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The following article appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 5 July, 2021.

This is a tale of greed, denial, delusion, racism, power, loyalty, ethics and courage. Dressed in black are Howard and Downer, in white K and Collaery. The tale takes place in the subterranean world of spies, spooks, spivs, shankers, summer kings and secret trials.

The very bad people bring the very good people before the courts in a land where persecuted people from other lands are, on arrival, further persecuted. In this Topsy Turvey land where good is bad and bad is good, power, greed and money are king, but only for as long as the sun shines. When the going gets tough, when winter descends the king disappears.

According to the State that Persecutes the Innocent, the crime that needed to be addressed was that an Australian security officer working for ASIS, Witness K, was mightily disturbed that as an honest employee, of some achievement and standing, he was tasked with carrying out an illegal act by Prime Minister, Howard, and Foreign Minister, Downer, against a small, needy and vulnerable target, Timor-Leste.

The State that Persecutes had a significant advantage in power and technology and used this advantage to bug a cabinet room where discussions took place by representatives of Timor-Leste on how to secure the best deal they could, in negotiations with The State, over disputed oil and gas reserves under the ocean bed between the two countries. Putting aside the illegality of the undertaking there was also a complete lack of ethics. It was grubby.

Witness K took his concerns to the management of ASIS, which authorised him to discuss his concerns that a crime had been committed, which of course should have been seen as our concern, with the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, a mysterious job because no one is allowed to scrutinise the Inspector-General. It’s all about all of us taking a deep breath and trusting. Anyway, the Inspector-General did the right thing and authorised Witness K to consult a lawyer which he did in the form of a prominent Canberra lawyer, Bernard Collaery. But then it went pear shaped for K when the mysterious IGIS was replaced with an opaque IGIS who withdrew the earlier approval to consult a lawyer, putting both K and Collaery in an invidious position. K for having divulged the nature of his concerns, which were governed by the official secrets act, and for Collaery for having heard them and for beginning to act upon them. The State that Persecutes had a Problem. The Oxford loving Attorney-General at the time, Brandis, sat on his little hands waiting for his posting to London as High Commissioner to solve his dilemma, which it did. His egregious smile floats on.

He was replaced by anything but Christian, Porter, best known for some recent excellent dramatic performances on Australian television, which some say may have opened doors for him doing Shakespeare in London; apparently Brandis has offered accommodation while he finds his feet. In any case as the new fearless AG, he took the bit between his teeth and in order to protect the impeccable reputations of Little-Iraq-Overboard, Johnny Howard and call me darling, Downer, he bravely undertook to prosecute K and Collaery.

But a Magistrate in the ACT, who had heard the case in secret, decided that basically K did not have a case to answer and gave him a three month suspended sentence. That was a blow for the forces of darkness, particularly Porter, who despite his rising thespian career, had had to vacate his position as AG in the face of serious allegations of a possible criminal nature. He has been appointed Minister of Silly Walks, a kind of sinecure, until he has to face the Mad Hatter.

The redoubtable Bernard Keane of Crikey, a publication that aspires to turn The State of Persecution into Wonderland, said, ‘The wrong person was in the dock being sentenced last week in the ACT Magistrates Court…It is Alexander Downer who should have faced court.’ He notes that the beneficiary of knowledge gained from the bugging was the major polluter Woodside. Incredibly Downer went on to receive grace and favour employment with Woodside.

However, in my opinion, the racism and elitism of Downer and Howard underpinned their greed and facilitated their quite extraordinary undertaking. Just as an aside Howard never once expressed opposition to Apartheid on the floor of the House, despite having many opportunities and Downer demonstrated marked discomfort in the presence of Indigenous people as leader of the Opposition. This is relevant in view of their subsequent treatment of the East Timorese.

In my book, ‘The Great Australian Blight, Losing the plot in Australian foreign policy’, published in 2001 by Otford Press, p71, I said, ‘Howard remained opposed to an independent East Timor until early 1999. Downer attempted to finesse Howard’s recognition of the strength of Australian public opinion in favour of independence as a “shift in government policy”…nonetheless the Government continued to acknowledge and affirm Indonesia’s right to occupy East Timor.’

Downer denied the involvement and arming of the East Timorese Militia by the Indonesian Army (TNI) until not long before the intervention of the Australian led, international peace keeping force (INTERFET) in East Timor. The shadow foreign affairs spokesman, Laurie Brereton accused him in 1999 of lying. Greg Sheridan of The Australian backed Downer’s anti-East Timor, pro-Indonesia line.

Later, p122, I noted, Downer was reported in the SMH, on 8 December 2000, as saying Australia and Indonesia needed better defence ties. ‘Bereft of ideas, morality and shame the government blundered about looking for its old comfort zone, unwilling or unable to acknowledge that following the ballot in east Timor the dynamics of the archipelago had irrevocably changed.’

On p123, I said, ‘Nevertheless, Australia and East Timor did find Major-General Peter Cosgrove just in the nick of time. Cosgrove and his troops performed the task of securing peace and stability in East Timor in the manner in which every Australian hoped they would. Cosgrove provided leadership of a quality which had been sorely lacking in Australia. John Howard, John Moore (Minister for Defence), and Alexander Downer latched onto his coat tails hoping to gain some of the reflected glory and increase their diminished stature.’

Howard and Downer were humiliated by the way events unfolded in East Timor. They gave every indication they felt belittled and they had reason to. They had behaved in petty and mean spirited fashion further demonstrating these characteristics with the authorisation of the bugging of the cabinet room in Dili. They have unleashed the most bizarre and cruel chain of events which will not end well for them.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.