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Published in The Drum and Canberra Times 25 April 2012

There has been recent discussion in the media that troops wounded in Afghanistan have received the short end of the stick in follow-up treatment provided or organised by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Around thirty years ago Vet Affairs began morphing into a caretaker of the nations’ memory and remembrance of war. It first appeared with the dwindling number of First World War veterans and the belated fuss the Hawke government made of them. Vet Affairs were given the task of organising the travel and accommodation for these often frail but spirited veterans to Turkey, France and Belgium. They also provided spritely carers to accompany them.

As part of this remit Vet Affairs produced short histories on the battle sites to be visited and biographies on the travelling WWI Diggers. Ten years on and the focus shifted to surviving WW11 Diggers. Ceremonies and tours arranged for this group became caught up and interwoven with Howard’s jingoism and skewed sense of nationalism, which eschewed black arm band history and promoted the importance of Australian military history as the primary force in shaping the character of the nation. He, and those around him, saw Australian involvement in war as central to the history of the British Empire and in particular to that of Australia and New Zealand (the Anzacs).

A, by now, politicised Department of Veterans Affairs was willing to be co-opted into expanding their charter to take on the promotion of Australian military history and achievements. Pamphlets expanded into booklets and then into books, tapes, CD’s and DVD’s.

I went to France in 2010 to attend the re-internment of Diggers on the 19 July at the newly constructed and consecrated Pheasant Wood, Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, located near the village of Fromelles. The event attracted what I thought were a disproportionate number of officers from Vet Affairs.

Later in the month I found myself in the Somme Valley just outside the village of Hamel, on an eastern ridge topped by a memorial to General Monash and the soldiers of the AIF who took the town on 4 July 1918 in the first of a series of resounding victories down the Valley. There was a person who appeared very interested in the memorial and upon introduction turned out to be an officer from Vet Affairs charged with examining the monument for wear and tear.

I said to him that I had little contact with Vet Affairs, although I would like to, as being a former tank gunner I wanted my ears tested. He seemed a little taken aback, but swung into a line perhaps developed from other similar exchanges. He said he was from a different area of Vet Affairs – his area didn’t handle medical matters.

When eventually I did get through to an area of Vet Affairs handling medical matters, I gave my details and was told to ring back, which in itself was a difficult and frustrating experience. People skills appear not to be a strong point of Vet Affairs personnel dealing with vets. Anyway I drew a blank, as on my discharge form, the lady said, problems with my hearing had not been recorded. I said perhaps my ears, being unprotected during firing of the gun, might have suffered and deteriorated over time. No such luck, nothing was recorded on the discharge form therefore there was not a problem with which Vet Affairs might assist.

A year or so later I received a letter from Vet Affairs saying they were coming to the Central West, including Mudgee, and if I had something I wanted to discuss I should make an appointment. A number was provided and getting to talk to the named officer proved every bit as difficult as the earlier experience.

The appointment was made. A number of other vets living in Mudgee did likewise. The visit was cancelled by letter two weeks before it was due to take place. We were advised to ring a certain number and make an appointment in Sydney. For a number of vets, for a variety of reasons, that was not an option.

In my opinion Vet Affairs should be made to concentrate solely on the welfare of surviving vets. They should be forced to abandon their proselytizing and promotion of the Anzac legend. As far as government expenditure on recording and honouring the history of Australian involvement in war I believe that should be the sole preserve of the Australian War Memorial.

By way of interest, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Warren Snowdon, might like to provide a list of his officers who will be attending Anzac Day Ceremonies in Turkey, France, Belgium and elsewhere around the globe.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former national serviceman. After service in WW1 his grandfather was the honorary secretary of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen Association of Victoria.

Published in THE DRUM April 2 2012, ONLINE OPINION April 4, CANBERRA TIMES April 5

The inclination of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence is to acquiesce to requests, pressure and demands from the United States and to appease an often ruthless, fractious, and headstrong Indonesian military. These are significant Australian foreign and defence policy considerations, together with trying to give China what it wants.

Riding the twin horses of America and China is difficult for Australia and will be more so as the US seeks to contain China, with what it has been led to believe, by policy makers and near do well influence junkies of the Australian/American Leadership Dialogue and right wing ‘think tanks’, is Australian support and compliance.

Understandably the Indonesian military are uneasy, watchful, and increasingly tetchy at these developments. Putting a Brigade of deployable, combat ready Marines and US Naval vessels into Darwin, basing B52’s at Tindal, home porting US submarines at HMAS Stirling in WA and flying US unmanned spy aircraft out of Cocos Island have combined to cause concern. This concern has been officially and unofficially expressed; Cocos sits in the lee of Indonesia.

