APSN Banner

Alexander Downer: 'I've got nothing to hide on East Timor'

WA Today - November 17, 2019

Michael Koziol – Australia's longest-serving foreign minister Alexander Downer has urged his former department and its leader, Marise Payne, to release the full and uncensored version of an official history of Australia's peacekeeping operations in East Timor.

The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age last week revealed the first volume of the series – written by the Australian War Memorial's official historian Craig Stockings – was on ice amid objections from bureaucrats, chiefly within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

According to well-placed sources, DFAT was concerned the account would humiliate Australian bureaucrats and anger Indonesia. A draft of volume one was completed a year ago but is now in limbo, with Professor Stockings refusing to make changes demanded by the government.

Mr Downer, who was foreign minister at the time of the Australian-led INTERFET deployment to East Timor in 1999-2000, said he was "very disappointed" at the actions of his former department.

He said he had been told DFAT did not want to publish the entire first nine chapters of the book, which deal with Timor's history back to World War II, because the department "did not think that was relevant".

"I am very disappointed that they have so far refused to allow the release of those chapters. It seems to me if you are writing a book about INTERFET... you would want to understand the context of it," Mr Downer said.

"I can understand intelligence not being released for security reasons of one kind or another. But I can't understand why DFAT would block the release of those first nine chapters and I think Marise Payne should intervene and ensure the publication of the full book goes ahead."

Mr Downer said he did not believe there was any diplomatic issue at stake concerning Australia's relationship with Indonesia. He also said he was not concerned about potential revelations about his own conduct as foreign minister in the then Howard government.

"I never worry about what people say about me really. I'm very confident that we did the right thing all the way through. I don't have anything to hide," Mr Downer said.

"There are activists who slag off at me and John Howard and other people, but it will always be thus. It doesn't matter what they say really, and Craig Stockings is not one of those people."

Professor Stockings was a "very reputable" and "straight up and down" historian, Mr Downer said.

In a 2017 book chapter, Professor Stockings said the Howard government had refused permission for David Horner to write an official history of Australia's East Timor operations in 2006.

Mr Downer did not recall that, but said times had changed. "It would have been seen by the Indonesians as triumphalist and it probably would have derailed our negotiations on the Lombok Treaty," he said. "I can understand that [reluctance] in 2006 but not in 2019."

A spokesman for Senator Payne said there was ongoing discussion between government agencies on the official history draft manuscript which was normal practice. "It would not be appropriate for the Minister to intervene while the established processes for publishing such documents are yet to be completed."

Last week a DFAT spokesman said the department had granted the War Memorial interviews with its staff and access to its records, and would continue to "engage constructively" with the project.

Source: https://www.watoday.com.au/politics/federal/alexander-downer-i-ve-got-nothing-to-hide-on-east-timor-20191115-p53b3u.html