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Keating’s Timor and Carr’s Papua

  • 30 November 2012

On Sunday, I was travelling through the idyllic rural north of Bali, listening on my iPod to Paul Keating's riveting 2012 Murdoch Lecture in which he spoke about the 'enormous time and attention' he gave as Prime Minister between 1991 and 1996 to the development of a bilateral relationship with Indonesia.

He said, 'I think I grasped, perhaps more than any of my predecessors, the singular importance to Australia and to its security, of the vast archipelago to our immediate north. I understood that the advent of General Soeharto's New Order government had brought peace and stability to our region.'

I warmed to Keating's self adulation until he went on to describe 'the preoccupation of the Australian media with the events in Balibo two decades earlier' and how he was 'determined to establish a new and durable basis for our relationship with Indonesia other than the one we had which saw everything through the prism of East Timor'. This seemed to me far too simplistic.

Our elected leaders in the 1970s and '80s when visiting Jakarta were right to raise human rights concerns about East Timor. They, like our Indonesian counterparts, were quite capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. It was not as if it was a choice between human rights concerns and the building of a bilateral relationship.

A bilateral relationship posited on a self-imposed ban on human rights discussion would be a very perverted relationship for a robust democracy like Australia boasting adherence to the rule of law and best international practice in human rights protection.

The Keating over-simplification could be relegated to academic history but for its resurgence in recent remarks by Foreign Minister Bob Carr who earlier this month told the ABC: 'There are Australians ... who take an interest in the notion for more autonomy for Papua but I remind them that you'd be doing a disservice to the Indonesian population of those two provinces if you held out any hope that Australia could influence the cause of events.'

I beg to differ. We could be doing a great service to our Indonesian neighbours if we took seriously our capacity for respectful dialogue about the need for greater autonomy in the provinces of Papua.

Think back to the 1991 Santa