Parliamentary Inquiry: CHART submission

15 May 2013

The Australian Parliament has begun a broad-ranging inquiry into Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste. We present here a summary and full text of CHART’s submission to the inquiry.

CHART calls for a critical examination of current restrictions on access to Australian government archives about East Timor and calls for Australian support for emerging archival institutions in Timor-Leste.

On May 21, the Australian parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade will commence public hearings on Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste. The inquiry will examine government and non-government relationships and has attracted over seventy submissions – largely from Australian NGOs and individuals.

This is the third Australian parliamentary inquiry specifically on Timor in the current era, following Senate Committee inquiries in 1982-83 and 1999-2000. Historically these reports have had little obvious influence on the direction of government policy (the 1983 report was virtually ignored by the then Hawke Labor Government). However, such inquiries can provide a comprehensive insight into the thinking and actions of key players and are an important compendium of current information. The reports and the large volume of submissions and evidential transcripts also serve as a rich archival record for future generations.

CHART Submission
Our submission to the inquiry is based on an a view that the current many-faceted relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste arises directly out of the traumatic years of the Indonesian military occupation, 1975-1999. For this reason, Australians and East Timorese have a shared and abiding interest in access to historical archives about this period.

The Chart submission makes a series of recomendations in two areas: The right to the truth through access to archives, and the development of relationships between Australian and emerging East Timorese archival institutions.

Access to Australian archives on Timor
Drawing attention to the growing international interest in ‘the right to truth’, CHART makes a number of recommendations on access, including:

  • Timor records in the custody of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) be subject to a special program to expedite their release for public access
  • Processes for examining records for release be revised to speed up public access
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs’ restrictions on access be critically examined to establish whether they are over-cautious or unnecessarily restrictive.

Timor-Australia Archival relationships
Australia, as comparatively rich neighbour, is better placed than any other to cooperate with Timor-Leste in the development of sustainable archival institutions in Timor. While arguing against unsustainable, quick-fix, high technology assistance, the CHART submission recommends:

  • Exploratory relationship-building between National Archives of Australia and Timor-Leste’s Arquivo Nacional
  • Australian government support for Australian institutions with Timor archival holdings and programs
  • Australian archival institutions include in their Timor relationship programs, coordination with related Timor-engaged Australian non-government cultural initiatives
  • Programs to copy Australian-held Timor archival materials for eventual access in Timor-Leste.

CHART believes all these practical recommendations can be achieved over time and done in ways which are of relatively low cost.

Further information:
Full text of CHART submission
Links to all Inquiry submissions

[Note: More links to be added as Inquiry proceeds]


Remembering 1979: Canberra & Jakarta public relations

2 January 2010

A 1979 submission to Australia’s Fraser Government Cabinet shows that politics, not East Timorese needs, was the principal reason for increasing humanitarian aid to East Timor in November that year.

The stated reason for ‘urgency’ in the submission:

Click to view

Recent publicity about the situation in Timor has led to criticism in Australia of the Indonesian Government and increasing public pressure on the (Australian) government to provide aid. We believe it is in the Government’s interests to respond to this problem as soon as possible.

No reference to the desperate humanitarian situation facing the Timorese at that time. The ‘recent publicity’ was Peter Rodgers’ articles and photographs of mass starvation in East Timor, highlighted earlier on this blog (see Remembering 1979).

The backgrounder attached to the formal submission makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in Australian government policy making on Timor at the time. It also provides an insight into Australian and Indonesian government views on Australian non-government aid organisations – including Indonesia’s alleged (inaccurate) branding of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) as “actively pro-Fretilin”.

The backgrounder also shows the Australian Government knew there was a significant humanitarian crisis in November 1979. Researchers scrutinising the broader set of 1979 official documents now released for access should be able to learn just how early Australia did know about the desperate situation developing inside Timor during 1978/79.

Indonesian government propaganda booklet

Click to view

The cabinet submission background document also shows Indonesian Foreign Minister Mochtar didn’t care much for the picture revealed by Peter Rodgers’ articles. The articles certainly contradicted the Government of Indonesia’s own preferred international images of what life was like for the East Timorese in 1979.

