Subject: Downer diplomacy: if you don't succeed, bully again

also letters to the editor.

Sydney Morning Herald

July 12, 2008

Downer diplomacy: if you don't succeed, bully again

HAMISH McDONALD Asia-Pacific Editor

THE emails still keep coming from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, several times a day, attached with transcripts of what the minister said at this or that "doorstep" and notifying where the minister might be ambushed for the next one.

But somehow it's not the same with Labor's Stephen Smith as Foreign Minister. The party apparatchik from Perth is too cautious, too constrained, too economical with his language: in a word, too diplomatic.

Where is the verbal prolixity of Alexander Downer that we got to know so well over 11 years, his tirades containing so many gems of personal abuse and outrageous hypothesis that you always ended up opening the attachment, just in case.

But alas, he has lost the job and is quitting Parliament. Rather than joining the debate about whether Downer was a giant in Australia's diplomatic history or its Inspector Clouseau, let's look at what he claims as his "greatest achievement" as foreign minister: East Timor.

In his article in the Herald yesterday, Downer finally came out as the initiator of the famous letter from the then prime minister John Howard to Indonesia's then president B.J. Habibie in December 1998, proposing a solution to the growing unrest in East Timor.

It might be assumed from what Downer wrote that this letter set out the case for an independent East Timor that resulted in the United Nations referendum in August 1999 and the destructive exit of Indonesian forces a few weeks later.

But the letter was proposing a fudge designed to diffuse the pressure for independence in the territory, and clearly based on a hope in Canberra that if the Indonesians got their act together East Timor would eventually decide to remain inside Indonesia.

It cited the example of the Matignon and Noumea accords between France and the rival Kanak and settler groups in New Caledonia in 1988 and 1998, conferring deeper autonomy on the islands and setting an act of self-determination aside until sometime between 2013 and 2018.

The unforeseen reaction from Habibie was one of outrage at being compared to a European colonial power, and an abrupt decision in January 1999 to give the East Timorese an immediate vote on staying or leaving, rather than potentially wasting funds for 20 years on trying to turn them around.

Throughout the violent months leading up to the August vote, Downer resolutely stuck to the "adroit diplomacy" advocated by his department head, the late Ashton Calvert, rather than joining the call for outside peacekeepers.

One suspects that if the Indonesian military and its local militias had actually succeeded in their scheme to cow the East Timorese into a vote for wider autonomy rather than independence, Canberra would have gone along with the result.

On Monday, the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the East Timorese President, Jose Ramos Horta, will release the report of their joint Truth and Friendship Commission inquiry into the violence of 1999. But the top individual organisers of that violence will remain unexposed and unpunished.

That is due in large part to the policies of Downer and his colleagues not to support, in more than a token way, the previous UN investigations and to condemn the farcical trials of junior and middle-ranking scapegoats held in Jakarta.

But the main reason why a street will not be named after Downer the Liberator in Dili lies in the negotiations between Downer and his department with the new East Timorese authorities and the UN over the seabed oil resources in the Timor Sea.

In his book Shakedown, the writer Paul Cleary, who was attached to the UN team during those negotiations, has portrayed the bullying tactics adopted by Downer to persuade the devastated new country to sign away rights to 80 per cent of the biggest gas field in the disputed maritime zone. Pounding the table at one point, Downer is quoted as telling the then Timorese prime minister, Mari Alkatiri: "We don't have to exploit the resources. They can stay there for 20, 40, 50 years."

The East Timorese and UN side dug in, winning much more favourable terms in the eventual interim boundary agreed in 2006.

Peter Galbraith, the former US diplomat and author of books on foreign policy issues, was attached to the UN office advising the negotiations. He recalls going to Adelaide in 2000 to notify Downer that the East Timorese wanted to renegotiate the "Timor Gap" treaty agreed by the Indonesians in 1989.

"Somehow he considered this deeply offensive that we were doing it, that I was doing it," Galbraith said. "At the meeting he sort of kept making the point that he'd been more successful than his famous father and perhaps that I'd been less than mine. There was a real psycho-drama there that really had nothing to do with the issue."

