Did Australia act appropriately before and in response to Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1975?
The buttons above: Internet links takes you to Web sources for this issue - Analysis of an item takes you to an analysis of a newspaper item used in the compilation of this outline - Analysis help opens a guide to analysing the language of the news media - Clippings package takes you to a list of all the items used to compile this outline
SCROLL DOWN to read ALL the sections, including arguments for and against
Echo Issue Outline 2000 / 37 - 38
Indonesia forcibly annexed East Timor in 1975. The annexation frustrated East Timorese desires for independence for nearly 25 years. It was only in August of 1999 that East Timor was able to vote for its independence from Indonesia and then this independence had to be guaranteed by a United Nations peace-keeping force.
Critics of Australia's foreign policy in 1975 have long argued that Australia either acquiesced to Indonesia's military take-over of East Timor or that it did far too little to prevent it. (Similar claims have been made about the United States' response to the annexation.)
In September 2000 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released many of the diplomatic papers from the 1974-76 period detailing Australia's dealings with Indonesia in the matter of East Timor. The Australians most involved appear to have been the then Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott.
These papers have fuelled the criticisms of those who have claimed that Australia sold East Timor out. Supporters of Australia's actions have claimed that the papers indicate that Australia was merely bowing to the inevitable, that it hoped that self-determination would ultimately be possible and that it never endorsed the use of violence by Indonesia.
What they said ...
'I want it [East Timor] incorporated, but I do not want this done in a way [that] will create argument in Australia ...'
Australian Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam
'I am in favour of incorporation, but obeisance has to be made to self-determination'
Australian Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo news digest and newspaper sources index.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
Timor is about 450 kilometres north west of Australia, across the Timor Sea or Timor Gap.
Timor is an island of the Malay Archipelago.
The total area of Timor is 32,350 sq km. East Timor occupies an estimated area of almost 19,000 km, and comprises the eastern half of the island.
West Timor was formerly a Dutch colony and became part of the new nation of Indonesia in 1945.
Major events in East Timor's history
1500s: The Portuguese arrived on the island and settled in the eastern half. Later, the Dutch colonized the western side. Throughout the following centuries the territory remained in a state of constant rebellion.
1942: East Timor was part of what the Allies regarded as a buffer zone against the Japanese during World War II. Australian and Dutch forces landed in East Timor, despite Portugal's neutrality. The Japanese Imperial Army occupied the island some three months later executing some 50,000 East Timorese. The East Timorese harboured Australian troops fighting Japanese forces on the island.
1945: After World War II the Republic of Indonesia was created according to the borders it had inherited from the period when the archipelago was a Dutch colony. East Timor was a Portugese colony and Indonesian authorities did not claim it as part of the new state.
1974: April 25. The Revolution of the Carnations in Portugal resulted in the fall of the dictatorship then ruling Portugal. The new Portuguese government recognised the right of all remaining Portuguese colonies to self-determination. It began the decolonisation process in East Timor.
1974: September 6. Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, met President Suharto in Wonosobo, a resort town in Central Java, and agreed that the eventual integration of East Timor into the Indonesian Republic was inevitable.
1975: July 1, Portugal set October 1976 as the date for popular elections for a General Assembly to determine East Timor's future. Portuguese colonial control was set to end in October 1978.
1975: August. There was fighting in East Timor between Indonesian sponsored forces and Fretilin, the pro-independence forces. Fretilin gained control of all of East Timor.
1975: October 6. Indonesian troops attack Batugade, a border town in East Timor.
1975: December. President Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, visit Indonesia. Immediately after their departure Indonesia invaded East Timor. It is commonly supposed that the United States had indicated that it would not intervene in support of East Timor.
1975: December 7. East Timor was invaded by the Indonesian army.
1975: December 12. The United Nations General Assembly condemned the Indonesian invasion. (This was the first of a number of UN condemnations of Indonesia's take-over of East Timor which has never been recognised by the United Nations)
1976: July 17. Indonesia claimed annexation of East Timor as its 27th province.
1978: The Fraser Coaltition Government recognised Indonesia sovereignty in East Timor.
1985: August 18. Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, announced Australian recognition of Indonesian sovereignty in East Timor on behalf of his Labor Government.
