Documents relating to Australia’s involvement in the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste will remain secret after a court upheld the Australian government’s refusal to release them.
It took the administrative appeals tribunal more than two years to rule on the case, finding that releasing the documents “could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the security or international relations of the commonwealth”.
Some documents declassified during the hearing showed that Australia appeared driven by its desire for oil and gas rights when it legitimised Indonesia’s 1975 occupation of Timor-Leste. Australia was the only western nation to recognise Indonesia’s sovereignty over Timor-Leste, and the violent occupation continued until 1999.
Academic Kim McGrath had repeatedly sought access from the National Archives to the diplomatic cables and cabinet documents which relate to maritime border negotiations between Indonesia and Australia in the 1970s.
The ruling has sparked criticism from lawyer Bernard Collaery, who is himself facing prosecution for his role in exposing a spy scandal involving Australia’s treatment of Timor-Leste.
“There are lessons in history, and shrouding that history with the absurdity of the claims in the McGrath matter reinforces a significant failure in our democracy,” he told the Guardian. “A failure of governance, and the arrogance of the executive in deciding what the public can know 30 and 40 years after events, 50 years after events, that hold no conceivable damage to our foreign relations.”
McGrath has claimed the declassified documents supported her research findings that successive Australian governments appeared to deliberately hide the key role its interests in the rich resource reserves played in its diplomacy.
“I believe the release of the exempt material would lead to adverse consequences for Australia,” said Dr Greg French in his public affidavit of February 2019. French was a key figure in negotiations on the maritime boundary and law of the sea matters, and is now Australia’s ambassador to Italy. “In my view there is a real risk that disclosure of the exempt text could damage Australia’s relations with Timor-Leste. I also believe disclosure of the exempt text at this time is very likely to damage Australia’s relations with Indonesia.”
“My mind boggles at what could be in the documents from 40 to 50 years ago that could damage the relationship between Timor-Leste and Australia,” McGrath told Guardian Australia. McGrath said equally the relationship with Indonesia had survived incidents such as the Snowdon revelations that Australian spy agencies targeted the phones of the president, his wife, and ministers, and that Indonesia had been happy with the outcome of the 1970s negotiations
The decades-long dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste over their maritime border has ended, with Australia ratifying a bilateral treaty in 2019.
The treaty revealed Australia had profited for decades from oilfields which were later found to belong to Timor-Leste, and the delay in ratification added to those profits.