Canberra Observed: Whitlam's apologia on East Timor roleby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, November 4, 2000
What prompted former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to write to every Labor MP last month to try to set matters straight concerning his government's record over the Indonesian invasion of East Timor?
The relentless march of the years has made Whitlam's famous imperious call to maintain the rage over his Government's 1975 dismissal difficult to sustain in recent times. The tumultuous events surrounding the sacking of his Government have become little more than a constitutional debating point, and Whitlam is not only personally friendly with the man who toppled him, but apparently now walks arm-in-arm philosophically with Malcolm Fraser as well.
"I can't think of anything he has said over the last 10 years with which I disagree," he told a recent gathering in Canberra.
But there is no softening in Whitlam's position on the issue of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor which occurred around the same time as the constitutional crisis.
The vitriol directed against his critics on the subject has been surprising in its intensity. In a recent newspaper article he described the five journalists killed by the Indonesians at Balibo in October, 1975 as "foolhardy", and his former Foreign Minister Don Willesee as "forgetful and forgettable".
Others to feel the wrath of Whitlam have been Labor's current Foreign Affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton ("lazy") and the Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Dr Ashton Calvert ("an inept diplomat").
Perhaps Whitlam realises the major foreign policy decisions are of such historical importance that the "green light" he allegedly gave to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor will long be remembered after most of the other achievements (and the debacles) of his three-year government fade to oblivion.
Or perhaps he feels betrayed by his own party, most of whom would now concede that it was wrong to take such a soft position against Indonesia over the past 25 years, as governments of all political persuasions adopted the Department of Foreign Affair's line of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in East Timor and elsewhere for the sake of Australia's "special" relationship with Indonesia.
Whitlam is particularly incensed at what he sees is a rewriting of history which now paints him as the first in a long line of appeasers of the Indonesian regime, which was only broken by the Howard Government.
He has given evidence to a Senate Committee inquiry into East Timor which is finally due to report, and has been chaffing at the bit about both its long delay and its findings.
On October 12, he wrote to every member of the Federal Labor Caucus, partly in a bid to pre-empt the report, and to inform his Labor comrades of his version of the events of late 1975. The letter is a rambling, densely detailed account of the days leading up to Indonesia's invasion punctuated with such irrelevencies as who attended a state function for Princess Margaret. All these minutiae have presumably been extracted from his diaries.
There is considerable detail on how Whitlam was informed about the deaths of the Balibo Five, and what information he was given.
From all reports most Labor MPs are either bemused or confused by the letter which wins knockout blows for recalling who was and who was not at various events and meetings, but inexplicably fails to deal with the broad foreign policy issue in question. The overall impression of the letter is a reinforcement of a view that Whitlam has a unique ability to take a selective view of past events, at the same time posssessing an inability to admit he is wrong.
On some important specifics Whitlam is correct. For example, he names three left wing MPs who undermined his Government's ability to control the unfolding events in East Timor by their vocal support of the Marxist-controlled Fretilin army.
He says the three culprits - Senator Arthur Geitzelt, Senator George Georges and Ken Fry - seriously compromised his Government's efforts to influence all the parties involved by their vocal support of the Fretilin forces at a diplomatically sensitive time.
On the other hand, it was not surprising there was pent up frustration on the Labor backbench because, in typical Whitlam fashion, a decision on Australia's position on East Timor was never put before Cabinet, nor was the Caucus ever consulted.
The only broad conclusion to be extracted from Whitlam's letter was his view that by late 1975 Australia was in no position to prevent the unfolding events in East Timor, and that no major foreign power in the region was prepared to step in and stop Indonesia's invasion occurring.
It also has to be recalled (though this was not done on this occasion by Whitlam) that Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had just fallen to the Communist forces and there were fears that Fretilin could have invited the USSR to establish a naval base in Dili if it won power.
Whitlam castigates the "gutless" Portuguese for not fulfilling their responsibilites without acknowledging that the difficulties Portugal was experiencing at home left it in no position to do much at all.
But the most important fact omitted in the Whitlam letter was that East Timor's fate was sealed much earlier than 1975 by Whitlam's own anti-colonialist position, and specifically, his reluctance to find a solution to the problem much earlier.
His flawed foreign policy ambitions were no better illustrated than by his Government's decision to grant independence to Papua New Guinea which he rates as one of the stand-out achievements of his years in office despite subsequent and ongoing tragic evidence that PNG was not ready for self-rule.
He wanted Portugal out of East Timor but at the same time did not want Australia involved in what would have been a messy and protracted responsibility. Likewise, he saw East Timor as basically not viable as an independent state.
Whitlam met President Suharto twice in 1975, including one meeting in Townsville, during which the Indonesian leader proposed that there be a joint-peacekeeping force in East Timor.
The facts indicate that Suharto was a reluctant invader because he feared the costs both through the initial invasion and maintaining an ongoing peace. But through 1974-75 Whitlam was unwilling to be part of any resolution of the East Timor problem wanting instead an orderly policy of decolonisation by the Portuguese.
By the time the Fraser Government took power there was no turning back.