1985: October 27. The Indonesian and Australian governments begin discussions for a joint petroleum exploration program in the Timor Gap, south of Timor.
1989: December. Australia and Indonesia sign Timor Gap Treaty.
1995: Australia and Indonesia signed a joint security agreement
1997: November. Australia and Indonesia struck a deal to share the proceeds of the $10 billion Bayu-Udan gas project in the Timor Gap, operated by Australian company BHP.
1998: May. Indonesia's President Suharto resigned. His deputy BJ Habibie took over as caretaker President. Indonesia has suffered severely under the so-called 'Asian economic meltdown' and is under pressure to reform both its economy and political structure.
1999: Indonesian President Habibie agreed to a plebiscite in East Timor. The East Timorese were to choose between autonomy, while remaining part of Indonesia, and full independence.
1999: August 30. Nearly 80 per cent of East Timorese voted for full independence.
1999: September. Many East Timorese appear to have been killed and others forcibly relocated in West Timor by pro-Indonesian militia. It is claimed that the Indonesian military supported the militia.
1999: September. After some weeks and much destruction and apparent loss of life President Habibie agreed to a United Nations peacekeeping force coming into East Timor. The force was lead by Australia.
1999: October 20. Indonesia's national assembly ratified the August 30 vote in East Timor, renouncing any claim to the territory, and the UN formally took over its administration its administration.
A very good general introduction to Indonesia is Budi Rahardjo's Indonesian Homepage. This can be found at http://indonesia.elga.net.id/.
Of special interest is an online Indonesian timeline produced on this site. The period from 1965 to 1998 is particularly useful. It can be found at http://www.gimonca.com/sejarah/sejarah10.html.
This is an extremely detailed and informative timeline, complete with summarising overviews of each year treated.
A valuable overview of Australia's relations with Indonesia and (where relevant) with East Timor can be found in an essay written by Carlyle Thayer , Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
The essay was first delivered to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, (Dunedin Branch), Hocken Hall, The University of Otago, Dunedin, on May 12, 1988.
It is titled Australian Perceptions and Indonesian Reality. The article is, as its author notes, 'mainly concerned with official [Australian] attitudes and perceptions'.
It can be found at http://www.ci.uc.pt/Timor/ozindo.htm
An interesting analysis of Australia's current and past positions on East Timor has been produced by Professor James Cotton, head of the School of Politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales.
The article is titled Australia's Interest in East Timor and was originally published in The StraitsTimes, March 3, 1999. It can be found at http://www.pol.adfa.edu.au/resources/timor.html
A useful site giving information on the history of the East Timorese independence movement is East Timor Action Network (ETAN)/US. This site can be found at http://www.etan.org/default.htm
A subsection of this site, outlining the nature of the relations between the United States, Indonesia and East Timor can be found at http://www.etan.org/timor/BkgMnu.htm It is titled Background on East Timor and U.S. Policy.
The whole site presents arguments favouring independence for East Timor.
Also of interest is John Pilger's New Statesman article, We helped them descend into hell. This was published on September 13, 1999, and is strongly critical of Britain and the United States for supposedly supporting Indonesia in its annexation of Indonesia. The article suggests their motives were largely economic. It implies that Australia's motives were similar, especially post 1983.
The article can be found at http://www.zmag.org/CrisesCurEvts/Timor/new_statesman.htm
In January 1995, United States intellectual and political activist, Noam Chomsky, visited Australia and gave a number of lectures. End the Atrocity in East Timor is an abridged version of a talk he gave on East Timor. It was published on March 22, 1995, in The Guardian, the newspaper of the Socialist Party of Australia. Chomsky is also critical of the role played by Australia and the United States.
His edited speech can be found at http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/talks/9503-east-timor.html
The Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs has a section of its site dealing with East Timor. Included on this site are the testimonies of three East Timorese supposedly in favour of the continued annexation of East Timor by Indonesia. These comments can be found at http://www.dfa-deplu.go.id/policy/view/timor/geneve/geneve.htm
The Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs also has a section of its site which outlines the problems surrounding East Timor from an Indonesian perspective. The article is titled East Timor: How it happened
It can be found at http://www.dfa-deplu.go.id/policy/view/timor/paper/heinzarnd-23april99.htm
The Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs site also contains an article written by Richard Woolcott, Australian ambassador to Indonesia in 1975. The article is titled Northern Exposure and seeks both to justify the position Australia took toward Indonesia in 1975 and to dispel what it claims are some of the 'myths' or exaggerations about Indonesia's treatment of East Timor.
