Comment by Hamish Mcdonald – Could Alexander Downer be playing a deep double game with the Indonesians? Could he be luring them into agreeing to an act of self-determination by encouraging their hopes that it will result in some autonomy formula without East Timor leaving Indonesian hands?
Behind this smokescreen, could Canberra finally have grasped that, after some 100,000 deaths and yet more chicanery about troop withdrawals, the Timorese will not agree to anything that doesn't include the option of leaving Indonesia?
On second thoughts, no. Even at this stage, Mr Downer is leaving Jakarta plenty of room to manoeuvre and fiddle with the process, and therefore the result, by saying a plebiscite need not be the means of self-determination.
Indonesian operatives will already be dusting off the manuals of the 1969 Act of Free Choice in the former Dutch New Guinea and the 1974-76 integration of East Timor to see how "traditional practices of consultation and consensus" (read intimidation and bribery) can achieve the desired effects.
Far from manoeuvring Jakarta towards the decent thing, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade seems to be acting as it has done for the past 20 years, as voluntary PR agency for the Indonesian Government.
Senior DFAT officials will continue to move effortlessly from their departmental careers to their post-retirement consultancies introducing businessmen to Indonesian officials.
One such official even accepted a gong from the Soeharto government, to be conferred on retirement (department rules forbid officers from accepting foreign decorations during service).
None of the department's recent actions suggests a "historic" shift in approach: its referral of new information about the Balibo killings back to Mr Tom Sherman, despite widespread criticism of his 1996 report; the military attachi's cursory visit to look at the Alas massacre allegations; and Canberra's silence on recent military activity in Timor. Jakarta will have to be pushed a lot harder to move from its existing position even towards Mr Downer's modest goals.
So far, the Habibie Government is trying to get the Timorese factions to agree to a deal on autonomy as the final resolution of the issue. The reality is that without a truly historic amount of reform in Indonesia itself, promises of autonomy mean nothing. For one thing, the Armed Forces would have to abandon its cherished "dwi-fungsi" (dual function) doctrine, under which it asserts the right to interfere in any activity of government.
Rather than hastily dismissing possibility of independence, after an unexplained and wholly secret process of review, Mr Downer might do better to get his department, and other agencies like the Office of National Assessments and Defence Intelligence Organisation, to explain their thinking to Parliament and the Australian public.
The inquiry into Australia's policies on East Timor, which starts next month in the Senate Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, gives anideal platform for a long overdue discussion.
Even the Opposition, under its foreign affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton, has grasped the nettle and declared a willingness to break with the Timor policies of past Labor governments (earning Mr Brereton a flaming row with the former foreign minister Gareth Evans late last year).
Why do they think that removal of East Timor, added by conquest in 1975, might unravel Indonesia? Why, especially since the end of the Cold War, should Australia worry about the emergence of another small impoverished State across our northern sea boundaries, in addition to all the others?
Greatest mystery of all: why is a true-blue Adelaide Liberal like Alexander Downer still so staunchly reinforcing the biggest and most tragic policy failure of the Whitlam government?