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Nelson forced to intervene in stand-off with DFAT over East Timor history project

WA Today - February 22, 2020

Michael Koziol – Former Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson was forced to defend the integrity of his official historian in a stand-off with the Department of Foreign Affairs over the memorial's history of Australia's involvement in East Timor.

Heavily redacted documents released under freedom of information laws show it was primarily bureaucrats from DFAT's key Indonesian branch who were concerned about the official history.

However, most of the correspondence between official historian Craig Stockings, DFAT secretary Frances Adamson, Dr Nelson and others was censored. Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, who made the FOI request, said this was a "disappointing" lack of transparency.

The official history was commissioned by former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015 and the first volume details Australia's peacekeeping efforts in East Timor in 1999-2000, including the context of that deployment.

Last year The Sun-Herald revealed the project had been delayed by resistance from DFAT, which reviewed the volume as part of the official clearance process, along with many other government departments and agencies.

At the time, sources close to the project described DFAT's requested edits as "beyond the pale" and likened it to censorship.

The documents released under FOI show that following DFAT's feedback, Dr Nelson wrote to Ms Adamson on October 3 and reminded her the AWM's official history is "not the government's view of its history, nor is it a government publication".

He also reminded her of the "great national significance" of Professor Stockings' role as official historian, and noted Professor Stockings had "repeatedly" agreed to address all feedback from government departments including DFAT.

Two weeks later, DFAT assistant secretary in the Indonesia Branch, Tom Connor, emailed a list of specific comments on the draft history. Those comments were blocked from release.

On October 30, Professor Stockings wrote to Jeremy Bruer, at that time an assistant secretary in DFAT's Southeast Asia Maritime Branch, "to ask if you and your team are happy... [redacted]... based upon the recent feedback".

Two days later, Ms Adamson wrote to Dr Nelson saying she was "confident that the key elements of the manuscript are in good shape".

She noted Professor Stockings had a "useful meeting" with DFAT deputy secretary Tony Sheehan, and said she would continue to keep Foreign Minister Marise Payne informed of progress.

The War Memorial initially rejected Senator Patrick's freedom of information request in full, but decided to partially release the documents after he appealed.

"[It's] better than the original decision but... it's a step up from a very low bar," Senator Patrick said. "I'm disappointed the War Memorial chose secrecy over openness and transparency."

"In my strong view, the public interest lies in disclosing those deliberations because that goes to the the confidence the public has in the independence of the War Memorial."

Senator Patrick vowed to raise the matter during Senate estimates hearings next month. Mr Nelson departed the War Memorial late last year and Mr Abbott has now joined its board.

Source: https://www.watoday.com.au/politics/federal/nelson-forced-to-intervene-in-stand-off-with-dfat-over-east-timor-history-project-20200221-p54334.html