Unofficial expressions of concern have come from a range of contacts and from listening to Indonesian conversations from Australian facilities and from the Joint US/Australian communications base at Pine Gap, where around 1,000 US National Security Agency, NSA, and Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, carry out a range of surveillance activities including taping phones and other communications using Echelon, a sophisticated and effective listening system. Pine Gap has been in operation since 1966 and has been upgraded and enlarged over the intervening period.

During the brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Australia monitored military communications. It was well aware of military operations against the Timorese resistance. Indonesian casualty reports of deaths and injuries to both sides were intercepted and eventually found their highly classified way to mainstream departments such as Foreign Affairs and Defence.
They detailed genocide. Within my responsibilities as director of the Indonesia section I had the call as to whether the Minister, Bill Hayden, should be sent these weekly reports. I chose to send them.

One day an operative from the security branch of the department came to me and said that there was ‘thinking’, as they used to say (maybe they still do) that it might be better and less time consuming for the Minister if he were to receive a six month summary of the information in the reports. Apparently it was information overload for the hard pressed man. I thought not and said so. I felt it was important for the Minister to be up to date with the activities of the military of a neighbouring country we refused to criticise publicly and privately over genocide. So the Minister received his weekly dose of regional horror, but I don’t know whether he read it, there was no feedback.

In the run into the reluctant intervention in East Timor, Australian intelligence agencies were keen to distance themselves from the churlishness of Howard and Downer. Members of this community briefed journalist Paul Daley in March 1999. Writing in The Age of 20 March he said that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) were working around the clock monitoring signals into and out of East Timor. Daley also said that a massive reconnaissance effort including the help of US spy satellite stations in Australia was underway to prepare maps and photographs of Indonesian military installations.

An academic, Associate Professor, Clinton Fernandes, of the University of New South Wales, several years ago put in an FOI request to the Department of Foreign Affairs for documents relating to Australian Government knowledge of (and therefore complicity in) the mass starvation of East Timorese in 1978/79 as an instrument of Indonesian military control. Quite rightly Fernandezsis seeking documentary evidence of a shocking event which saw around 100,000 people die out of a population of 640,000. A further 100,000 East Timorese died as a result of the armed struggle, detention, torture, rape and relocation during the occupation.

Fernandes says the documents relate to cables written by the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. From my own knowledge they report information from visitors to the island, East Timorese living and studying in Jakarta, the Red Cross (although not named as a source), members of the Catholic Church both local and overseas and NGO visitors to the island. The cables also detail forced relocation of East Timorese and the transmigration of Javanese.

DFAT has refused to release the documentary evidence on grounds of security, defence and international relations. These reasons are spurious. The Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has blocked Fernandes from testing them in court.

Of course gaining access to the documents matters, but the timing is wrong (has it ever, in the eyes of DFAT, been right?). For all the old reasons of not wanting to offend the Indonesian military and its putative political masters, now exacerbated by Australia’s closer embrace of the US, DFAT seeks to please. All the more so now when the new embrace involves weapons systems that are perceived as being just as easily deployed against Indonesia as China.

Rudd put the relationship, with the political and military power structures of Indonesia, under some strain as a result of attempting to push refugees in boats back into the ‘care’ of Indonesia in 2009. He was seen as arrogant and crude and his departure both as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister was not lamented in Jakarta, just as it was not in Beijing.

Abbott, if he gets elected, threatens to do the same thing with his ‘tow the refugee boats back to Indonesia policy’, a policy crafted without discussion with Indonesian officials, civil and military.

DFAT are acutely aware of these foreign policy short comings with respect to Indonesia by arrogant, gauche and domestically focused Australian politicians. On the other hand DFAT stands in the way of a more mature relationship with Indonesia by seeking to keep in the closet some awful truths which would do both sides far more good than harm to air and then discuss. In theory that is, because the Howard and Rudd governments did tremendous harm to developing a more acceptable relationship with the Indonesian military and police with their double dealing over refugees which involved playing up to the baser requirements and needs of both organisations.

We know what happened in East Timor, there are more than enough East Timorese who survived the horror to tell us and they have. The point Fernandes seems to want to make is that at the official level both sides should acknowledge their complicity. Clear the air, start afresh – all good except that Australia appears to want closer relations outside the region than within it.

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.