The Indonesian Department of Information’s ‘To build a better tomorrow in East Timor’, printed on high quality paper in the second half of 1979, conveyed an image of modest but forward-looking progress for the East Timorese. Knowing what we know now about the truth of the situation inside Timor, let alone what most of us already knew in 1979, this Jakarta publication was a perfect example of why Indonesian Government claims about East Timor had to be treated with  maximum scepticism.

Note on sources

The Cabinet Submission is highlighted in this year’s release of the Fraser Government Cabinet records by the National Archives of Australia (NAA). Australian law requires the release of government records to the public thirty years after their creation – though this may soon be changed to twenty years (see earlier blog post).

NAA’s full selection of significant Foreign Affairs and Defence issues put to the 1979 Australian Cabinet can be found here.

The Indonesian Government publication is in the Timor Information Service archives, Melbourne

National Archives digitised records: A better view

14 June 2009

There’s a great free tool to view and print digitised records in the National Archives of Australia’s (NAA) vast RecordSearch database.

Many Australian government Timor-related records are available through NAA’s ongoing digitising-for-access program and researcher activity is increasing that number. These records are directly viewable online and can be printed from the work or home computer for personal research and reference purposes.

Good as this facility is, there are some practical limitations. You can only print one page at a time and the resulting print-out details the archival item’s barcode only (see image below). I find the latter a puzzling choice by NAA because the barcode is not part of NAA’s recommendations on citation of its records (and curiously, the barcode must be entered in the Keywords rather than Reference number RecordSearch field if you want to find the item again later).

Standard NAA print-out

Standard NAA print-out

A better view

If (and only if) you use the Firefox web browser, you are in for a treat.

Science historian and web developer Tim Sherratt has created a script for Firefox which changes the RecordSearch digital record view entirely. Instead of this:

Standard NAA viewer

Standard NAA viewer

You see this:

Firefox script viewer

Firefox script viewer

This viewer allows you to select a page range to print, including the whole file. Access to Adobe Acrobat or other PDF file creators allows you to ‘print’ the whole file to PDF on your computer for much more efficient off-line viewing.

Script print format

Script print-out

The physical print-out is also an improvement over the NAA original (click thumbnail image at left). In addition to providing the file barcode, it also records the source in a form compliant with NAA’s short citation recommendations (in the example here: NAA: A11443, 3) and indicates the page number in the digital file (both crucial for reference purposes).

Browsing in 3D

Optional: Install the Firefox add-on called CoolIris and you can view a whole file on a virtual wall of pages by clicking on the ‘Browse in 3D’ button. A fascinating experience but I find larger files cause my computer to slow down.

Instructions for installation of the RecordSearch viewer script can be found here. More information on the CoolIris option on Tim Sherratt’s website.

Highly recommended to any researcher frequently accessing National Archives of Australia digital records.

Note: The example shown here is one page of  NAA’s Series A11443, item 3 – which is three copies of the official record of talks in Australia in 1975 between Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Indonesia’s President Suharto. Portuguese Timor was a significant agenda item. See whole file here; pages 18-24 for the substantive Timor discussion.

National Archives of Australia: Closed period to shorten

13 June 2009

Researchers of Australian Government records about East Timor should note the recent announcement of a ten-year reduction in the so-called ‘closed period’.

Normally, Federal Government records held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) are only accessible to the public 30 years after their year of creation.

Subject to legislation passing, from 2011 this closed period will be reduced to 20 years. However, because of the extra work required at NAA to make the records ready for release, the change will be phased in over ten years.

In practical terms, this means that records from 1983, for example  – the first year of the Hawke Labor Government and a very eventful year Timor-wise  –  become available at the beginning of  2012 instead of the expected 2014.

The Timor records of tumultuous 1998 and 1999 will become available in 2020 instead of 2029 & 2030.

So it is still quite a wait, but a welcome development.

Mind you, this change remains subject to a caveat which applies to current records in the open period. They will be kept secret if they violate privacy or have current national security implications.

Sources: Special Minister of State media release; NAA media release.


Former politicians often lodge personal collections of papers in Australian repositories like the National Library of Australia. These collections typically contain parliamentary or government records to which the standard 30 year closed rule also applies. Will the reduction of the closed period at National Archives also apply to these collections in public repositories? Watch this space.