Companion to East Timor - Laurie Brereton

Laurie Brereton

Laurie Brereton and his policy adviser, Dr Philip Dorling, fractured the bipartisan consensus on East Timor. They dramatically increased the pressure on the Howard government, giving it no room to manoeuvre.

Laurie Brereton became Labor's spokesman on Foreign Affairs after his party lost government in the federal election of March 1996. He had no background in foreign affairs. He had been in Australian parliamentary politics since 1970, as NSW Minister for Public Works, as NSW Health Minister, and as the Federal Minister for Industrial Relations and Federal Minister for Transport. Dr Philip Dorling became Brereton's adviser in May 1996. Dorling was a DFAT officer who specialised in Australia-Indonesia diplomatic history.

Brereton and Dorling soon realised that Labor had serious credibility problems. There was a perception in the electorate that the rhetoric of the Keating government had over-emphasised engagement with Asia. Although the other side of politics was trying to have it both ways – for instance, simultaneously accusing Keating of being obsessed with Asia as well as of ignoring Asia and being more interested in French Empire clocks and European architecture – there was a definite sentiment in the electorate that Labor had lost its way. Within Labor's core constituency, there was an underlying view that the party had betrayed its traditional values – that it had been tested and found morally wanting. The issue of Labor's record on East Timor was one aspect of a broader sense of dissatisfaction with the party.

The membership of the party had been demoralised after the 1996 federal election defeat. The left wing of the ALP in particular had been knocked into policy subservience by the habit, acquired during the previous 13 years of government, of compromising on the issue of East Timor. As a result, members of the ALP did not immediately lobby Brereton about East Timor. No community groups or non-governmental organisations approached him. Dorling and Brereton realised that people had largely given up on the ALP where East Timor was concerned.

In a speech to the second Indonesian Students' Conference in Canberra, Brereton emphasised the importance of a good Australia-Indonesia relationship, but also argued that Indonesia was beginning to go through a process of political transition. He said that the emergence of an indigenous democracy movement was:

a critical development of potentially far-reaching significance. Australian Labor hopes that a role can be found for this movement in the political process. Indeed if no such role can be found, then further turmoil and conflict may follow… Australia should not confuse any particular political group with [Indonesia] as a whole.. [The government] should not hesitate to make clear the Australian community's concerns about respect for fundamental human rights in Indonesia, including the detention of opposition activists following the recent disturbances in Jakarta.'

Brereton was conscious of the rich imagery created in the public mind by the Labor Party's record on East Timor. This imagery was exemplified by former foreign minister Gareth Evans sipping champagne with his Indonesian counterpart Ali Alatas in an aircraft high above the Timor Gap. Brereton knew that for many people, these images 'were not just unforgettable – they were unforgivable.' On his first visit to Indonesia in 1996 as shadow foreign minister, two events showed Brereton the persistence of the political legacy he would have to deal with. The first event was the drive to the Presidential Palace to meet Suharto. In the car on the way to the palace, Brereton and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley discussed the topics they would raise during the meeting. Brereton suggested the necessity of raising the question of human rights abuses in East Timor, even if only to inform the media and activists that they had raised it, and that Labor was on the case. However, Beazley was adamantly opposed to this course of action. As it turned out, they did raise the issue, although 'not at any great length.' The second event occurred later that day at the Regency Hotel in Jakarta. Beazley was dining with his old friend, former Indonesian defence minister Benny Murdani. Brereton arrived as they were puffing on their cigars. The scene reminded him of all the unwelcome imagery that surrounded Labor's embrace of the Suharto regime.

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. Brereton sent Beazley a memo:

[I]n the context of the present review of Labor policy, LB's [Laurie Brereton's] personal view is that Australia should not merely support East Timorese self-determination, but should be actively engaged in encouraging the Indonesian Government to see a form of self-determination under the auspices of the UN as the only real solution to the problem of East Timor.

Brereton asked Beazley to 'let me know if you see any difficulty in this approach.' Beazley opposed this formulation, saying:

This takes it a bit far – why can't you say we would foresee in a non-confrontational way with Indonesia opportunities for some outcome on autonomy. We could be seen as cynical taking it much further than that …

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. Many delegates spoke up and congratulated Brereton on the initiative. The National Conference adopted Brereton's new formulation unanimously.

Gareth Evans responded very negatively to the passage that dealt with East Timor. Brereton and Evans then had 'a very robust phone conversation,' during the course of which Evans was made to understand that Brereton would not be dissuaded. The Indonesian ambassador, Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, had also been given a copy of the policy change. He warned that this 'represents a moving away from the ALP's traditional position… I have been instructed to express our distress regarding that particular paragraph… it will clearly set our two countries on a collision course. Dorling and Brereton replied to Mr Wiryono immediately, saying that the 'failure on the part of successive Australian Governments to give appropriate expression to important values and principles in respect of human rights' was 'a problem which cannot be lightly brushed aside.'

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

For all his forthrightness on the issue, however, it must be emphasised that Brereton's commitment was to a very moderate version of reformist politics. Asked about his motivation for the policy change, he took pains to explain that he was driven by a strategic view of where the Labor party needed to be. It was, he said, about repositioning Australian foreign policy so as to deal effectively with any likely post-Suharto Indonesian leadership. According to Brereton,

It was really about protecting the Labor party. It was about protecting us from culpability and giving us a positive advocacy position which could reunite the Labor party and bring back to the fold a great many people who decided that we'd sold out on an issue. ... [I took] a strategic view of where the Labor party needed to be and where I would need to position us should I be fortunate enough to wake up as foreign minister. What did I need as the foreign affairs spokesman for a new Labor government?


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.