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East Timor: Shadow Foreign Minister criticises his Labor predecessors over their policy towards it

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PETER CAVE:  Shadow foreign affairs minister, Laurie Brereton, has made his strongest attack yet on his predecessors, including Gough Whitlam and Gareth Evans, for their handling of East Timor policy. Mr Brereton says the buck must stop with the former prime ministers and foreign ministers for what he describes as Australia’s inaction over many decades. The criticism has drawn a sharp response from Gareth Evans and re-opened some long-time sores inside the Labor Party. Sally Sara reports from Canberra.


SALLY SARA: Laurie Brereton has been spending a lot of time rattling old cages and needling old policies on East Timor, but this attack is the strongest yet. In a speech delivered in Brisbane, Mr Brereton has pointed the finger very publicly at his own kind, particularly at Gough Whitlam.


LAURIE BRERETON: At best, Whitlam’s approach was dangerously ambiguous, and by mid-1975 increasingly unsustainable.


SALLY SARA: Mr Brereton says while some critics have painted diplomats as the arch villains in the tale of East Timor, he says the buck must stop with prime ministers and cabinets. He says it’s a matter of lasting regret that Mr Whitlam didn’t speak more forcefully in support of self-determination for East Timor but, for that, he doesn’t allow the diplomats to escape scrutiny altogether. In fact, he attacks former Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott.


LAURIE BRERETON: The leading advocate of a policy of inaction was Australia’s then new ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott.


SALLY SARA: As for Richard Woolcott, he shrugs off the attack.


RICHARD WOOLCOTT: I guess as the ambassador in Jakarta at the time, I am seen as having had some influence on a policy which now appears to have failed.


SALLY SARA: But Laurie Brereton’s criticism stretches beyond the time of Richard Woolcott. The Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments also receive a serve, much to the annoyance of former foreign minister and Laurie Brereton’s Labor colleague, Gareth Evans. Mr Evans responded last night by issuing a written statement. In it he says he absolutely rejects any suggestion that Australia’s performance on human rights during his term of office fell short of high standards.


Laurie Brereton’s speech has re-opened some old wounds. Sections of the party have long been critical of Labor’s handling of East Timor. Even now the desire amongst some to rectify and repair remains. In fact in the Northern Territory Labor politicians are currently putting together a shipment of aid to East Timor. One of the organisers, John Bailey, says it’s a practical expression of feelings which have been festering in the party for a long time.


JOHN BAILEY: Over the last 23 years, I believe some of the worst human rights abuses that have been going on around the world have actually occurred in East Timor, our closest neighbour, and we’ve actually done very little to help them. I think this is an opportunity for Australians to do something to help out a country that’s in great need.


PETER CAVE: John Bailey, the Labor MLA for the Northern Territory.