The article was first published in The Age on June 1, 1999. It can be found at http://www.dfa-deplu.go.id/policy/view/timor/paper/woolcott-1june99.htm
This article makes an interesting comparison with the first cited source in this list - Carlyle Thayer's Australian Perceptions and Indonesian Reality. It also attempts to counter some of the claims made in the articles of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger cited above.
Arguments suggesting Australia did not act appropriately in response to Indonesia's annexation of East Timor
1. East Timor had the right to be treated as a sovereign state
It is argued that after East Timor ceased to be a Portugese colony it was entitled to attempt self-determination. In 1974 the Portuguese government had recognised the right of all remaining Portuguese colonies to such self-determination and began the decolonisation process in East Timor.
The East Timorese were not, it has been claimed, automatically destined to become part of Indonesia. As a former Portugese colony, East Timor was not part of the former Dutch East Indies that became the new nation of Indonesia in 1945.
It has further been claimed that Indonesia militarily annexed East Timor before the East Timorese were able to establish themselves as an independent state. It is argued that annexation by force is wrong because it ignores the wishes of the territory being taken over.
2. Australia had a particular obligation to support East Timor
There are those who claim that because of the assistance East Timor gave Australia during World War II, Australia was under a particular obligation in 1974-75 to support East Timor against the Indonesians.
In 1942, East Timor was part of what the Allies regarded as a buffer zone against the Japanese. Australian and Dutch forces landed in East Timor, despite Portugal's neutrality. The Japanese Imperial Army occupied the island three months later executing some 50,000 East Timorese. The East Timorese harboured Australian troops fighting Japanese forces on the island. It has been claimed that without the support of the East Timorese many Australian soldiers would have lost their lives. It has further been claimed that East Timorese died because of the support they gave Allied forces. This, it has been argued, placed Australia under a particular obligation to support the East Timorese in 1974-75.
3. If Australia had opposed the annexation of East Timor, Indonesia may not have proceeded.
This point was made in an editorial published in the Australian on September 13, 2000. The editorial states, '... we can never know whether Indonesian president Suharto would have listened to Mr Whitlam had his friend insisted in the first instance on a peaceful self-determination, rather than make clear his preference for incorporation.'
4. Australia's goals regarding East Timor were either inconsistent or hypocritical
According to this line of argument it was not reasonable for Australia to claim that it believed that Indonesia should annex East Timor and at the same time that this should be done peacefully and would ultimately lead to East Timorese independence.
This point has also been made in an editorial published in The Australian on September 13, 2000. The editorial states, 'Mr Whitlam set out to achieve conflicting policy goals - Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor, and self-determination for its inhabitants.' The editorial further states ... '... Mr Whitlam [was] at fault ... for wanting two bob each way: for maintaining that incorporation and self-determination were compatible and achievable ...'
Harsher critics of the Australian government's policy claim that references to self-determination and a peaceful incorporation of East Timor were only a smoke screen so that the Australian public would more readily accept a forcible take-over.
According to this line of argument, Australia never really believed that a peaceful annexation was possible or that ultimate independence for East Timor was likely. It is claimed that what the Australian Prime Minster and the ambassador to Indonesia were engaged in was a public relations exercise that would make annexation palatable to the Australian public.
It has been argued that the Australian ambassador to Indonesia wanted 'the [Australian] government [to] minimise the public impact in Australia of Indonesia's moves, and work to encourage greater understanding of Jakarta's problems.'
Mr Whitlam has been quoted making a similar claim. "I want it [East Timor] incorporated, but I do not want this done in a way [that] will create argument in Australia ...'
5. Australia's failure to expose Indonesia's invasion plans when given advance knowledge of them, implicated Australia in the take-over
The diplomatic papers indicate that Australia had been aware of Indonesian plans to take-over East Timor, some twelve months before the invasion occurred. This advance warning had long been suspected by critics of Australia's Indonesian policy. They papers also indicate that Australia had received more immediate notification of the impending invasion.
