Claims cables show Australia complicit in E Timor starvation

Matt Peacock reported this story on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 18:18:00
MARK COLVIN: Australia's Attorney-General has blocked the release of cables about East Timor, despite the fact that they're up to 37 years old.

Nicola Roxon decided to keep the documents secret on the grounds that opening them up would prejudice Australia's security.

Associate Professor Clinton Fernandes of the University of New South Wales requested the documents. He's a former army intelligence officer who had one of the highest security clearances.

Professor Fernandes believes the documents are being kept secret because they would reveal Australian complicity in concealing the mass starvation of 100,000 East Timorese.

He told Matt Peacock the Foreign Affairs Department was even demanding secrecy for its reasons for hushing up the documents.

CLINTON FERNANDES: The Attorney-General has gone to water at the first whiff of grapeshot. She should have exhibited a bit more scepticism about claims on intelligence and national security. She hasn't done that.

I'm now in a position where I don't know what the Government's case is, and yet I'm required to answer it.

MATT PEACOCK: And in fact these documents are being kept secret but so too is the reason why they're being kept secret.

CLINTON FERNANDES: Yeah, the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has signed a certificate withholding even the reasons why they want the material kept secret. I wrote to her warning her against the possibility of being dazzled by claims as to sensitivity risk and security. I guess she just accepted whatever advice she was given.

MATT PEACOCK: What are these documents? Do you have any idea what they are?

CLINTON FERNANDES: Yes. So the documents relate to cables written by the Australian embassy in Jakarta back to Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Canberra in the late 1970s. And the documents also relate to profiles of Indonesian leaders in the early 1970s.

The big problem with keeping them classified is that Indonesia has democratised; everything has changed. Suharto is not only out of office, he's actually dead. Nobody from that era is likely to be offended to the point where we couldn't do international relations and diplomacy with them.

MATT PEACOCK: So why do you think the Government and particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs is resisting so fiercely?

CLINTON FERNANDES: Of course this is something that you should ask them but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not have a culture of openness and transparency. Unlike in other countries where materials are automatically brought onto the public record, here we have to ask for them and if they say no we've got to go to court. So it's prohibitively expensive and time consuming, except for those like me who happen to be at a university and can run cases.

MATT PEACOCK: But there's a long history, isn't there, of the Department of Foreign Affairs concealing documents about Timor and Australia's role there?

CLINTON FERNANDES: Yes that's right. The leaks of intelligence and cables that occurred in the 1970s exposed the fact that national security was being used as an alibi not as a goal.

From the '70s, '80s, '90s there's been a long history of deception and unfortunately what's happened now is that the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has allowed the department to once again shield itself.

Really what ought to happen now is that the Foreign Minister Bob Carr should intervene personally and simply declassify the documents.

MATT PEACOCK: You can't tell not having seen them but you can speculate about why people still don't want these documents released. It was a time of famine, what do you think might be in them?

CLINTON FERNANDES: What I think is in them is that there was massive famine, about 100,000 people dying in the space of a year out of a population of 640,000. So one of the largest losses of life relative to total population since the Holocaust. And this famine occurred as a result - a direct result - of Indonesian military operations.

Australia, I believe, had knowledge of this and chose to cover it up in order to protect the relationship with the Indonesian dictatorship. And this would cause embarrassment to Australian diplomats but it certainly wouldn't harm Australia's national security. And I believe embarrassment is really what's being protected here.

MATT PEACOCK: It's a bit of a contrast isn't it; Nicola Roxon when she was in opposition was quite in favour of release of documents?

CLINTON FERNANDES: Oh Yes. Well in opposition she was talking about the importance of being open, transparent and the need to prevent the government holding on to materials that don't unnecessarily compromise national security.

The fact is that we don't know what these documents are or whether they will compromise national security because the same Nicola Roxon has signed a certificate preventing us even knowing the reasons.

MATT PEACOCK: Bob Carr might have a different attitude; are you optimistic on that front?

CLINTON FERNANDES: I don't have his number so I have no idea how to contact him but basically what he should do is just take a look at it himself and make his own decisions.

MARK COLVIN: Associate Professor Clinton Fernandes speaking to Matt Peacock.

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