Companion to East Timor - The Hawke government

The Hawke government

Whilst in Opposition, Labor condemned Indonesia's annexation of East Timor and undertook to reverse the decision if it came to power.

It adopted a series of strong National Conference resolutions on the subject of East Timor. The 1979 Resolution declared:

The ALP condemns, in the strongest terms, the Australian government's recognition of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor and undertakes, on becoming the Government of Australia, to reverse the decision.

Three years later, Labor's official position was unchanged. The 1982 Resolution stated:

The ALP recognises the inalienable right of the East Timorese to self-determination and independence and rejects the Australian government's recognition of the Indonesian annexation of East Timor.

Labor's spokesman on foreign affairs at the time, Lionel Bowen, is said to have 'accept[ed] the policy to placate the Left on the foreign affairs and defence policy committee.' If Labor won the election, he would 'have no trouble diluting it to avert problems.' When Labor did win the election, of course, it reversed these policies very quickly. Former Defence Minister Bill Morrison led an Australian parliamentary delegation on a so-called 'fact-finding tour' of East Timor. The delegation arrived in Dili on 28 July and spent a total of four days in East Timor. Four Falintil troops led by Cancio Gama stopped him near Soba (Baucau) on 29 July 1983. After a brief discussion, Gama gave the delegation a letter about conditions in East Timor. Morrison's report to the Australian parliament concluded that the 'administrative authority … of the Indonesian government [was] firmly in place' and that the Indonesian government was acting in good faith in the territory. While there was a dissenting statement by Senator Gordon McIntosh, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the Official Report found no evidence of human rights abuses and no real insecurity in East Timor. The Indonesian military captured Cancio Gama. He was taken to Kupang, West Timor, and never seen again.

Morrison's report had the desired effect: while previous National Conference resolutions had condemned the annexation 'in the strongest terms', the 1984 Resolution merely expressed 'continuing concern' that the East Timorese had not been given 'an adequate opportunity to express their own wishes through an internationally supervised act of self-determination.' The Hawke Labor government wasted no time in reversing ALP policy, which had called for the suspension of all defence aid to Indonesia. In his memoirs, Foreign Minister Bill Hayden sought to justify this policy reversal. He argued that the earlier policy was 'retributive' and 'unambiguously confrontationist':

There are ways, other than bellowing through a bull horn, to register our concerns on human rights, and in the case of East Timor we adopted sensible procedures and effective measures.

He asserted that there were many positive aspects to the Indonesian invasion and occupation:

East Timor has benefited from more social and economic development in the past twenty years under Indonesian administration than it received through four centuries under the dead hand of Portuguese colonialism. In fact much of the dissidence occurring in East Timor today is a product of exaggerated expectations of what the new economic order could provide and not of sympathetic responses to Fretilin's sporadic and limited insurgency activity.

None of this is to ignore abuses of human rights when they occur, some of which have indeed been grave violations. It might, however, serve the cause of fairness to acknowledge that considerable advances have been made in an attempt by Indonesia to curb such abuses and punish offenders, while recognising more needs to be done.

The real problem was the free flow of information, which might alert the public to the real nature of Australian foreign policy – in other words, the same problem that had confronted the Whitlam and Fraser governments. Hayden accused elements of the media of being 'the cause of the greatest strains in bilateral relations.' In his view, the media had a responsibility to avoid 'unnecessary damage to our national interests with other countries.'

Hayden pointed to the 'stability' provided by the New Order regime, which ensured that 'the reality with which Australia has to contend is relatively uncomplicated and benign.' Australia needed to be sympathetic to Suharto because of the stability it provided:

Imagine that Indonesia, for whatever reason, were suddenly cast into fissionable, internal turmoil, with the potential for heading towards social breakdown. At the very least the flow of boat people to our shores… could dwarf anything we have seen before.

He also pointed to the potential dangers of Islamic fundamentalism:

[W]ould we remain indifferent if an aggressive, zealous, proselytizing strain of fundamentalist Islam spread like a contagion in Indonesia?

Human rights advocates were 'noisy groups in the community who, unlike government, can afford to behave with indifference to the broader national interest.' The national interest, on the other hand, required constant vigilance on the part of the Australian government: it was important, he argued, to be 'a constructive partner not a strident public, carping critic.'

Hayden chided those who, unlike him, failed to understand the reality of international relations:

People who follow a one-dimensional perception of moral values in foreign relations pursue a misleading caricature of reality… they are free to denounce and criticise publicly without having to worry about the consequences of their actions on the foreign, political and external commercial relations of their country.

He called for greater understanding of social and economic rights, as opposed to the 'paramount priority given to individuals' human rights by Western countries'. He 'accept[ed] the simple maxim that first comes bread then comes morals.' After all, he argued,

'the notion of universal human rights is relatively new and it is not universally endorsed … Much of what has been defined as morality over the centuries has been Eurocentric in its values and origins … there are, relatively, only a few democracies in the world… [Democracy] is a complex and difficult system… culturally a great many nations are incapable of embracing it successfully at this stage, or may not want to at any stage, of their development.'

The Hawke Labor government continued the negotiations with Indonesia on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap, arguing that both countries' seabed rights extended from their coastlines through the natural prolongation of their continental shelves, ending in the deepest part of the Timor Trough. Indonesia argued that since there was a shared continental shelf, a boundary line equidistant between the two coastlines would be appropriate. The problem was resolved by the creation of a provisional regime for the exploration and exploitation of petroleum resources pending final delimitation of the seabed boundary. The Timor Gap Treaty was signed in December 1989. This treaty ensured that Australia and Indonesia would rob East Timor's oil, while the Indonesian army continued to occupy East Timor.