Kim McGrath, once a Bracks-Brumby government staffer in Victoria and a former long-standing adviser to the East Timor government, has written a booked called Crossing the Line, about Australia, East Timor and the petroleum industry. It was recently launched in Melbourne by Kim’s old boss, former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks. Here is an edited version of the author’s launch speech. 

Crossing the Line tells the story of Australia’s secret history in the Timor Sea. A story successive Labor and Liberal/National coalition governments have schemed to keep hidden.

We can mock Donald Trump for his references to “alternative facts”, but the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has been spinning an “alternative history” over the last fifty years. An alternative history, in which the potential oil wealth of the Timor Sea north of the median line between Australia and Timor — and we are talking about an area that contains potentially billions of dollars of oil and gas — supposedly had no influence on Australia’s foreign policy towards our neighbours to the north.

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Yet I found hundreds of files in the Australian National Archives that show Australia’s diplomats, senior public servants and politicians invested an enormous amount of time and energy, in securing rights to oil and gas resources north of the median line. I also found hundreds of documents in which those same officials and politicians were downplaying or denying reports of mass starvation on our doorstop. And documents showing that the advice the Australian embassy in Jakarta provided Canberra, in bland bureaucratic language downplaying or denying reports of mass atrocities and starvation, often as not came directly from the very Indonesian generals responsible for the murderous campaign in East Timor. The files showed that simultaneously Australian bureaucrats were dealing with increasingly frustrated oil companies who wanted Australia to provide certainty for their permits by recognising Indonesia’s illegal occupation. Many of the files concerning Australia’s oil interests in the Timor Sea, some dating back to the early 1970s, contain big black redactions covering up paragraphs that if declassified would apparently still be a threat to Australia’s national security.

So, the ugly story I tell is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. I am indebted to Dr Sara Niner at Monash University. Her biography of Xanana Gusmao, that details the harrowing reality of Xanana’s life post the Indonesian invasion in 1975, kept coming to mind when I read the cables and ministerial briefs in the archives. While Crossing the Line will be of interest to many Timorese, my target audience is Australians. The immorality of our government is something we need to own and address. Our inhumane refugee policies have not come out of a vacuum. I also want to acknowledge Helen Campbell. Serendipity led me to interview her late husband Doug, who was the first solo Australian diplomat to visit East Timor following the Indonesian invasion. Doug was responsible for aid in the Jakarta embassy in the late 1970s and he was clearly still distressed by the Australian government’s failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis in East Timor when I interviewed him nearly forty years later.

I hope you read Crossing the Line and feel as enraged as I did writing it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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