News that a former spy and his lawyer may be charged with disclosing classified information about Australian espionage against East Timor should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with our foreign policy towards that country.

The foreign policy establishment has never reconciled itself to the idea of an independent East Timor. Gough Whitlam argued that it would be “an unviable state and a potential threat to the area”. Malcolm Fraser ordered the interdiction of supply boats carrying humanitarian aid from Darwin to East Timor, the surveillance and arrest of activists who tried to communicate by radio from the Northern Territory, and the denial of visas to East Timorese independence campaigners.

Bob Hawke began the formal theft of East Timor’s resources via the Timor Gap Treaty. Paul Keating embraced Indonesia’s brutal and corrupt dictator Suharto, and awarded Suharto-era foreign minister Ali Alatas the Order of Australia.

John Howard opposed East Timorese self-determination to the bitter end but was forced by public outrage to deploy a peacekeeping mission in September 1999. He then refused to negotiate a fair maritime border, and allegedly approved the bugging of East Timor’s cabinet rooms during the 2004 bilateral negotiations over the Timor Sea Treaty — an extraordinary move that Bernard Collaery, the lawyer at the centre of this latest scandal, rightly described as amounting to “insider trading”. As Collaery told the ABC last year: “If this had happened in Bridge Street, Collins Street, Wall Street, people would go to jail.”

The same bipartisan consensus prevailed under prime ministers Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott.

More ASIO raids, search warrants, prosecutions and federal police investigations against journalists are to be expected as security services conduct more spying to hide the spying already committed. All subsequent repressive measures flow from the original and ongoing hostility to the idea of an independent East Timor.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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