As part of his vision of a grown-up Australia, the prime minister, Paul Keating, wanted the nation to find its own voice on trade, diplomacy and security. In particular, he wanted a much deeper engagement with Asia.
On 18 December 1995 Australia signed a landmark security agreement with Indonesia, ending decades of antagonistic relations. It had been approved by cabinet just four days earlier, cabinet documents for 1994 and 1995 released by the Australian National Archives on Monday reveal.
The submission argues that the defence white paper had identified Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as its most important and that a treaty would put a “formal umbrella” over existing understandings.
“There is no country more important to Australia than Indonesia,” Keating argued in his submission. “Australian territory can in effect be directly threatened with military force only through Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.”
But the agreement was very controversial. In Australia, as in Portugal, there was growing support for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia following the Dili massacre in 1991 and a series of brutal crackdowns on the resistance movement Fretilin by the Suharto regime.
Keating acknowledged there would be “criticism from opponents of Indonesia, groups which are concerned by Indonesian policy in East Timor and from those who have simply been taken by surprise”.
But he argued it was a matter of being clear about what the treaty didn’t do. It did not commit Australia in any way it did not wish on East Timor or require Australia to compromise its position on human rights, he argued.
At a briefing on the cabinet paper, Kim Beazley, the former defence minister, said: “Paul knew I was pretty hardline when it came to the defence of Australia … on the 707 he told me what he was up to. Suharto hadn’t told his people either, I believe.”
Beazley remembered the thousand-yard stares of the generals who flanked Suharto.
Beazley put the breakthrough down to Keating’s closeness to Suharto. Keating referred to Suharto as “bapak”, or father, and Suharto treated him like a son, Beazley said.
Beazley said that Keating was especially anxious to sign the treaty before the election. “On the plane Keating said: ‘I think we are going to lose … I don’t think our opponents know much about the region. I want to put in place as much ballast as possible so they can bring themselves up to speed.’”
Australia’s secret intelligence service, Asis, also features heavily in the cabinet papers.
In February 1994, two former Asis officers and one of their wives appeared in an episode of Four Corners and made allegations of mistreatment, inefficiency, disregard for civil liberties and unaccountability.
On 23 February 1994, Senator Gareth Evans, the minister for foreign affairs, announced there would be a judicial inquiry into Asis, which was helmed by public servant Michael Codd.
Over the next year or so, cabinet adopted most of the recommendations including that there should be legislation governing Asis, a parliamentary oversight committee and six-monthly briefings for the opposition.
The relationship between the various security agencies and the federal and state police forces is revealed as a perennial concern. Cabinet considered new guidelines for the exchange of information but most of the detail remains suppressed.
The government also sought to revitalise the D-notice system – a voluntary system in which the media agrees not to publish certain material that could endanger military or intelligence capabilities – in late 1995. Cabinet was briefed on meetings with editors and news directors and told the media was amenable to a system that involved case-by-case negotiations on sensitive stories.
Cabinet also considered a ratings system for visits by foreign dignatories after several incidents marred visits. In 1994 a young man had lurched toward Prince Charles during a visit to Australia, firing two blank shots from a starter’s pistol as a protest. There had also been protests when Qiao Shi, the chairman of the national Peoples Congress of China had visited.
“Such visits can be counterproductive if visitors are subject to threats or harassment,” Evans said.
Cabinet also decided to set up a new interdepartmental committee to deal with providing defence technology to regional partners. The submissions note that this is a major opportunity for Australian industry – it was discussing a joint patrol vessel proposal with Malaysia – and that, if Australia didn’t sell to countries in the region, someone else would. But balancing security and industry development was sensitive.
The sale to Malaysia fell through.
Relations with some countries also tested Australia’s diplomacy.
French nuclear tests in the Pacific were an ongoing concern to the Keating government throughout 1995, as Australia sought to build stronger relationships with its near neighbours.
The government feared France would use the short window before the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty came into force in 1996 to conduct more tests at Mururoa Atoll.
“We are a leading proponent of the south Pacific nuclear-free zone and have urged France to accede to protocols open to it under the treaty, ” Evans told cabinet in early June 1995.
A week later, the then French president, Jacques Chirac, announced testing would resume, prompting Evans to return to cabinet with an action plan to demonstrate Australia’s fury.
Australia’s ambassador to France was recalled for consultations, military cooperation was suspended and Australia convened a special meeting of the South Pacific environmental ministers to discuss the environmental impact of testing.
But Australia stopped short of banning imports of French wine, as other countries did.
“While it is not proposed to embark on any trade or other direct economic restrictions, it should be noted that the existing policy of entering into no new contracts for the sale of uranium to France will remain in force,” Evans said.
Despite the regional condemnation, France proceeded with six more tests, prompting riots in Tahiti and other Pacific nations. Subsequent declassified reports have revealed the extent of contamination in the Pacific.