Paul Kelly is the doyen of Australian journalism and has been in the profession longer than most of us have been alive. One must take a deep breath before criticising him. But John Howard and Alexander Downer must have seen him coming before they enlisted him in this preposterous fairytale in today’s Oz about how they deliberately set out to free East Timor.
According to Paul, ’The Howard government decided in early 1999 to work for East Timor’s independence’. Indeed, Downer told him in late January: ‘I think there is now a very good chance East Timor will be independent by the end of this year, and we intend to go along with this.’
The piece of information left out of Paul’s story is that (as everyone knows) it was in late 1998 that the Howard letter was sent to Indonesian President Habibi, proposing a referendum on independence a decade on. It was after Habibi read it that events spun out of control.
But for Paul the story begins in early 1999 with the Australian government developing an agenda for Timorese independence. Nonsense: it was Jakarta in late January 1999 who announced it was considering giving Timor independence (possibly without a referendum). Australia reacted to this. Everyone knew that Timorese would vote for independence, and this was surely the context in which Downer related those words to Paul, rather than confiding of some secret agenda.
Giving the former government a fair shake in the history books is one thing, but buying into a concoction such as this necessitates serious departure from reality.
Downer himself has tried this one on, which is understandable, and ‘The Howard Years’ went along for the ride. But Paul is supposed to be more hard-headed.
A Paul Kelly book is usually a must-read, but let’s hope this one doesn’t contain too many such flights of fancy.
One and a half stars (and those only for brazen audacity).
[Update: this extract does include more detail, more or less contradicting the crazier implication of above-referenced piece, but still somehow equating Australian government attempts to ensure the referendum went as peacefully as possible with being 'willing backers of an Independent East Timor'.]
[Up-update: Paul Daley in the Age reports from planet earth.]
[A foray out of usual zone; doesn't happen often.]