Critics argue that Australia should have protested against the proposed invasion and perhaps brought it to the attention of the rest of the world. They claim that by remaining quiet the Australian government ensured that it would never be able to effectively speak against Indonesian actions in East Timor, because if it did so, Indonesia could then publicly accuse Australia of having previously endorsed Indonesia's planned actions.
6. Australia's advance knowledge of the invasion plans may also have implicated the government in the deaths of five Australian-based journalists
A group of five Australian-based journalists were killed in East Timor at a town called Balibo. The group are now commonly known as the Balibo Five.
Critics of Australian actions make a number of claims. They claim that Australia was aware that Balibo was one of the areas that the Indonesians planned to invade and thus that Australia should officially have warned journalists to remain out of the region.
There are others who claim that Australian intelligence information revealed that foreign journalists would be killed and that Indonesian forces deliberately executed them. It is argued that Indonesia killed these foreign journalists because they were trying to keep secret from the rest of they world the extent of their military involvement in the take-over of East Timor.
7. Australia put good relations with Indonesia above concern for the East Timorese
Mr Whitlam is recorded in the diplomatic documents as stating 'Our actions in regard to Portugese Timor would always be guided by the principle that good relations with Indonesia were of paramount importance.'
According to this line of argument, Australia was concerned for a range of reasons - strategic, defence and economic - to establish a special relationship with Indonesia and this meant that it was prepared to accept Indonesia's violation of the national sovereignty of another territory - East Timor.
Those who make these claims suggest that Australia acted pragmatically, endorsing the actions of a large and powerful nation which we wanted as an ally against the interests of a small and powerless nation.
Arguments suggesting Australia acted appropriately in response to Indonesia's annexation of East Timor
1. Australia would not have been able to prevent Indonesia from invading East Timor
This position was put at the time by the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Richard Woolcott. Mr Woolcott stated, 'We consider that Indonesia intends to escalate its involvement [in East Timor]. We do not think it can be dissuaded ... especially as most of the countries which could, if they acted in concert, influence Indonesia consider that the best future for East Timor is as part of Indonesia.'
The Australian newspaper's foreign affairs commentator, Paul Kelly, has argued that Australia had only two ways of preventing Indonesia from invading East Timor - diplomacy and war. Mr Kelly suggests that diplomacy did not work and that war was not a genuine option.
According to defenders of Australia's actions, Indonesia would have been deaf to diplomatic overtures and war was never a realistic possibility. It has been claimed that Australia could not have been expected to go to war with its nearest northern neighbour of behalf of the East Timorese.
2. It was considered inevitable that East Timor would be taken over by a more powerful territory and it was believed that it would probably be Indonesia
This position has been put by Australia's then ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott. Mr Woolcott has argued that in 1974 the Association of South-East Asian nations was urging Indonesia not to permit an unstable mini state to emerge in South East Asia.
East Timor was seen as too small and fragile to exist independently. It was believed that it would ineviably by annexed by a larger power. Indonesia was seen as the most desirable option because it was closest to East Timor and was therefore the nation most vitally concerned about East Timor's stability and it already controlled West Timor. The strength of the independence movement in East Timor was under-estimated both by Indonesia and many of the other interested nations of the world.
3. Australia did not support the use of force in the annexation of East Timor
This point has been made by numerous defenders of Australia's handling of the Indonesia/East Timor situation in 1974-75. Greg Sheridan, a commentator for The Australian newspaper, has noted, 'We opposed the use of force publicly and privately, criticised Indonesia strongly when it invaded and voted against Indonesia at the UN.'
Mr Sheridan has also claimed, 'Further, we opposed the use of force by Indonesia more vigorously than any country in our region, or almost any country in the world, for that matter.'
4. Australia would have preferred that East Timor might accept Indonesian control and believed that East Timor might ultimately achieve self-determination
This point was made by the then Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Mr Whitlam stated at the time, 'I am in favour of incorporation, but obeisance has to be made to self-determination.'
Australia would have preferred that the East Timorese agreed to Indoenesian control. Australian commentators also hoped that in the long term, some speculated that it might take hundreds of years, East Timor might achieve autonomy.
