Hillary and Crikey’s editor disagree about the ABC and Hillary has chosen to launch this attack on 4 Corners on its 40th birthday. We thoroughly enjoyed the birthday special but agree with Hillary’s point. However, it should be remembered that Andrew Fowler was also the Four Corners reporter who landed some big punches on Bill LudThug’s AWU earlier this year which did no favours for the ALP.

Only one was reported by the ABC – and guess which one. The one that hit the Liberal Party. The news that ABC MD Jonathon Shier had held it over for further legal opinion was leaked – with a Liberal conspiracy spin. When it got the all-clear, the actual 4 Corners program was mercilessly cross-promoted. It was previewed on the 7:30 Report and then followed up by Kerry O’Brien the following day.

However, scandal number two didn’t seem to rate a mention on the national broadcaster.

It soon emerged that Seyffer was involved in a bid by Labor to sell Steyr rifles – and Collins class submarines – to the Indonesian dictator Suharto. He was dismissed when he failed to pass a standard security vetting by ASIO. But nothing was heard until the following Sunday, when Fia Cumming went into print with an item where former defence minister Robert Ray owned up to the plan.

And that was it – until last Saturday and the Weekend Australian’s spread. Even then, all it rated on the ABC was a cursory mention on radio news bulletins that morning.

The ABC was able to provide plenty of detail about where Seyffer was based in Indonesia and the bank he operated through. They cannot have been in ignorance of these other facts.

It would have been the perfect way to trump the 4 Corners scoop – reveal Seyffer Monday, then blow Labor’s attempts at arms sales on Tuesday’s 7:30 Report.

Instead, we just saw a rehash of the previous night’s program with actuality of a few denials added in. The story was a six day wonder.

So why didn’t the ABC follow up the other yarn. They must have known about it.

Paul Keating’s diplomacy – or appeasement – towards Indonesia was much applauded at the time. Calling the dictator Suharto “Father” was considered a stroke of genius.

Commentator Malcolm McGregor wrote in the Australian only last Friday how, at the height of Captain Wacky’s flights of fancy, Paul Keating and his closest advisers thought the security treaty with Indonesia would be a major vote winner. But Australians have always been suspicious of the giant to our north, even if only for the basest of reasons.

Our media has reflected that suspicion. Timor coverage has always has been remarkably soft to the moron camera crew who walked into the middle of a war in 1975 and harked back to the support the Timorese gave shot-down Australian aircrew during the battles against Japan in World War II.

In the end, Labor’s policy makers, from Hawke to Keating, could not account for incompetence. Have a look at the Australian’s summary story from the weekend:

“A special investigation by The Australian reveals for the first time the full extent and ambition of the arms export program, much of which was conducted in secret between 1993 and 1996.

“It shows how Paul Keating’s government recruited colourful arms dealers to lead the campaign, including the mysterious Liberal Party volunteer John Seyffer, who would later become a key figure in the Liberals’ pursuit of former Labor prime minister Keating over his piggery business.

“It reveals how these arms salesmen fell out with each other in a bitter rift and the ultimate destruction of the careers of two of them.

“And it shows how Australian officials – inexperienced and ill-prepared – stumbled into the world of international arms trading.

“Confidential Defence documents reveal how the government secretly backed a range of arms sales, all of which ultimately failed.

“A Defence Department report on “prospective defence exports” dated August 1993 and obtained by The Australian reveals that the government investigated the possible sale of minehunter vessels and intelligence-gathering towed sonar arrays to Taiwan – a move that would have angered China.

“It also backed a failed bid to sell 400,000 Australian infantry Steyr rifles to Thailand at a time when rebel elements of the Thai military were aiding the Khmer Rouge in neighbouring Cambodia.

“In 1994, the government gave in-principle approval for 20 Steyr rifles to be sent to Jakarta for trial by Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, despite allegations that Kopassus troops were involved in human rights abuses in East Timor.

“The Asian export push, which also included Australian-built submarines and large offshore patrol vessels, was an almost complete failure and was effectively abandoned in 1997.

“However, according to Defence documents, the government in 1993 believed it could create a defence export industry that had the potential to earn $1 billion a year.

” ‘We were not talking a few rifles here,’ said former director of defence exports Adrian Fielding, one of several people who agreed to speak publicly about the program for the first time.

” ‘We were talking massive programs and massive opportunities. We were going to create a new defence export industry for Australia which the government saw as an extra arm of diplomacy – a way to strengthen ties with Asia.’

“In order to avoid possible bad publicity and protests from peace groups, the government adopted a “low profile” for the export plan.

“However, the export attempt was bungled, not only by personality clashes, but also by inflated expectations about Australia’s business clout in the region. Australian officials found themselves outmanoeuvred by the tricks of more experienced arms-dealing nations such as Britain, France and the US, which often had the full backing of their respective intelligence agencies.”

What a story – but why did the ABC let it slip through their fingers? They must have had an inkling of it – at the very least.

Paul Keating’s appeasement of Indonesia – epitomised by his infamous comments in support of Suharto at the 1999 NSW Labor State Conference, just after the rape of East Timor – is a matter of common knowledge.

And John Seyffer has revealed a cack handed attempt to arm that very same dictator and anyone else willing to cough up for our military hardware.

The Howard Government’s response in 1999, when Indonesia sought to lay East Timor waste, was much too late and driven by overwhelming community disgust at the slaughter and destruction – but at least it had a positive affect. How would the Keating government reacted to the slaughter that “Father’s” militias unleashed.?

John Seyffer revealed a squalid chapter of Australian history that the ABC has refused to investigate, let alone report.

It has revealed a chapter that stains the name of the ALP.

But, then again, the fearless reporters at our national broadcaster are more concerned about whether there’s a tea lady and a free car park at Gore Hill than who supplies the weapons who are killing whom in South East Asia.

PS At the weekend, Alan Ramsey, no friend of the Government, referred to a few of the errors in last Monday’s 4 Corners on detention centres that have not been corrected. The 4 Corners 40th anniversary is 11 minutes away as Hillary writes. What are the chances we’ll hear about the time these legends got it wrong.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW