I started doing oral research.’’ Ms Reeves quickly discovered that the Communist Party in Australia was in rapid decline by the time Phil Geri was recruited. This is confirmed by Victoria University historian Professor Phillip Deery, who told The Advertiser that by the 1960s membership of the party had fallen from a high of 20,000 to a mere 5000. The party was a shrunken shadow of its former self, he said. During her research, Ms Reeves met in Melbourne a member of the Communist Party with Bendigo connections, and found a family friend who had worked for ASIO. But by the time the play was finished she still had not met Phil Geri. “The play was making its debut at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney, and the people there said they felt it was important I should talk to Phil,’’ she said. “I managed to trace him in Bendigo, spoke to him on the phone, and sent him a copy of the play. I was on tenterhooks over how he would react. “He called me and said he was surprised how much of it echoed his own experiences.’’ When Mr Geri spoke to The Advertiser about the play, he said he found some of its humour a little misplaced, but his reaction was largely positive. Since its Sydney debut The Spook has been produced in Brisbane, on radio, and most significantly by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre last year. The Malthouse produced educational notes for students and teachers attending the play, and it was in this context that director Tom Healey expressed his feelings. Mr Healey, who will direct the Capital production, said: “There is a strong thread in Australian culture where we believe: `It’s not our fault’. “It seems that the war in Iraq is all George Bush’s fault and that John Howard [was] just Bush’s lapdog. America is making us go to war, and it’s Big Bad George’s fault. “For us to accept our own decisions would mean that, at this moment in time, we are a war-faring nation. “We are at war with Iraq, if not with the whole of Islam. “I think that The Spook gets right to the meat of that and asks the question: What is it about us as Australians that we tend to think we are just the little cousin of someone bigger [it used to be England, but now it’s America] but we don’t own what we do?’’ Today Melissa Reeves agrees wholeheartedly with this summary: “While we were fighting wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, their refugees were fleeing to this country. “But instead of welcoming them with open arms, we imprisoned them. Many people even felt that anyone wearing a head scarf might have something unpleasant in their backpack.’’ Similar thoughts concern Phil Geri, and will no doubt go through his mind when he sits down among the audience at The Capital in August to face up once again to the unanswered questions from his past. Questions like: What was ASIO doing in the ‘60s, recruiting and then betraying young men, persuading them to lie and deceive, until they paid the price in lost relationships, self doubt and disillusionment? He probably found answers, and a degree of comfort, from last month’s release of the Hope Report, which, after three years of investigation, decided ASIO was dysfunctional from the top down. Its record-keeping was shambolic, it was obsessed with digging up dirt on left wing sympathisers, and the morale of its staff was at rock bottom, according to Justice Hope. One damning sentence from his report says it all: “ASIO’s leadership has acted for decades in a capricious, arbitrary and ad hoc way.’’ Justice Hope found the organisation so negligent and indifferent, he advised Gough Whitlam to immediately dismiss its director general Peter Barbour. It may be too late for Phil Geri, but the message conveyed by Justice Hope, and Melissa Reeves’ The Spook, is there for all to read.