Robert O'Neill, Peter Edwards and David Horner – Media reports that officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are impeding the publication of the first volume of the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor on the grounds of diplomatic sensitivities, are concerning.
We were appointed the official historians of Australian commitments to military conflicts and peacekeeping and humanitarian operations from the Korean war to the post cold-war era. Some of those commitments were little known, others aroused intense and enduring controversy both in Australia and internationally. As was expected, we not only recorded and analysed the operations, but placed them in their strategic, diplomatic and political context.
In every case our task, as defined and supported by Australian governments of all political persuasions, was to produce a comprehensive and accurate history, on the basis of unrestricted access to all relevant Australian government records and an assurance of publication without official or political censorship. There were only two grounds on which material could be withheld from publication. Information provided by a foreign government in confidence could not be published unless and until that government had released it. Secondly, material could be withheld on carefully defined national security grounds, such as the sources and methods employed by intelligence agencies. Material was not to be withheld on the grounds of political or diplomatic sensitivities at the time of publication.
This tradition of producing uncensored official war histories was initiated by the Australian governments of the 1914-18 war and continued by their successors of the 1939-45 war. We, as the third, fourth and fifth Australian official war historians, publicly acknowledged the commitment of successive Australian governments to maintaining this tradition. We have every reason to believe that not only has the Australian community, especially the service personnel involved, been the beneficiaries of this tradition, but Australia's international reputation has also been enhanced. Australia stands to lose much more from the perception that its official histories may be censored by departmental officials for reasons of assumed diplomatic sensitivity than from maintaining the century-old tradition of well researched, comprehensive and balanced histories, free of official or political censorship.
We therefore urge the foreign affairs minister Marise Payne to instruct her departmental officers to withdraw any objections, based on current diplomatic sensitivity, to publication of first volume of the current official history.
[Robert O'Neill AO is official historian of Australia in the Korean War 1950-53; Peter Edwards AM is official historian of Australian involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts 1948-75; David Horner AM is official historian of Australian peacekeeping, humanitarian and post-cold war operations.]