5. Australian journalists were warned to keep out of East Timor in the lead-up to the Indonesian invasion
The then Australian prime minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, has claimed that journalists were warned to stay out of East Timor. Mr Whitlam claims that on October 21, 1975, the then foreign affairs minister, Don Willesee, told the Senate the pilots of the charter aircraft taking the five journalists from Australia were 'specifically provided with warnings about the risks of travelling to Timor while fighting continued.'
Mr Whitlam also claims that he twice personally warned one of the journalists against taking a team to Timor.
6. The actions of the Portuguese and the East Timorese nationalist forces precipitated Indonesia's actions
The then Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Richard Woolcott, has claimed that the annexation of East Timor by Indonesia was the result of the political realities of the time. He argues that Australia had no determining hand in this and that both the former colonially rulers of East Timor, the Portuguese, and the radical group in East Timor, Fretilin, left Indonesia with little choice but to take-over East Timor.
Mr Woolcott claims that the Portuguese withdrew from East Timor too rapidly so that no adequate transitional procedures could be put in place. He also argues that by presenting itself as a Marxist group, Fretilin forced Indonesia to prevent its efforts to establish itself as the leaders of an independent government in East Timor.
According to this line of argument, given the Cold War climate of the time, Indonesia would not allow a potentially unstable Communist mini state to be established on its borders.
Mr Woolcott has quoted the leader of Fretilin, Jose Ramos Horta, as stating, 'the immaturity, irresponsibility and bad judgement of the East Timorese provoked Indonesia into what it did.'
7. No other nation, including the United States or Portugal, offered East Timor support against the Indonesians. Australia would not have been able to do so alone.
Richard Woolcott, Australia's former ambassador to Indonesia, has claimed that at the time of the invasion, Indonesia estimated that 'the major powers - the United States, Soviet Union, China and Japan (Indonesia's major donor) - would not act to prevent incorporation.' Mr Woolcott notes that events proved Indonesia correct.
The then United States president and the Secretary of State, President Ford and Henry Kissinger, visited Indonesia two days before the Indonesians invaded East Timor. It has long been supposed that during this visit the United States indicated that it would not act against Indonesia if it took over East Timor.
Defenders of Australia's actions at the time argue that we would not have been able to act alone against Indonesia and that as no other potentially interested nation appeared willing to act in support of East Timor, Australia was left with no effective options.
It remains uncertain wherever any diplomatic overtures on the part of Australia would have prevented Indonesia from annexing East Timor. It actually seems likely that at the time this was not an objective that Australia would have sought, even if it could. It was believed that the annexation of East Timor was inevitable and that the stability of the region was best served by East Timor being annexed by Indonesia.
What has caused an on-going strain primarily within the political left in Australia since the annexation of East Timor is that it was violently achieved and continued to be violently imposed on the East Timorese who, as the events of 1999 demonstrated, continued to want autonomy.
Gough Whitlam's standing as a Labor icon has been somewhat reduced by his acceptance of Indonesia's take-over of East Timor.
It is also possible that the circumstances surrounding the take-over of East Timor revealed a fault-line in Australia's relations with Indonesia which remained to the present day. Australia did not approve the manner in which Indonesia took over East Timor, we did however, at least on an official level, accept and even welcome, the fact of that take-over. This put the Australian government in a position where it was sending mixed messages to the Indonesian government.
On the one hand our diplomatic involvement in the lead-up to the invasion suggested we supported it. We then indicated that we did not accept the violent means which brought it about. This mixed message was not well received in Indonesia and may have led to a believe within Indonesia that Australia was not a nation to be taken seriously.
It would appear that Australia never fully acknowledged the political and socially differences between itself and Indonesia and what the implications of these would be in terms of how Indonesia might go about achieving its policy objectives.
