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Colluding with the merchant of spin

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 23 September 2009

It was always on the cards that John Howard, the master spinner and denialist of all manner of things, from climate change, to the stolen generation, to matters relating to the truth of children overboard, was likely, when the opportunity arose, to rewrite history to make himself the man of steel that he wasn’t or the visionary that he could never be.

For reasons unclear, Paul Kelly has written a book, March of the Patriots, in which he has allowed Howard to make unchallenged assertions that from January 1999 both he and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, worked secretly to bring about independence for East Timor; so secret in fact, that neither the Department of Defence nor the Department of Foreign Affairs knew anything about this cunningly hatched plan. Kelly says that, “The Defence Department was not privy to such views and acted on the official policy: that East Timor should remain within Indonesia.”

Of course it is nonsense. I do understand Howard seeking a grander role than he was able to master as Prime Minister, what is harder to understand is that the self-confessed cynical realist, Paul Kelly, was prepared to humour Howard to the extent of committing to print a contrivance easily rebutted.


If we allow that Kelly is a serious journalist then perhaps the only explanation is that he believed Howard and that in itself is a worry.

Howard and Downer dragged their feet over East Timor, refusing to acknowledge that the militias were armed, trained and in some instances led by the Indonesian Army, the TNI. Reluctantly they were forced by mid 1999 to concede that the militia in East Timor might not be what they claimed to be, East Timorese opposed to Independence. None the less they were determined not to get militarily involved in East Timor, protecting the East Timorese against TNI orchestrated violence in the run up to the ballot.

In order to avoid a military commitment they failed to tell the United States what they knew about TNI activities and sought to convey the impression that the lead into polling would be peaceful. The United States was nonplussed and urged Australia to accept its regional responsibilities. The level of denial being run with the US backfired badly when Lieutenant-Colonel Merv Jenkins the DIO liaison officer in Washington was accused of passing on to his US contacts facts relating to TNI control of the militia. Shortly after being questioned by Australian officials flown in to conduct an investigation, Merv Jenkins committed suicide.

If Howard and Downer were running a secret agenda to foster a move to independence in East Timor they surely would have welcomed covert contact with the US that might have assisted in their aims rather than running trouble for a valuable conduit.

Kelly, Howard, Downer, et al, have conveniently consigned to the ample dark corners of their minds the role of the Australian people in pushing for East Timorese independence, expressed through public and church meetings, letters to the editor, talk back radio, petitions and lobbying of parliamentarians. It was the overwhelming strength of public opinion and pressure from the US which eventually forced a reluctant and fearful Howard and Downer to act.

Laurie Brereton, the shadow foreign minister, took the Labor Party from April 1998 to a position far in advance of the coalition. In September 1998 he proposed the release of Xanana Gusmao and the appointment to East Timor of a special envoy. In October he called for “a permanent international presence in East Timor”.


This rewriting of history leaves hanging why Howard and Downer pursued decorated AFP Officer Wayne Severs, working as a UN intelligence officer, and AusAID worker Lansell Taudevin, for publicly stating they had first-hand knowledge of TNI backing of the militia.

Until the middle of 1999 Howard and Downer ran a policy actively appeasing Indonesia until it collapsed in the face of public pressure.

Notice how silent both have been on the proposed AFP investigation into the Balibo murders.

What is enlightening, whether real or made up, is that Howard would encompass the notion of keeping a key government department in the dark over a matter of national importance. It says something of the character of the man and of the author for not challenging it.

Without intending to, Kelly has given us another unlovely insight into this latter-day Walter Mitty.

We await with some interest the Howard historical spin on the children in detention. Was it really all Ruddock’s doing and was Howard bullied into going along with a policy he secretly loathed?

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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