(Galbraith is the son of the celebrated economist and author J.K. Galbraith. Downer's father, Sir Alexander, was immigration minister in the Menzies government.)

"The thing about the oil negotiations," Galbraith adds, "is that Downer adopted both a condescending and bullying approach both towards the East Timorese and the United Nations that ended up making him one of the most unpopular people in East Timor.

"It did considerable damage to Australia's reputation, and ended up for a worse bargain for Australia than a more diplomatic approach would have produced. The matter would have wrapped up sooner and Australia could have had a larger share of the oil."

Galbraith, who is a senior adviser in the presidential campaign of US Democrat candidate Barack Obama, said: "Being Australia's longest-serving foreign minister may not necessarily equal being its best.

"He won't do any damage in his job as the Cyprus negotiator," Galbraith added, referring to Downer's new job as a UN special envoy. "Because one thing's for sure: if there were any serious chance of making progress between the Greeks and Turks on Cyprus, the UN would not have appointed Downer."


The Age

July 12, 2008 Saturday

INSIGHT; Letters

Expose the rogues

RE THE Commission of Truth and Friendship's finding that the Indonesian police, army and civilian government officials were involved in a "campaign of violence" in East Timor in 1999 (The Age, 11/7).

I seem to remember former foreign minister Alexander Downer spouting the line that it was only "rogue elements", until it became all too embarrassing. Some journalist should dredge up a few quotes from the "Jakarta" lobby at the time - it might make interesting reading.

Donald Dowell, Kew


Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

July 12, 2008 Saturday

Come hail or whine, history will judge Downer on the big issues

Alexander Downer makes much of his diplomatic efforts in Asia ("Bias ignores years of hard work on foreign policy", July 11). Indeed, some of his efforts in this sphere are commendable.

However, the thrust of Peter Hartcher's article ("Vale, Alexander the not-so-great", July 4) was that three issues dwarfed all else during Downer's term - the Iraq war, the "Pacific Solution" and the AWB scandal.

Tellingly, Downer makes no mention of the first two. On AWB, Downer claims the "full, transparent" inquiry vindicated him, when it was specifically prohibited from making adverse findings about government ministers.

History will judge him on how he handled the big issues. And he was found wanting.

Ashley Cooper Hurlstone Park

What "anti-conservative" commentary would Alexander Downer be talking about? The two top-rating commercial networks, one run by a friend of the Howards, the other by the man Howard gave a state memorial service to? The Murdoch-owned press? The conservative talkback commentators who dominate the airwaves? A few dissenting voices hardly make for an anti-conservative agenda.

Downer's performance at the AWB inquiry, where he simpered through questioning by repeating the fool's defence of "I don't recollect" suggested gross incompetence and negligence rather than innocence.

Suggesting he was responsible for the independence of Timor is laughable, especially given his attempts to deny the state a rightful share of oil and gas royalties from the Timor Sea.

His ham-fisted diplomacy resulted in the deterioration of relationships with many Pacific neighbours. And his blind adherence to the misguided neo-con agenda in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay has tarnished Australia's reputation.

Sunil Badami Rozelle

I thought East Timor's liberation had more to do with a revolution in Indonesia and revolt in Timor. Apparently, it was due to a well-drafted letter.

Andrew Rivett Wyoming

The East Timor inquiry finds the atrocities were perpetrated by soldiers, police and civilian officials, and responsibility falls on the Indonesian government ("Indonesia to blame for Timor mayhem", July 11). I guess they constitute the "certain rogue elements" that Alexander Downer constantly blamed.

Don Firth Wooli

Alexander Downer says public commentary is "rich with personal abuse" and "blatantly anti-conservative". Let me throw up a few terms: elites, chardonnay socialists, latte-sippers, chattering classes, bleeding hearts, tree-huggers, anti-American and un-Australian just for a start. At least he got the personal abuse bit right.

Graeme Finn St Peters

This is the same Alexander Downer who referred to participants at the 2020 summit as "Keating-loving elites".

Maureen Chuck Cabarita

What Alexander Downer was really trying to say was, "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I think I'll go and eat worms."

Ross Sharp Toowong (Qld)

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