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $29.50 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
13/9/00 page 14 analysis by Paul Daley and Tom Hyland, 'Turning a blind eye'
13/9/00 page 14 analysis by Tom Hyland, 'The untold story of the Balibo five'
14/9/00 page 16 editorial, 'Facing up to a shameful past'
14/9/00 page 17 comment by Tom Hyland, 'The Timor conspiracy'
15/9/00 page 11 comment by Laurie Brereton, 'How Australia lost its way on Timor'
21/9/00 page 11 comment by former Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam, 'My Timor policy critics: forgettable and forgetful'
25/9/00 page 11 comment by former Australian ambassador, Richard Woolcott, 'East Timor policy was right for the time'
13/9/00 page 1 news item by Robert Garran, 'Papers reveal Timor truth'
13/9/00 page 22 analysis by Robert Garran, 'Five Balibo deaths symbolise Australian policy failure'
13/9/00 page 22 comment by Greg Sheridan, 'Papers expose myths'
13/9/00 page 22 news item by Robert Garran, 'Whitlam put Jakarta first'
13/9/00 page 24 editorial, 'Conflicting goals mar Timor policy
13/9/00 page 25 comment by Richard Woolcott, "Facts battle conspiracy theories'
14/9/00 page 22 news item, 'Howard fires jibe at Labor leaders'
14/9/00 page 22 comment by Robert Garran, 'Fatal flaw that sank Timor policy'
14/9/00 page 27 comment by Scott Burchill, 'Canberra's criminal complicity'
15/9/00 page 33 comment by Greg Sheridan, 'Whitlam's duplicity a liberal myth'
19/9/00 page 33 comment by Paul Monk, 'Let's open the book on Timor'
27/9/00 page 35 comment by Paul Kelly, 'We could not have saved East Timor in 1975'
Analyses of two newspaper items
Article analysis No 1: news item
Article title: Howard fires jibe at Labor leaders
Published in The Australian, September 14, 2000 on page 22.
This is an interesting example of an article in which the headline does not accurately reflect the emphasis of the news item it heads.
The article was written the day after the release of many diplomatic papers dealing with Australia's response to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975.
In this context it would be reasonable to expect that the headline refers to the current Liberal Prime Minister's reaction to the behaviour of his Labor predecessors in 1974-75.
The choice of words in the headline appears intended to suggest a combative relationship between the current and former political leaders. A jibe is a jeer or verbal insult. This verbal insult is said to be fired by the current prime minister, Mr Howard. The military connotations of the verb used imply that the two parties are in a state of political war over the issue. These implications are strengthened by the accompanying graphic which shows two soldiers in silhouette carrying rifles. The figures are superimposed over the year 1975.
The lead paragraph, however, indicates that the headline is not giving the current prime minister's response to the events of 1975. Instead Mr Howard is referring to his government's involvement of Australian troops in the UN peacekeeping mission undertaken in East Timor in 1999.
The first four paragraphs, which constitute almost a third of the article, in fact have Mr Howard lauding his government's reaction to the 1999 crisis not that of 1975. The Labor leaders Mr Howard is referring to are Mr Keating and Mr Beazley, not Mr Whitlam, who was the Labor prime minister at the time of the Indonesian invasion.
In paragraph two it is stated that 'Mr Howard would not be drawn on the lessons from the Foreign Affairs Department's 1974-75 Timor documents released this week'. In simple terms, Mr Howard had refused to comment on the documents. His references to his government's performance in 1999 were therefore virtually irrelevant to the 1975 issue.
In an apparent attempt to salvage a comment from the current prime minister and to give the piece the interest that comes from political confrontation, the article is given a headline which makes it appear that the prime minister is attacking Labor over its handling of 1975.
A political analyst, a former East Timorese relief worker and Jose Ramos Horta, co-vice-president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, are all then quoted. The primary emphasis of what each says is that the matters of 1975 are now past. Mr Jose Ramos Horta is quoted as saying, 'Things could have been done differently, but whatever happened in the past is a lesson for the future.' The political analysts is cited saying, '... it is 25 years ago and I think most people will ... acknowledge what happened and put it behind them.'
From a news point of view these essentially quite tame, non-confrontationist attitudes do not have high interest value. The article attempts to inject a little heat and contention into its material by paraphrasing a former relief agency director who believes that Australia's position in 1975 needs further investigation. The implication here is that perhaps an inquiry is needed, however, this is not stated and presumably was not a view expressed by the source.
The reference to further investigations does, however, hold the tantalising possibility of revelations still to come.
The item finishes with the opinion of Mr Don Willesee, who was the Australian foreign affairs minister, in the lead-up to the 1975. Mr Willesee appears to be trying to attribute Australia's role in the affair to the then Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam and to the them ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Richard Woolcott.
