Working in East Timor this last year, I was looking forward to settling into Appeasing Jakarta, the second Quarterly Essay, during a one-week visit across the border to the refugee camps in West Timor. Given past involvement in Aboriginal issues, my expectation was heightened by a fulsome correspondence between your first essayist and his interlocutors focused on In Denial. Naturally I was impressed by the writing of Birmingham, Manne and some of his interlocutors. But I am left with an eerie dissatisfaction – I am pleased to be away from it all, and yet, here I am in midst of it! In John Birmingham’s essay we hear nothing from the Timorese themselves and in the Manne correspondence we hear little from Aborigines. Their voices and experiences as insiders would have blunted the moral message for and about complicit outsiders. The tone of the writing is the righteousness which is reserved for outside commentators writing with the benefit of hindsight, assuming that the political actors at the time had a clear choice between good and evil.
One major difference between Australia’s conduct in 1975 and 1999 in relation to East Timor and Indonesia was that this time Australian officials, including Ambassador John McCarthy, did consult and dialogue with key Timorese actors who themselves made assessments about the risks of sustained, systematic violence from the TNI and their militia allies, and who themselves urged the continuation of the popular consultation process subject to the flawed conditions set down in the May 5 agreement to which Australia was not a party and to which Portugal as a party had presumably given agreement only after approval by the key Timorese actors. No matter how appeasing our attitude to Jakarta, our government’s position was in line with that espoused by the Timorese leadership. I do not hear Timorese people in East Timor complaining about Australia appeasing Jakarta during 1999. Though they might not have access to all the Canberra information available to John Birmingham and William Maley, they do have a lifetime of experience of Jakarta’s way of doing business. Even with hindsight and after all the suffering, the major sentiment of the Timorese towards us Australians regarding the events of 1999 is one of gratitude. At least this time, the erstwhile appeaser listened to the victim and acted in a manner judged appropriate by the victim and not altogether in the appeaser’s self interest. In moral terms this must count for something. I do not deny that there was a failure to share all intelligence and that things could have been done better. Even if all intelligence had been shared (and I am one prepared to assume there are good as well as bad reasons for withholding it), I think the Timorese leaders would still have urged that the popular consultation proceed even if the terms of the May 5 agreement remained unamendable and fraught with difficulty.
Birmingham says, ‘The question of war crimes is looming as a new touchstone for Australian realism.’ The UN has already told the Timorese that an international war crimes tribunal is not a goer. The Security Council is just not interested and sadly there is not a proven, credible court system on either side of the border. The only hope of bringing those in Indonesia to justice is the local prosecution of the 23 named in the Indonesian human rights report. There are three levels of offenders: senior TNI officers, key militia leaders, and the small fry militia. Only the third level is within reach of authorities outside Indonesia. Some key militia leaders will return and come into the net when the UN leaves town and when the East Timor government and militia leaders cut a deal. It will be the sort of deal which will not withstand much scrutiny from your essayists. But it may bring home the remaining refugees, including the little people who are the pawns beyond the reach of the international community since the killing of the UNHCR workers in September 2000. Once again, Timorese actors will be active participants in the moral calculus about intentions and outcomes.
On the Aboriginal front, it is common ground between Robert Manne and all his white intellectual interlocutors that any ‘genocidal dimension in child removal came to an end’ in the post-war period. Presumably public debate about the correct classification of the pre-war policy will continue, each side being equally convinced and passionate about its position. But none of this conviction and passion will change the lives of present-day Aboriginal Australians, nor will it contribute to a resolution of the outstanding issues. The Bringing them home report highlighted that there is still a disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in need of State intervention for their care and protection. The principle of placement with Aboriginal families is readily accepted. But this simply means disproportionate burdens being placed on functional Aboriginal families. Speak to anyone involved in Aboriginal welfare and health and you will hear how unaddressed are the present-day problems. The writings of Aboriginal leaders Pat Dodson and Marcia Langton in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody put beyond doubt the cycle of violence in so many Aboriginal families and communities.
Being a Jesuit, I have no fear of public debate about morality but I do side with Inga Clendinnen in apprehending that the moralism of our public intellectuals about our pre-war past may be discouraging the subtlety of analysis and ‘patience and generosity in judgment’ required not only to get our history right (which is her primary concern) but also if we as a nation are to rectify the present abuses of Aboriginal children (this being my primary concern).
Whatever of the political campaign against Bringing them home, those of us supportive of greater justice for Aborigines need to concede the following points. To date, all test cases in the courts on the stolen generations have been abysmal failures despite the provision of all necessary public funds for the conduct of the litigation. There is no political basis for the establishment of a reparations tribunal until there has been at least one successful case in the courts. With reparations, we are back where we were with land rights in 1971. At that time, Aborigines lost their test case in the courts. The newly elected Whitlam government decided to take the matter from the courts and into its own hands after the conduct of a royal commission. (A new Labor government could do the same for the stolen generations.) But even then, there was no real commitment to national land rights until the successful win in Mabo in 1992. Mabo created the political imperative for action by the Keating government because industry groups wanted certainty. A successful stolen generations case may create the imperative for a reparations tribunal. Meanwhile the real moral ambiguities will be addressed by those Aborigines and their fellow Australians wanting to improve the conditions of Aboriginal families and communities. The ongoing debate in various white intellectual circles (from the Bennelong Society to the Quarterly Essay circle) about the correct classification of pre-war practices will continue but let it not provide an excuse for those who are not Aboriginal simply doing nothing as outsiders, in the name of self-determination.
The moralism of these essays will be justified if we writers and readers are further compelled to do something to put right the ongoing effects of past appeasement and assimilation. Chances are that whatever we do will be morally fraught and ambiguous. That is why the issues are so hard, deserving a Quarterly Essay or two after we have all given it our best shot. Meanwhile, I look forward to an essay written by an insider.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO has written extensively on Aboriginal rights. He is the Director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney. For the past year, he has been the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor. He is a board member of the Australian Studies Centre of the University of Indonesia.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 3, The Opportunist.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY