When Paul Keating was given his life
membership of the NSW ALP at the State Conference during the Labour Day long
weekend in 1999, the line in his speech
that got the most coverage was when he talked about coming home from branch meetings
at 11 o’clock to Annita, who would prepare “a cup of tea or coffee for you and if you were
lucky a bit of a cuddle as well.” But the pars that made me gasp from my spot
in the corporate observers’ box were these:

Now the thing about Timor. Let
me say a few things about it. It was never that the Timorese didn’t want
autonomy or independence. The matter was how would you slip the card out
without the pack falling in. That was all it was ever about. In this country
the nation preceded the state. We were a nation before we became the
Commonwealth of Australia. In Indonesia the
state preceded the nation. When the Dutch left they became the Republic of Indonesia before
they were really a nation. Suharto’s concern was always how the nation held
together. He believed that if one bit left, the whole lot would start to fall
apart. And that’s why as an old soldier he was adamant about East
Timor. It’s not that Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and I didn’t press him. It was
just that he believed his state would disintegrate before they had a sense of
nation to hold it together.

Now, the fact of the matter is the only reason there was an
opportunity on East Timor was
not because John Howard discovered human rights, but because Suharto left. And
another president came who thought he could play with this issue and do
something with it. You see, Howard claims to be battling in the name of
principle, not interest, but his policy has its genesis in the lowest interest
of all – that’s rank domestic opportunism. He thought he’d come at the
Australian Labor Party from the left. He thought he’d tie up the Catholic
Church and the East Timor
constituency by coming at Labor from that quarter. That’s what it has been
all about.

The comments seemed
amazing. The date was 3 October, just a fortnight after UN peacekeeping
had arrived in the shattered country. On 4 September, 78.5% of
East Timor’s population had voted for independence from Indonesia and
chaos had descended. Australia – initially shocked into paralysis – had
to stop massacres. Was that “rank domestic opportunism”?

Don Watson revisits
Keating’s Timor policy in the latest issue of The Monthly.
There’s a brief extract in The Australian today, too:

Life under a murderous occupation might be better than life
in a failed state, albeit one perennially dependent on Australian aid and
Australian policy. What was more, in an imperfect world, Suharto’s Indonesia was a
lot better than its critics were willing to concede, or able to see from their
lofty Pilgeresque perches.

It was not so hard to make a case for the Indonesian point
of view: in 1975 they had acted as any nation might when a communist insurgency
was mounted in a territory adjacent to their border, an erstwhile, shamefully
neglected colony of Portugal. If
the hypocrisy of Portugal’s
objections to its successors in East Timor did
not, of itself, justify the Indonesian occupation, a sympathetic observer could
see how it might have incited it…

Paul Keating had always believed – and as prime minister
publicly said – Suharto’s control of Indonesia had
been of incalculable benefit to Australia …
For the longer those 240 million Asians on Australia’s
doorstep were kept in order by the general, the more peaceful became our sleep.

The Australian hasn’t
included Watson’s conclusion, but it should be noted: “It was good policy, no doubt, but never less than cowardice as well.”

Parrots on Pilgeresque
perches never stop squawking, but in the chaos of September 1999, the
Church was effectively urging that Australia intervene militarily in
what was Indonesia’s sovereign territory. That would have been

Foreign policy is not
about morality. It is about national interest. We may not feel
comfortable about this, but it is a fact. A deal was brokered
over East Timor in 1999. The UN was able to intervene – yet our
good intentions have been flawed.

Australia and the international community have been forced
to intervene again in Timor. It is dangerous. It will be expensive. It will
take time. But it is in our
national interest.

Peter Fray

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