Companion to East Timor - Fracturing the Bipartisan Consensus

Fracturing the Bipartisan Consensus


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Australian governments referred to the 'national interest' as they consistently supported the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Foreign policy operated within a bipartisan consensus; all Australian governments enjoyed the tacit support of their parliamentary opponents. Regardless of which party happened to be in power, governments could rest secure in the knowledge that no parliamentary opposition would argue seriously for self-determination for the East Timorese. Although the Australian public was never comfortable with the Indonesian occupation, there was little it could do at the ballot box to change Australian policy towards it, since both parties had almost identical policies. The bipartisan consensus therefore gave successive governments a margin of comfort necessary to neutralise public opinion. An Indonesian scholar observed that 'Australian foreign policy changes from one regime to another are largely incremental, not radical' because both major political parties are 'willing to cultivate a cordial relationship with Indonesia, regardless of the latter's position on East Timor. They remain steadfast in their attitude even though local backbenchers and the media are pushing for tougher Australian measures against Indonesia.'1

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was in power at the time of Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution. Labor had come to power in the 1972 elections, and Australia-Indonesia relations were running smoothly at the official level by this time. Whitlam regarded a 'stable' Indonesia under the Suharto regime as vital to the Australian national interest. He supported Indonesian claims to sovereignty over East Timor.

The Liberal-Country Party coalition led by Malcolm Fraser succeeded the Whitlam government in 1975. It was committed to the same policy as its predecessor on Indonesia and East Timor. As the killings mounted during the War of Pacification (1975-79), it moved to legitimise the Indonesian presence by extending de facto recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty in January 1978, followed by de jure recognition with the opening of negotiations on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap in February 1979.


Whilst in Opposition, Labor condemned Indonesia's annexation of East Timor and undertook to reverse the decision if it came to power. But when the Hawke government was formed in 1983, Labor abandoned this policy and continued negotiations with Indonesia on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap, eventually signing the Timor Gap Treaty in December 1989.

The Labor government of Paul Keating, which succeeded that of Bob Hawke, pursued even closer ties with the Indonesian military. Keating and his foreign minister Gareth Evans accelerated Australia's links with the Suharto regime. On his return from Indonesia after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, Keating advised his fellow Labor members of parliament that 'President Suharto was the best thing in strategic terms that had happened to us; by bringing stability to the archipelago he has minimised the Australian defence budget.'

When the Howard government came to power in March 1996, it maintained the same policy as its predecessor. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer supported the Indonesian occupation. Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said that Suharto was perhaps the world's greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century. Australian governments had previously been able to rest secure in the knowledge that no parliamentary opposition would argue seriously for self-determination for the East Timorese. But the Opposition's new foreign policy spokesman, Laurie Brereton, fractured the bipartisan consensus. His change of policy was one of the most important elements in the final years of East Timor's independence struggle.

Brereton and his policy advisor, Dr Philip Dorling, dramatically increased the pressure on the Howard government, giving it no room to manoeuvre. Brereton had no background in foreign affairs, but neither did most people in the parliamentary opposition. One advantage of not having such a background was the absence of political or emotional baggage invested in the contentious issues surrounding East Timor. He could therefore look afresh at the developing situation. He took on almost the entire old guard of policy defenders by communicating directly to the ALP rank-and-file and the Australian public.

Towards the end of 1996, well before the Asian financial crisis and the fall of Suharto, Brereton and Dorling looked seriously for a form of words that shifted ALP policy on East Timor. However, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans) continued to oppose any policy change. According to Brereton, he was warned that he would be replaced as shadow spokesman on foreign affairs if he persisted. He therefore went to the ALP New South Wales' Foreign Affairs Committee with a new formulation on Timor:

A Labor Government will lend every encouragement to international efforts to peacefully resolve the East Timor conflict. It is Labor's considered view that no lasting solution to the conflict in East Timor is likely in the absence of a process of negotiation through which the people of East Timor can exercise their right of self-determination.

The NSW Committee strongly approved of the new policy. The NSW State Conference adopted the new formulation in October 1997. Brereton then took it to the Party's National Security and Trade Policy Committee, which was reviewing the national platform. He convinced them to sign up to it, telling them that it was appropriate and workable. According to Brereton, there was very little opposition inside this Committee. The Labor Party's proposed platform with the new language was released publicly in November 1997. At the January 1998 National Conference in Hobart, Brereton spoke twice to emphasise the ALP's commitment to self-determination. The National Conference adopted Brereton's new formulation unanimously.

After Suharto resigned on 21 May 1998, Brereton continued to speak up against the offer of Special Autonomy made by Suharto's successor, Habibie. While the Howard government signalled its approval, Brereton argued that the offer fell well short of what was required for a lasting solution. He repeated Labor's new policy at every opportunity: 'no lasting solution to the conflict in East Timor is likely in the absence of a process of negotiation through which the people of East Timor can exercise their right of self-determination.'

Brereton tried to have an inquiry into the Balibo killings conducted by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. He committed Labor to appointing 'a Special Envoy on East Timor who will work closely with the United Nations and all the parties involved.' He also committed $22 million of development assistance to East Timor over three years.

He also called for a permanent international presence to monitor military activity in East Timor:

Real progress toward a lasting East Timor settlement is unlikely to be achieved amidst allegations of clandestine military action and arming of paramilitary squads. Establishment of an independent and effective international monitoring presence in East Timor would allow dialogue and negotiation to proceed in an environment characterised by transparency, improved confidence and trust.

This was the first time a major figure with real political clout and a platform to air his views had called for international monitors. Leaked intelligence documents, increased visibility of events in East Timor and Brereton's outspoken advocacy of an international presence on the ground were a powerful constellation of forces. Brereton and Dorling understood that for many Australians, East Timor was a moral issue.

Laurie Brereton went to East Timor to monitor the ballot as part of the official Australian parliamentary delegation. He attended Mass with the East Timorese and deliberately chose to go to Maliana, which was reputed to be the most dangerous part of the territory. He spent time at the polling booth in the main square at Balibo, and tried to make a speech near the house where five Australian-based journalists were killed in 1975. The arrival of the militias cut his speech short.2 He continued to campaign publicly for peacekeepers until they were deployed in September 1999. He later pushed for a full judicial inquiry into the Howard government's East Timor diplomacy, saying that it had been 'characterised by a web of deceit… Kopassus orchestration of the pro-integrationist militias has been a critical element in the unfolding East Timor debacle.'3


1T. Rezasyah, Uncovering Australian Foreign Policy Making: The Prevalence of a Dominant Bureaucracy, The Indonesian Quarterly, Vol. XXIV No, 4, 1996, pp. 432-446.

2For a memorable account, see J. Martinkus, A Dirty Little War. (Sydney: Random House, 2001).

3L. Brereton, Labor calls for Judicial Inquiry, Press Release 132/99, 6 October 1999.