Last Flight Out of Dili


During his term as Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam altered Australian policy from supporting the self-determination of East Timor, to support for the province’s integration with Indonesia with the condition that force must not be used, and the people of East Timor should decide their future status.

This unilateral commitment deprived Australia of opportunities to intervene positively in the chain of errors that pushed East Timor inexorably towards the disaster of invasion and occupation.

Why did Whitlam support Indonesia’s pursuit of integration, even when he knew it would become violent? How could he reconcile this unqualified support with his convictions about self-determination and human rights and his stated conditions that force not be used and the East Timorese should choose their future status?

The first influence on him was his belief in the importance of close relations with Indonesia. Whitlam was preoccupied with Indonesia. He was anxious to establish the close and frank relationship with President Suharto that he saw Suharto as having with ASEAN leaders.

Senior officers in the Department of Foreign Affairs shared Whitlam’s view on East Timor, although with differences as to how the policy should be implemented.

In an essay for Australian Outlook in 1976 Nancy Viviani noted that former ambassadors to Indonesia had a strong influence in the Department of Foreign Affairs at this time. Shann, Furlonger, Jockel, Feakes, and Woolcott, who was to become ambassador, were a formidable, experienced elite of high-ranking officials, all intensely interested in Indonesian policy in a departmental situation, while the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries had no similar expertise and experience.

Gregory Clarke, an adviser to Whitlam, believed ‘Whitlam’s Timor policy was sold to him by men who had applauded the “realistic” policy of backing the US in Vietnam and had poured scorn on the idealists who thought it was wrong and unwise to kill millions of [Vietnamese] people Whitlam promoted one of them to be Ambassador to Jakarta.’

Whitlam’s antagonism towards mini-states was a second influence. Viviani refers to ‘his penchant for suggesting new arrangements for small states.’ Whitlam, she believed, ‘was concerned at the possible Balkanisation of South East Asia and the possibility of intervention by larger powers,’ and reflected this in his recognition of Soviet occupation of the Baltic States.

Whitlam’s personal relationship with President Suharto was a third influence. Close relationships are nurtured by exchanges. Whitlam’s support for integration of Portuguese Timor was possibly partly a gesture to seal a friendship and mark a new era in Australian-Indonesian relations in which Australia would no longer cavil at Indonesia’s idiosyncratic behaviour.

The fourth influence was Whitlam’s absorption with Indonesia. James Walter, in his political biography of Whitlam, quotes an adviser to Whitlam saying:

Throughout all this time I’ve known him, he’s had this thing about Indonesia they can do no wrong. I’d been called in to advise about the North-West Cape When our conversation had finished to everybody’s satisfaction, he got talking about Indonesia. And just making conversation, I said, ‘Well surely the thing about Indonesia is that it’s a danger to Australia.’ And a sort of blind came down, you know shutters across his face. We’ve never had a friendly conversation since.

Ironically, the Australian Labor Party, which had strongly championed Indonesian independence from the Netherlands, now had a leader who was encouraging Indonesia into an act of colonisation.

Having said clearly he was opposed to military intervention, and that self-determination was a condition of his support for integration, Whitlam campaigned in support of Indonesia despite its violation of both his conditions. He then seemed driven by self-justification to support Indonesia in its attempts to have its military occupation recognised by the international community. He went to East Timor to deny the warning that Monsignor da Costa Lopes had given that East Timor was facing an impending famine, to the UN to argue for support for integration, and even to Africa to urge its leaders to support Indonesia.

Whitlam wanted East Timor off the UN agenda, to close the issue and justify his support for integration. He continued to pursue his critics. The Australian media, he claims, conducted ‘a vendetta against Indonesia since the deaths of the two television teams in Balibo on 16 October 1975.’ He criticised former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, authors of Australia’s Foreign Relations, for refusing to change a statement saying, ‘the swift Indonesian action was an embarrassment to the Whitlam Government and remained for many years a source of tension in both Indonesian-Australian relations and Australian domestic politics.’

He was scathing in his remarks about ALP Shadow Minister Laurie Brereton, who broke the spell Jakarta had exercised over the ALP and the Coaliton for 24 years and reversed ALP policy to support self-determination for East Timor.

He said Brereton failed to ask questions in Parliament on matters that would have shifted the focus of attention from East Timor. A fortnight later he criticised Brereton for his lack of education and described the Shadow Foreign Minister as ‘shonky’.

Robert Manne in an appreciation of Whitlam’s strengths and weaknesses, concluded:

It was Whitlam’s grandiosity of ambition and his real political courage that allowed him to go where no prudent politician would have dared. But it was his astonishing self-absorption and his near total lack of self-doubt habits of mind displayed over East Timor which would eventually bring him down.

People who admired Gough Whitlam wished, some passionately, he would acknowledge that the forced integration of East Timor was a mistake, that Indonesia had violated the two conditions of his support for integration and that the people of East Timor had suffered greatly. At no time in 30 years has he been able to acknowledge these realities. He would have earned great respect if at any time he had admitted to what was clearly a flawed judgement.

He would have earned even greater respect if he had used his influence as a former head of government in supporting President Mandela, the US, UN, EU and the Indonesian Government under President Habibie, in the search for a peaceful settlement for East Timor. Gough Whitlam was a victim, one of many, of the East Timor tragedy and what Chekhov described as ‘the greatest human enemy pride’.

The declared motive for Whitlam’s stance was to strengthen relations between Australia and Indonesia at top leadership and official levels. It was a proper and necessary objective, except that in this instance, the interests of the East Timorese people were to be sacrificed to achieve this goal.

This is an edited extract from Last Flight out of Dili by David Scott (Pluto Press, 2005), which is being launched in Melbourne on Thursday 10 November by the Foreign Minister of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.