Mr Willesee appears to be concerned to exonerate himself without fuelling a confrontation with his former prime minister. He states, 'Gough and I had an honest disagreement over the thing, but, I don't think he'll ever acknowledge he was wrong.'
Mr Willesee appears to be trying to forestall debate by pre-empting Mr Whitlam's response. Despite this, it is surprising that the article was not begun with this comment of Mr Willesee's as the greatest potential conflict in the article appears to be between Don Willesee and Gough Whitlam. Generally news items attempt to milk conflict as a source of reader interest.
Here the writers appear to have decided that Mr Howard's comment should be featured, presumably because he is the most cotemporary political figure whom they interviewed. When he refused to comment on the issue, the newspaper attempted to give some interest and relevance to his response by presenting his comments as though they referred to 1975.
Article analysis No 2: opinion piece
The piece is titled. 'My Timor policy critics: forgettable and forgetful' and was written by Gough Whitlam, who was Labor Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975. It was published on page 11 of The Age on September 21, 2000.
The heading attracts immediate attention. The piece is clearly written by Gough Whiltam. His name is under the headline in large, bold capital letters and is accompanied by his photograph. Thus in the phrase 'My Timor policy' it is apparent that Whitlam is referring to the Timor policy he adopted in 1975 and to those who criticised it. As this policy has generated controversy ever since, the headline would attract the attention of any reader with an informed interest in East Timor and Australia's role in its development.
The headline itself is clever. It draws on a comment Whitlam makes in the body of the piece, referring to one of his critics as 'forgettable and forgetful'. The alliteration holds the reader's attention. It is a particularly effective one as the two words used are very closely related and visually very similar. This should arouse readers' interest, encouraging them to focus on these descriptions of Whitlam's critics and try to discriminate between them.
Neither description is very flattering. The first, 'forgettable' is a quite audacious piece of abuse. It implies that the people being referred to did nothing significant and therefore have not lived in the popular memory. While, to refer to someone as 'forgetful' in this context suggests that their criticisms are unreliable because their memory is faulted. Any person described in this manner is made to sound incompetent.
It is hard to estimate the effect such a headline would have on the reader. There are those who may be impressed by the verbal wit, a marked feature of Mr Whitlam's writing style. There may be others who find the descriptions a little too clever and who therefore suspect the author of trying to score points rather than mount a genuine defence of his position.
The first two paragraphs have Mr Whitlam limiting the scope of his discussion. My Whitlam states that he will not be referring to the substance of the recently released diplomatic papers on East Timor, until 'the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee releases its report on East Timor'. Mr Whitlam gave evidence before that committee.
On one level this seems appropriate. It sounds as though Mr Whitlam does not want to pre-empt the committee's findings. If he were still in government and if his current judgements and actions still had the power to shape events, this reluctance to speak would be fitting. However, this is not the case, Mr Whitlam has not held public office for 25 years. It is possible to argue that Mr Whitlam simply does not want to have to repeat himself, that he has said everything he wished to say to the Senate committee and therefore is waiting for it to release its findings. However, this also is inadequate as there is strong current interest in the matters which he is refusing to address and many readers are likely to be disappointed that, if Mr Whitlam is going to write about East Timor, he has not dealt with those issues at the heart of the on-going popular dispute about his government's actions.
In the second paragraph Mr Whilam indicates that he is writing only in response to remarks made by 'two former colleagues' regarding the 'deaths of five Australian-based journalists in Balibo on October 16, 1975.' The reference to the exact date on which the journalists died appears intended to indicate that Mr Whitlam, unlike his 'forgetful' critics, has a secure grasp of the facts. In the next sentence, Mr Whitlam describes the deaths as 'tragic'. This seems to indicate that he regrets that these men died, however, this regret and sympathy is undercut by the rest of the sentence which refers to these 'tragic events' as the 'origin of the media vendetta against Indonesia over the past quarter century'. The use of the word 'vendetta' suggests that the Australian media, when criticising Indonesia over the last 25 years, has been trying to exact revenge for the deaths of these journalists. This implies that the criticisms made of Indonesia are likely to have been illegitimate. Readers who endorse many of these criticisms are likely to see Mr Whitlam's comments about the media's motivations as an oversimplification.
