“What did you know, and when did you know it?” They are the questions that a Sydney coroner investigating the 1975 death of an Australian journalist in East Timor will put to the then prime minister, E. G. Whitlam.

As wide-ranging as the coroner is being, she cannot lead her august witness back through his involvement with Indonesia across the 30 years leading up to its invasion of East Timor. To do so, is to discover Whitlam as the prisoner of that past.

The key moment came in 1965 when General Suharto took advantage of an uprising in the armed forces to take power through the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians.

Whitlam was truly grateful for this bloodbath. In his first statement on foreign policy after becoming Labor leader early in 1967, he called for Australia to give the ‘New Order’ “all the political, diplomatic and economic support we can” (Australian, 18 February 1967). Whitlam realised that Suharto’s bloodbath of leftists had pushed the red-yellow peril back from our doorstep as far as Vietnam.

As he continued: “We can only imagine the additional and crippling sums we would now be spending on defence” if the reds had taken charge. In that case, his welfare programs would have been out of the question. Even more fundamental, a victory for the communists would have allowed the Liberals to whip up more than enough hysteria to keep the ALP out of office for at least another 17 years.

Whitlam had arrived at his commitment to Suharto by a twisted path of anti-colonial enthusiasms. In the late 1940s, he had welcomed the defeat of the Dutch imperialists. Throughout the 1950s, he pressed for negotiations between Jakarta and The Hague over West Irian. The Menzies government was stymieing talks and promoted uprisings to dismember the Republic of Indonesia.

No sooner had Washington reversed course by siding with the Indonesians over West Irian, than the British provoked Sukarno into confrontation by setting up Greater Malaysia in 1962-63. The then Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, led the charge against this threat from the north by a Japanese collaborator. Menzies recognised that the electoral threat was as great. He ordered F1-11s and ran a lottery of death to conscript 20-year old males for two years’ military service. (Many ended up in Vietnam.) Whitlam crafted his bid for ALP leadership by opposing Calwell’s jingoism and the ineptitude of the government’s responses.

During 1975, these two tracks to Indonesia intersected in Whitlam’s policy-making. Getting the Portuguese of Timor out was the final step in the decolonising that he had supported since 1947. Incorporating the remnant into the republic was inevitable given the haplessness of the population and the alarm among the Indonesian rulers at any whiff of communism. In office, Whitlam had delivered on his 1967 commitment to provide “diplomatic, political and economic support” for the butchers of Bali and beyond. He saw no reason to retreat from pragmatism.

Peter Fray

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