A shameful story

There have been a number of shameful episodes in Australian history.

The dispossession of indigenous Australians and the many massacres committed against them will always be the worst of them. But the Australian treatment of East Timor (Timor Leste) will for years to come be regarded as a case study of Australian duplicity and consent to war crimes – all for a half a century of a determined attempt to procure benefits from Timor Strait oil and deliver some of it to the people who were the architects of the policy.

Worse an Australian government, the Howard Government, then sought to rewrite history and position Australia, on the backs of the courage and professionalism of the Australian Army, as the internationally-minded guarantors of Timor Leste independence.

Kim McGrath has just published a book, Crossing the Line: Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea, which is part polemic and part academically rigorous analysis of how it all happened. The book represents an accessible version of the PhD thesis she is currently completing. The doctoral thesis when published will, almost certainly, represent the definitive version of something of which successive Australian governments should be deeply ashamed.

The story starts in the early 1960s when Australian and various oil companies recognised that there were huge oil and gas resources in the Timor Strait and sought to monopolise the potential benefit. But the journey from there involved a list of bad guys including Garfield Barwick, Richard Woolcott, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Alex Downer, Andrew Peacock (with a few quibbles), the Department of Foreign Affairs, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Santamaria, Gareth Evans, a number of Australian journalists, Henry Kissinger and assorted others.

All of them combined to ignore or approve the Indonesian invasion of Timor and the brutal genocidal occupation which followed; the murder of six Australian journalists; the concerted campaign to force the Timorese to agree to a border between Australia and Timor Leste which is illegal under international law, inconsistent with every other maritime boundary Australia has agreed with its other neighbours and which would deliver most of the benefit from the oil and gas to the oil companies and indirectly Australia. McGrath notes that the Australian claim is analogous to the Chinese claims in the South China Sea  – claims which Australia is vigorously opposing.

On the other hand there were good guys who made the truth available – James Dunn; MPs including Ken Fry and Michael Hodgman; journalists such as Richard Carleton, Jill Joliffe, Hamish McDonald; academics such as Des Ball; some 100 other MPs who objected to our policies; and, Timor WWII veterans who remembered what we and they owed the Timorese. In the last case it ought to be noted that the Australian commander in Timor in WWII, Bernard Callinan, was not as sympathetic to the Timorese in later years as the troops who were left behind. But then he was a director of an oil company.

The detail is too depressing to recount but it is worth noting two examples of the history of the issue. Alex Downer, when Foreign Affairs Minister, commissioned what is now known as the Downer Compilation which purported to be a summary of the DFAT documents relating to the whole sorry history. Not one of the documents – largely due to omissions from the originals-  relates to the oil issue and Downer, after retirement, was transmogrified into a consultant for Woodside which had interests in the Timor Strait resources.

Gareth Evans, in his Foreign Affairs portfolio, was photographed on a plane sipping champagne with Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Atatalas, as they signed a Timor Gap agreement while they flew over the Timor Sea. The book contains a photograph of the moment. A speaker at the book’s launch alleged that Evans, who is ANU Chancellor, objected to some ANU academics who wanted to include the pic in a publication but the blog believes that this is an outrageous calumny against someone renowned for his academic rigour, tolerance and humility.

Nevertheless, when 200 students peacefully protesting at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili were massacred, Evans said it was “the product of aberrant behaviour by a subgroup within the country.” This was not the first massacre, and Evans was not the first Australian politician or diplomat to be sceptical, despite the evidence that in the Indonesian invasion and subsequent repression somewhere between 100,000 and 200, 000 Timorese were murdered or starved to death. Indonesian officials told Australian diplomats that there may have been 50,000 to 60,000 dead but the diplomats conveniently ignored the confessions and downplayed the violence. Meanwhile a few Australian journalists were persuaded by the same officials to file stories blaming everyone but the Indonesians for the deaths.

Evans and all the many others were not alone. As McGrath says of DFAT: “The elite of Australia’s bureaucracy, the most highly educated and brightest men of their generation (in the 19060s and 70s they were invariably men), were so committed to Kissingerian realism that they covered up reports of massacres, torture and mass starvation in the pursuit of what they perceived to be Australia’s national interest.” Well, in the interests of various multinational oil companies who have proven again and again to contribute little in the way of tax for the resources they exploit.

More recently the Australian Government bugged the Timor Leste Government and seized the documents of the lawyer working on the case in the name of national security. Patriotism was once considered the refuge of the scoundrel – today national security is the refuge of the corrupt and the authoritarian. Equally they have redacted or lost file documents in the National Archives – often to remove references to oil.

Currently the whole issue is before a compulsory arbitration process, the conclusion of which is not binding but which we will know in September. Will the Australian Government finally do the right thing after 54 years? Don’t count on it – but read this book, weep, fume and then agitate.