Mr Whitlam indicates that he is taking issue with the remarks of 'two former colleagues', Mr Don Willesee, his minister for foreign affairs, and Mr Laurie Brereton, the current shadow foreign affairs minister. By referring to these men as 'former colleagues', Mr Whitlam suggests that there is now a distance between them; he also suggests that by their more recent behaviour they have been disloyal in some way. Mr Willesee is accused of being, 'again', 'forgettable and forgetful'. The implications of these adjectives have already been discussed as they are use in the headline. The use of the word 'again' strengthens the insult as it implies that this may be a feature of Mr Willesee's behaviour. Mr Brereton is accused of making unsourced accusations, as he 'fails to check or produce documents'. The implication here is that Mr Brereton is either inaccurate or deliberately misleading.
Mr Whitlam opens his remarks about Mr Willesee as an attempt to explain his 'ignorance and inaction', another damning alliterative criticism of the sort contained in the headline. This is a powerful assertion attributing significant failings to Mr Willesee and presenting them as though they were fact. It is difficult to know how persuasive this would be to most readers, but it is clearly intended to undermine Mr Willesee's credibility.
Mr Whitlam introduces his attack on Mr Willesee by quoting a recent self-deprecating remark Mr Willesee made about himself as 'a paid up member of the geriatrics' club'. Mr Willesee was attempting to explain his poor memory of the events leading up to the Indonesian attack on Balibo. Mr Whitlam quotes the remark against Mr Willesee but suggests that age was not the reason for his forgetfulness. Mr Whitlam then tells an elaborate story of Mr Willesee having inadvertently misled parliament on a more trivial matter related to East Timor. Mr Whitlam suggests that in October 1975 Mr Willesee was too pre-occupied with his own political survival to be aware of Indonesian plans to attack Balibo.
Mr Whitlam casts himself in the light of the benign political leader who saved his minister's skin. 'Willesee ... feared ... [he] would be dismissed. I reprieved ... [him] but sacked the head of ASIS.' This is a carefully staged attempt at political character assassination. It appears designed to undermine Mr Willesee credibility. Perhaps this is because in the recently released diplomatic papers Mr Willesee emerges as a critic of Mr Whitlam's 1975 position on East Timor. Again it is difficult to know how compelling Mr Whitlam's presentation of the situation would be to readers. They may well be persuaded by his apparent recall of detail and the authority of his tone. However, those who know anything of the political climate at the end of 1975 will recall that Mr Whitlam was fighting for his own political life and so may have been just as distracted as he claims Mr Willesee was.
The second half of the piece is an attack on Mr Laurie Brereton. Mr Whitlam attempts to defend himself against attacks from Mr Brereton by accusing him of inconsistency and of ignoring some of Mr Whitlam's publicly stated positions on East Timor. Here, Mr Whitlam appears no longer to be referring only to the death of the Balibo five, but to his general handling of the East Timor situation. This is interesting as it is contrary to his stated intention at the start of the piece.
Mr Whitlam attempts to defend himself by looking at documents Mr Brereton is claimed to have ignored. Mr Whitlam's defence might have been more effective had he looked head-on at the claims Mr Brereton makes and what he bases these claims on. As it is, Mr Whitlam's defence seems curiously indirect, as though he is trying to choose the ground on which to fight, rather than answering the precise criticisms that have been made of him.
Mr Whitlam concludes his attack on Mr Brereton with what almost seems an accusation of hypocrisy. Mr Whitlam notes that Mr Brereton met with President Suharto in 1993. (Suharto was the Indonesian leader at the time time Indonesia took over east Timor.) Mr Whitlam states that Mr Brereton should make the contents of his discussion with President Suharto public. It is not made clear why. The implication may be that Mr Brereton should have let President Suharto know of his concerns about Indonesia's treatment of East Timor. Again, it is diffilcult to see how suggesting Mr Brereton may have behaved hypocitically in his own dealings with Indonesia answers any criticisms he has made of Mr Whitlam's policies.
Overall, for all its apparent detail, Mr Whitlam's piece emerges as curiously irrelevant. He seems to have selected only those aspects of the issue that he can use to his advantage and there is a strong sense that much has been ignored. The piece is essentially a personal attack on his critics rather than an attempt to address their criticisms.