Whitlam’s Indonesia leadership was far from ‘visionary’

It is certainly fitting to examine Gough Whitlam’s foreign policy record and considerable achievements. However, in seeking to whitewash the controversy over Whitlam’s role leading up to Indonesia’s brutal invasion of East Timor in December 1975, Gary Hogan’s piece does us all a great disservice.

I concede that it would have been a difficult task to dissuade Indonesia from this course by mid-1975, and that a more principled policy may have led to some cooling in bilateral relations. But what Hogan offers us is bad history and an even worse ethics.

In my most recent book, Ethics and Global Security, I and my co-authors argue that ethics is not an optional add-on to questions of international security. Rather, bad ethical choices will cause more insecurity, for more people, and create lasting damage that future generations are forced to repair. This is surely true of East Timor.

In my ANU doctoral research, published as In Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety, I wondered what might have been different had key policymakers, including Whitlam, worried more about this. To their lasting credit, some, like former Foreign Affairs head Alan Renouf and former Secretary of the Department of Defence Bill Pritchett, did so.

Here I will simply address two of Hogan’s most misleading claims, then consider — using the historical record — what might have been done to avert the tragedy. How it reflects on Whitlam, readers can decide for themselves.

First, Hogan’s claim that: ‘Armchair strategists have accused Whitlam of giving Suharto a sly wink during their meetings, virtually assuring him of Australia’s acquiescence in the event of East Timor’s annexation by force. The written record does not support this.’

I assure readers that the record does in fact confirm this. There is an official record of …read more

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