In a “news” item promoting his book The March of Patriots in the Weekend Australian, 5-6 September 2009, Paul Kelly makes the astonishing claim that
The Howard government decided in early 1999 to work for East Timor's independence but concealed this from the Indonesian government ...
This is a self-serving rewriting of history on the part of Kelly’s interlocutors, if ever there was one. The Government stumbled to glory, there was no long-term game plan.
Besides which, this account doesn’t even pass the laugh test. John Howard and Alexander Downer conceived a cunning plan to assist a group of left-wing guerrillas and expat Marxist intellectuals to set up an independent country 400 miles from our coastline? Give me a break.
The signs are there in the internal inconsistencies in Kelly’s own accounts:
- Howard and Downer claim to have been working for an independent East Timor from early 1999 – but the letter from Howard to then Indonesian President Habibie was despatched just before Christmas in December 1998.
- It is acknowledged in the longer account in the paper’s Inquirer section that Howard and Downer were surprised by Habibie’s response. Indeed they were, very surprised. Surprised and concerned, one might say.
In an interview with Anton Enis broadcast on SBS News on Friday evening 11 September, Mr Howard stated that there had been a discussion of the East Timor question in the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC) in December, and that had led to the decision that he should write to Dr Habibie.
There was no such discussion. Nor was there a discussion in the agency head level Standing Committee on National Security (SCNS), of which I was a permanent member. A matter of any moment going to NSC would normally be the subject of inter-agency discussion at that level – usually on the basis of a draft paper for NSC.
Nor was the matter discussed in the DFAT-Defence Strategic Policy Coordination Group (SPCG), a group of very senior officials who met regularly to exchange information about what was on the internationalsecurity agenda. At the December meeting one of my senior staff asked the direct question whether there was anything relating to Indonesia that we should be discussing and received an answer in the negative - there was nothing happening there, we were told.
Defence was kept completely in the dark regarding the letter to Dr Habibie, and only got to hear of it after it had gone on 19 December 1998. We were both shocked and angry, and I made my feelings known to the Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on 23 December in words to the effect:
(Blasphemous profanity), Max! We have consultative (expletive) procedures around this town until they are coming out our (expletive) ears, and they are rigorously enforced on all occasions except when it really (expletive) matters. I just hope that everyone remembers that it is our people who come home in the body bags, not theirs.
If there was any Government plan, it was a plan to find a fig-leaf behind which to put to bed once and for all the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia. Rather than being a plan for East Timorese independence, this plan would have more in common with the Israeli approach to the Palestinian question before the first intifada – spend some money to make the material circumstances of the people a bit better, wean them away from the insurgency by talk of some sort of autonomy in the indeterminate future, and hope that with the passage of time the act of self-determination, if it ever comes to that, will produce a majority in favour of the status quo.
Far from being the outcome of a careful deliberation in NSC, the letter to Dr Habibie was cooked up between DFAT and the Prime Minister’s Office. The only rational explanation for the fact that Defence was cut completely out of the loop is the fact that it never crossed anyone’s mind that military action was a possible outcome. We in Defence saw it immediately as a quite likely outcome – we didn’t expect the Indonesian military to take kindly to it at all.
In February 1999 the CDF and I went to NSC and suggested that it might be a good idea to raise another brigade group to a high level of readiness. Kelly says that the decision was taken in March; this might be the meeting at which a specific costed proposal was put to NSC, but we had things moving before that. Our advice was hardly welcome news, and it was at this time that it first began to dawn on everyone around the table that this was deadly serious stuff. DFAT’s main concern at that stage and for much of the year was that raising the readiness level would send an unfortunate signal to the Indonesians.
If, as Kelly claims, John Howard was the father of a nation, it was a case of accidental paternity.