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Whitlam's East Timor elephant in the room

By Peter Job - posted Friday, 5 December 2014

The weeks since Whitlam's death have seen an outpouring of tributes and deference that is unprecedented. This is neither surprising nor inappropriate. Whitlam was a giant who impacted on Australian society probably more than any other single individual in the 20th century, and as far as Australia is concerned overwhelmingly for the better.

Medibank, the Racial Discrimination Act, Aboriginal Land Rights, woman's rights, non-discriminatory immigration, legal reform and federal legal aid, the trade practices act, the abolition of conscription, ending our involvement in Vietnam, recognising China, recognition and promotion of the reality of multiculturalism, support for the arts and for the Australian film industry.

The Whitlam government made it possible for me and others like to me of my generation to go to university. It actively fought against a legacy of racism which has plagued Australian society since federation.


As a teacher I must particularly applaud the Whitlam government's contribution to school education, a commitment to equity and quality and specifically to public education not matched since. This record is particularly impressive given the two half terms Whitlam served, a total of three interrupted and strife torn years against an obstructionist opposition determined to stifle his reforms and bring down his government.

While these accomplishments were not Whitlam's alone, he was certainly a pivotal figure. His legacy more than any other single individual has made us more tolerant, fairer, more egalitarian, more accepting of diversity, more outward looking, more modern, more sophisticated, freer. He had a profound impact on us as a nation, not only on how we live but who we are.

Yet to the bestowing of unconstrained sainthood there remains a huge elephant in the room, one mentioned by but a few and emphasised by even fewer.

Demographic analysis by Sarah Staveteig of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis indicates that in the years of Indonesian occupation of East Timor around a third of the population died. It is, proportionally, one of the greatest human caused tragedies of the 20th century. It was also one in which Whitlam played a significant role.

Whitlam offered firm encouragement for an Indonesian takeover of East Timor in the early stages of the decolonisation process, after the change of government in Portugal, when events were yet to unfold and the situation still unformed. In a meeting with Suharto in Yogyakarta, Java on 6 September 1974 he told the Indonesian President that East Timor was too small to be independent and that, "independence would be unwelcome to Australia, to Indonesia and to other countries in the region". In apparent contradiction given the clear preference of the Timorese people, he stated incorporation with Indonesia should preferably be achieved through an act of self-determination. Yet his actions and attitude then and later made it clear that it was the former policy objective which would take priority. A departmental memo records him telling Australian diplomats that while he favoured incorporation, "obeisance" should be made towards self-determination so not to, "create argument in Australia which would make people critical of Indonesia". The Indonesian understanding of the meeting was clear, with Major-General Ali Murtopo later telling the Australian Ambassador that prior to Whitlam's meeting the Suharto regime had been undecided about its Timor policy, but that Whitlam's support had caused them to crystallise their thinking to that of firmly supporting incorporation.

Once announced, Whitlam's stated position to Suharto increasingly became policy, with Whitlam's own actions making it so. The issue was never taken to cabinet, and Whitlam resisted pressure from some Labor parliamentarians and from the Portuguese government to re-open the Australian consulate in Dili, stating that such a move could be "misinterpreted".


Ignoring increasingly clear evidence for Timorese support for independence, in a second meeting with Suharto in Townsville in April 1975 Whitlam repeated, arguably in even stronger terms, his government's support of integration. Murtopo would later tell an Australian journalist they regarded this as a "green light" for absorption of the territory.

In the last months of his prime ministership Whitlam ignored calls from Fretilin forces, who had taken possession of the territory after a brief civil war not of their own making and partly orchestrated by Indonesia, for a Portuguese return or international intervention to support orderly decolonisation. In a strong public hint to the Suharto regime, he referred to Indonesia in parliament as "the only force capable of restoring calm in the territory". He refused repeated requests from Jose Ramos Horta on behalf of Fretilin for Australia to send in a negotiating team to end the conflict. He refused to react to increasing Indonesian incursions and destabilisation despite clear intelligence from the Australian embassy in Jakarta about what was happening. He even failed to take up the deaths of five Australian based journalists in Balibo on 16 September, despite immediate intelligence from the Defence Signals Division (DSD) that Indonesian forces were responsible. This would have been another clear signal to Indonesia that whatever action it took would not entail repercussions from Australia.

None of this was pre-determined. His own foreign minister, Senator Don Willesee, had originally pressed for a policy in support of an act of genuine self-determination. Sections of the Department of defence also made submissions before the invasion arguing for acceptance of an independent East Timor. Former Whitlam Government Minister Tom Uren, who had visited the territory during the period of Fretilin control, later told a 1999 Senate inquiry he believed the Indonesians were initially reluctant to invade and that a diplomatic intervention in favour of genuine self-determination may well have made a difference.

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About the Author

Peter Job was an activist campaigning for an independent East Timor in the 1970s and 80s.

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