Will we ever know the truth about Australia and Timor Leste?

The compelling evidence about Australian greed and perfidy over East Timor and the oil and gas rights to the rich resources between the two countries has been added to by recent documentary releases in a running AAT dispute between the National Archives (effectively the Australian Government) and Kim McGrath the author of Crossing the Line: Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea.

Much of the recent hearing was in secret with McGrath and her lawyers prevented from hearing the Government’s rationale for blocking her applications under the Archives Act for documents which are in the ‘open period’ – that is dating from more than 30 years ago. The Tribunal has reserved its decision on her latest application.

But what has been released makes it fairly clear that Australia’s 1979 reasons for being the only western nation to recognise Indonesian sovereignty over Timor-Leste following the Indonesian invasion and massacres of Timorese were about oil and gas. It also makes it clear that freedom of information is a joke in a country with a government which is obsessed with secrecy and reducing civil liberties. After all Australia used the intelligence services to bug a lawyer working for Timor Leste and then confiscated the passport of a key witness to prevent him giving evidence in court. Peter Dutton, aided and abetted by Malcolm Turnbull, make almost daily announcements about new civil liberty infringements in stark contrast to Turnbull’s role in the Spy Catcher trial. The continuing battles of Professor Jenny Hocking to get the National Archives to disgorge correspondence between the Palace and the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, is another prime example of government secrecy even in the very unlikely event that letters are only about the brands of gin the Queen Mother and the GG preferred.

And the latest Federal budget has line items totalling billions of dollars without specifying what they actually are for. The story about the South Sea Bubble company designed “For carrying-on an undertaking of great advantage but no-one to know what it is” is probably apocryphal but 300 years later the Australian Government is using the same approach in its Budget papers.

Nevertheless, amidst all the secrecy about Timor Leste some threads are emerging. First, Australian diplomats are often like the Yes Prime Minister comment on the British Foreign Office being called ‘Foreign” because that’s who it represented rather than the British. In keeping with that approach the Australian Indonesian embassy staff seem to have been very eager to push Indonesia’s line on sovereignty with their political masters. Second, when there was pushback by people like then Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, he was thwarted by his own department and his Ministerial colleagues. Third, the Australian Government was in close co-operation with oil and gas interests and directors while ignoring the protests of Australian East Timor WWII veterans, priests, journalists on the spot and many community groups. Indeed, in the case of the murder of Australian journalists by Indonesian troops it is clear that Australia had much more knowledge of the events than they admitted. But then the murder of the Balibo Five and Roger East could hardly weigh very heavily in the balance when the interests of what Upton Sinclair called Big Oil are in play.

Interestingly Peacock later  took another stand on principle when he resigned from the Ministry on April 28 1981 over the way the government was conducted in general and specifically the recognition of the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

For many years the blog spent one day a week down in the Latrobe Valley with a client and driving backwards and forwards for long hours in those pre-freeway links days between the Valley and Melbourne. The only reasonable radio coverage the blog could get for the journeys was the ABC and it was often news or broadcasts of Parliament rather than something soothing like Classic FM. Almost none of what was covered has stuck in the blog’s mind except the 1984 news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and Andrew Peacock’s resignation speech. At the time the blog was also reading Noam Chomsky’s view on Cambodia which were rather like the Australian Government’s – what genocide? Neither Australia’s nor Chomsky’s finest hours – but one of Peacock’s finest.

Australia largely redeemed itself by its later role in the Cambodian peace process in particular that of Lt General John Sanderson, Force Commander of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) who met with all the key players working through a peaceful settlement. Sanderson is a prime example of an intellectual soldier and he has mentioned that full records were kept of all the discussions. The UN archives have some 306 pages of reports from UNTAC but one wonders what more there might be.

Of course Australian interest in Cambodia has changed somewhat since then. Now we give them millions of dollars in aid to take a handful of refugees most of whom don’t stay. Meanwhile Australia is as silent on what’s happening in Cambodia today – even avoiding protesting about the imprisonment of the journalist James Ricketson – as it was about Timor Leste and Cambodian genocide. Indeed, the blog can’t help thinking Robert Menzies would be turning in his grave that a descendant of Staniforth Ricketson would be so treated.