Tuesday, November 25, 2008

History as travelogue

“Yay, we had got it. President Habibie had agreed to the peacekeeping force.”

So gushes former Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer in ABC TV’s The Howard Years (Episode 2), recounting the events in 1999 whereby the Howard Government had been dragged kicking-and-screaming to lead the UN intervention in the Indonesian military-sponsored violence against East Timorese civilians.

If Alex had any capacity for humility and candour, he might have expressed himself more accurately, for instance, thus:

“Phew, we hadn’t stuffed up so very comprehensively after all. Bill Clinton had leaned heavily on B.J. Habibie to agree to a peacekeeping force.”

For, indeed, the account in The Howard Years presents a very superficial, indeed incomplete, narrative of this episode in recent Australian history. The expression puffed-up also comes to mind.

From my recollections and impressions of the period, essentially the Government gravely deplored the violence against innocent Timorese, whilst earnestly sitting on its hands, pleading there was nothing that could be done. Howard and company even seemed to feign surprise, notwithstanding that accurate intelligence had given them ample forewarning of the violence that came to pass.

The silence — indeed the deep sleep — of Australia was broken by a largely trade union-led campaign which awakened grass-roots clamour for our Government to get off its arse and do something. I well remember the Victorian campaign, led passionately by then Trades Hall secretary Leigh Hubbard.

Sadly it wasn’t so much the former PM’s regard to the pleas of his people that tipped the scales. No, finally it was a gentle but firm word in the Government’s ear from the Clinton Whitehouse that inspired Mr Howard to act ‘decisively’ in spearheading the intervention — which was, of course, all but too late to stop much of the deadly violence.

As with the economic prosperity we now enjoy, the Howard Government’s apologists tend to credit the former PM with the impetus for the intervention. But in reality the impetus for the Australian-led mission in East Timor was due to the hard work and caring of ordinary Australians.

Much of my above remarks are taken from notes I made over a year ago. And, as if to quell the cognitive dissonance provoked by the account in The Howard Years, a recent article confirms much about my recollections here.

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Blogger Father Park said...

It's all too late now. It was all too late then. Then warnings were aplenty and ignored with prejudice. Those most directly associated with those warnigs at the time were subsequently marginalised to the extent of being forced out of their position(s) afterward.

This ranks - like Whitlam's looking askance over a generation earlier - as one the most disgusting episodes in Australian relations in the region. Downer can fulminate and masturbate his words and memory as he chooses: the information was urgent and clear: he and - a fortiori - Howard ignored it hoping, in some Pollyanna fashion, it would not come to pass.

6/12/08 10:04 PM  

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