Companion to East Timor - The Fraser government

The Fraser government

The Liberal-Country Party coalition led by Malcolm Fraser succeeded the Whitlam government in 1975. It was committed to the same policy. Andrew Peacock was foreign minister in the Fraser cabinet. In opposition, Peacock had spoken up strongly in support of East Timorese self-determination:

So far as Timor is concerned it is for the Timorese to decide their future. ... We would prefer to see Portugal remain in control and assist with a program for self-determination. It would then be up to the Timorese to determine their own future in a program that they can work out.

He had criticised Whitlam for prejudging the 'free expression of the Timorese', saying;

The Labor government says that the people of Portuguese Timor cannot be self-sufficient. It ought to tell that to the Nauruans, the Tongans, the Samoans or the Papua New Guineans.

By mid-1975, however, Peacock and the Liberal-Country opposition were relinquishing their previously unambiguous support for self-determination. In August 1975 opposition leader Malcolm Fraser and Country Party leader Doug Anthony publicly suggested that Fretilin was under communist influence. Australian policy remained unchanged after 11 November 1975, when the Governor-General revoked Whitlam's commission. The new Fraser government issued a perfunctory protest against the invasion of 7 December 1975, and acted in similar fashion in July 1976 following the formal incorporation of East Timor as Indonesia's 27th province. As the killings mounted during the War of Pacification (1975-79), the Fraser government 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 with Indonesia on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap in February 1979.

The bi-partisan nature of Australian foreign policy was illustrated starkly in 1980, when an attempt was made to publish a book called Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-75. It contained classified documents outlining some of the written advice provided by senior Australian bureaucrats to the Gorton, McMahon and Whitlam governments. Much of the material reproduced in the book came from the Department of Defence and DFAT, or from related organisations like the National Intelligence Committee. The most sensitive documents were those dealing with the government's diplomacy towards Indonesia prior to its invasion of East Timor. These documents revealed that, according to the government and its advisers, the 'national interest' demanded 'good relations' with Indonesia, which was intent on annexing East Timor; as a consequence, the Australian government would not oppose Indonesia's plans. The problem was that sections of the public were opposed to what they regarded as a cynical exercise in realpolitik. The government's actions, and its knowledge of Indonesia's plans, would therefore have to be concealed from the public.

The book contained several documents of this nature. Since they were highly classified, there would be a need to protect sources from the inevitable leak inquiries that would be launched. The introduction, prelude and chapter commentaries were therefore unattributed.

It was printed in Hong Kong and published by Richard Walsh and George Munster, two Australian journalists. Two Fairfax newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, were scheduled to publish three series of extracts from the book on 8 September 1980. Hours before the first extract was due to hit the newsstands, the Fraser government obtained injunctions against both newspapers in the High Court of Australia. The first instalment of the extracts made it into the first edition of the newspapers, but they were withdrawn from all subsequent editions. The next day, injunctions were obtained against the publishers. The day after that, further injunctions were obtained against the distributors. A proportion of the print run had already been sold to the book trade. Some of this was resold to the public.

When the applications for injunctions were heard, the Fraser government invoked section 79 of the Crimes Act and sections 41 and 42 of the Copyright Act. The injunction failed on the grounds of national security (section 79 of the Crimes Act) but succeeded on the grounds of copyright (sections 41 and 42 of the Copyright Act). The book was withdrawn as a result. All unsold copies held by the publishers were surrendered to the Fraser government and later destroyed, although some libraries do still have copies. In 1982, the publishers released Secrets of State, which contained extensive excerpts from the banned book, as well as an accompanying analysis.

This book did not breach Australia's copyright laws and therefore could not be banned on any grounds.

Although the Fraser government had not been responsible for the diplomatic manoeuvres outlined in the book, it was nevertheless determined to prevent the public from knowing about them. This is because it was committed to the same policy as the Whitlam government.