Australia’s new Labor government, March 1983

The election on 5 March 1983 of a new Labor government under the populist prime minister Bob Hawke held the possibility of a change in Canberra’s direction on Timor. The Australian Labor Party came into the 1983 election with a formal Timor position strongly supporting East Timorese self-determination.

We present here some source materials which illuminate development of Labor’s Timor policy, the new government’s approach to the policy and community reaction to early signs that the government was broadly continuing the pro-integration approach of  the Whitlam and Fraser governments.

Bob Hawke, election tally room, 5 March 1983. [Source: ABC]

Bob Hawke, election tally room, 5 March 1983. [Source: ABC]

In 1977 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) rejected former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s approach on Timor by adopting a strong resolution opposing the Indonesian annexation and supporting self-determination. In 1979, however, this policy was significantly reduced in scope (see both texts here). A renewal of Australian activism after the political, military and humanitarian disasters inside Timor in 1978-79 included a focus on re-invigorating ALP policy.

Renewing Labor Party policy 1981-82
In early 1981, a few Australia East Timor Association (AETA) activists* began working with members of the Victorian branch of the ALP on an early draft policy proposal. The final product described principles and actions on a range of matters like self-determination, United Nations, refugees, military aid and the sea-bed boundary.

ALP rank-and-file member support for a pro-Timor policy was particularly strong in the state of Victoria. In June 1981, leading figures on the left such as Jean McLean were instrumental in the Victorian branch adopting a policy based on the AETA proposal. The Victorian branch then led the way in establishing  a national ALP Timor draft policy. Just prior to the ALP national conference which was to vote on the draft policy in July 1982, activists began to worry about the length of the proposal and suggested a less detailed but still principled alternative.

In the end, though, the ALP adopted a detailed conference resolution which included, word for word, seven of the eight principal policy statements originally proposed by AETA in 1981. The missing item was the sea-bed boundary issue. Many of the specific government actions originally proposed by AETA were not included, except the less controversial ones on information and family reunions.

Shoring-up the policy
In Victoria ALP member (and AETA chairperson) George Preston headed an  ‘East Timor Support Group’ within the party to build  support for the new policy. Established in late 1982, the group secured the signatures of four key Labor parliamentarians on a letter sent to all branches seeking their active support for the new policy. One of the signatories was Gareth Evans, later Australian Foreign Minister (1988-96); his letter agreeing to add his signature showed solid support for the policy but with some reservations.

Other encouraging signs for Timor supporters came when almost the entire membership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party signed a policy-supporting statement which long-time Timor activist Senator Gordon McIntosh presented to a hearing on the UN Decolonisation Committee in November 1982. Just a few days before the 1983 election, Labor foreign minister-in-waiting, Bill Hayden, gave further signs of a new Labor government’s commitment to its policy.

Labor in Government: Alarming signs
There was considerable media interest before and after the March 5 election in how the Hawke government would handle the policy (see sample coverage here). The early signs after the election were, however, alarming for the supporters of the new policy with the new prime minister failing to affirm it in other than the vaguest terms.

Cabinet decision March 1983

Only in 2012 was the Hawke Cabinet’s first Timor policy decision made public**. The 29 March 1983 Cabinet decision showed that the government had adopted a formula which broadly followed the script recommended by the Foreign Affairs Department to successive Australian governments since 1975. The essence of the formula was that while an internationally supervised act of self-determination had not taken place, any ‘support’ for the East Timorese must go through the Indonesian government (by inference: no actions supporting self-determination).

This formula was clearly reflected in Bill Hayden’s first overseas visit to Jakarta  in early April where he played down support for East Timorese self-determination and focussed on relatively minor Timor matters like aid and family reunion.

Activist disquiet and action
It didn’t take long for Timor supporters to realise they had work to do if the policy was to survive. Within two days of the election, the ALP East Timor Support Group directed a letter of concern to Labor parliamentarians and continued to be active in the months following.

Click to viewOn March 9 a nationally-distributed letter sought participants for a March 19 strategy meeting in Melbourne. Interstate solidarity groups like the Campaign for Independent East Timor (CIET) in Sydney and Adelaide weren’t able to attend but indicated their activities and intentions.  AETA and others wrote to Bill Hayden seeking a meeting with him; AETA distributed a pamphlet which showed what it thought needed doing.

PM Hawke casts the die
Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s visit to Jakarta in early June 1983 left no-one in any doubt that the government was indeed abandoning its party policy. AETA’s subsequent pamphlet spelled out the detail.

The next element in the Hawke government’s strategy to overturn the the policy came in the form of an Australian parliamentary delegation to Indonesia in July 1983 – but that is another story.


* Initial working group members were George Preston, Pat Walsh, John Waddingham and Rod Harris.

** See full Cabinet decision and briefing notes through the National Archives of Australia RecordSearch. Worth an article in its own right.

Documents reproduced here come from the archives of the ACFOA Human Rights Office and Timor Information Service – both in CHART custody in Melbourne.

2 Responses to Australia’s new Labor government, March 1983

  1. John Waddingham says:

    Pat Walsh and I sat up late into the evening on election night in 1983 to watch the nationally televised vote count. By the time Bob Hawke walked triumphantly into the tally room with his then wife Hazel, Pat had fallen asleep.

    I watched the beaming ‘Hawkey’ (as he was and is known) closely and, after a few minutes, said out loud to myself: ‘There’s no way this bloke will implement his party’s Timor policy’.

    Pat neither confirms nor denies this story today.

  2. Bill Armstrong says:

    I’m inclined to believe your story John—it fits with political reality and after all Pat was probably asleep when you said it!!

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