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Official Timor history 'back on track'

Sydney Morning Herald - January 25, 2020

Michael Koziol – The acting director of the War Memorial has promised its trouble-plagued official history of Australia's deployment to East Timor is back on track after an intervention from Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

The official account of Australian peacekeeping efforts in East Timor has been hampered by alleged interference and attempted censorship by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as The Age revealed last year.

Also taking in Australia's military operations this century in Afghanistan and Iraq, the exhaustive official history is a legacy project of former prime minister Tony Abbott, who commissioned it in 2015 with a budget of $13 million.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer is among those who said they believed concerns about Australia's relationship with Indonesia have contributed to DFAT's resistance to the project.

Last year The Age revealed the War Memorial's official historian Craig Stockings, who is overseeing the East Timor volume, was on the brink of resigning due to his frustrations with the delays and changes requested by senior DFAT bureaucrats. While it is common for government departments to request changes to official histories, especially when they regard ongoing security issues, multiple sources said the interference on this project by DFAT was unprecedented and "beyond the pale".

In a letter to Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick this month, acting War Memorial director Leanne Patterson said she was confident a "new approach" with DFAT would allow the history to receive government clearance.

But in a decision that further shrouds the saga in mystery, the Memorial refused a Freedom of Information request by Senator Patrick, saying releasing key documents related to the matter could damage Australia's national security and foreign relations.

Ms Patterson wrote to Senator Patrick on January 15: "I wanted to inform you of the significant progress that has occurred since your November request."

She said then War Memorial director, Dr Brendan Nelson, and Professor Stockings met with Ms Payne last year "to discuss DFAT's approach to clearing the manuscript".

"Professor Stockings is scheduled to meet with DFAT later this month and will recommence clearance with agreed inter-departmental process.

"The Memorial is confident that this new approach to move the clearance process forward will be successful."

However, Senator Patrick said the refusal of his FOI request was "singularly unimpressive and unsustainable". He said the refusal letter was "one of the most perfunctory responses I have received from any agency in response to an FOI application", and vowed to raise the matter at the next Senate estimates hearing.

"Australians do not want official histories to be doctored, even and especially at the request of DFAT, and are entitled to hold absolute confidence in the War Memorial not doing so," Senator Patrick said.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/national/official-timor-history-back-on-track-20200125-h1lbsn.html