120 Submission to Whitlam

Canberra, 1 April 1975


Portuguese Timor-Australian Representation

The purpose of this submission is to invite your attention to proposals for re-establishing the Australian consulate in Timor and to recommend that, at least for the time being, we should not move to reopen the consulate. The consulate was closed in 1971, mainly because the reduced workload did not justify the expense of maintaining it (about $41,000 a year). [matter omitted]1

Political Involvement

  1. In fact nothing has occurred since our earlier submission on this matter which would lead us to recommend that the earlier decision be reversed. If anything, recent developments have confirmed our view of the risks of plunging further into the Timor quagmire. It is now clear that Ramos Horta and his FRETILIN-UDT coalition are anxious to draw Australia in as some sort of counter to the threat he perceives from Indonesia. Were we to open the consulate in Dili it would be interpreted by FRETILIN and UDT as support for them alone. It could be similarly interpreted by the Indonesians. Departmentally, we still think that Australia should remain very cautious about any move which might allow our wider relations with Indonesia to become a hostage of the Timorese.
  2. In advocating the re-establishment of the consulate, Mr Kerin has suggested, inter alia, that it would allow Australia to 'act as a referee in the political jousting between the parties'. He referred to Australia as being a country 'to whom the people of Timor naturally look for protection'. He proposed the establishment of an Australia-Timor Friendship Society. The danger in the outlook which these remarks express is that it could lead us into exercising quasi-colonial influence in Portuguese Timor, or indeed into assuming some de facto responsibility for the territory. It does not necessarily follow that establishing a consulate will lead us into these pitfalls, but it would certainly make it very much more difficult for us to avoid them: in the Lilliputian politics of Portuguese Timor, an Australian mission would loom very large.

Migration Aspects

  1. There is a further important consideration which tells against an early opening of the consulate. The political uncertainties in Timor, and the presence of a minority Chinese community, could contain the seeds of a second Uganda. Press reports have already referred to the increasing nervousness of the Chinese population, which is reportedly leading many Chinese to consider leaving Timor. It is to be expected that some of the Chinese, perhaps many of them, might be inclined to look to Australia as a possible haven. Indeed we understand that a number may have already begun to try to build a financial stake in Australia. This tendency might be expected to increase were Australia to establish a consulate or any other diplomatic presence in Dili. At present persons seeking visas must apply to Darwin.
  2. Some of these considerations could apply to the Timorese as well. We understand that there has been some contact between the Katherine sub-branch of the ALP and Timorese groups in Dili about possible resettlement in Australia. We have sighted separately a petition apparently signed by more than one thousand Timorese affirming their wish to come to Australia. This petition has been sent to a Sydney-based returned servicemen's association representing members of the Australian Sparrow Force which operated in Timor during the war.
  3. We recognise that there are sensitive considerations, both internal and external, involved in this migration question. One of the reasons advanced (among others, by Mr Kerin) for reopening the consulate is precisely to facilitate the issue of visas, and indeed no doubt some of the would-be applicants would be eligible for residence. But the great majority would not, at least under present criteria. Should the political situation in Timor deteriorate, we should expect pressures of a humanitarian character to develop which might lead the Government to consider taking a number of refugees and persons seeking asylum, whether or not we had a consulate in Dili. But the presence of a consulate would undoubtedly make us more vulnerable to pressure to accept refugees from Timor than would otherwise be the case. Ours would be one of only three consulates in Dili, the others being the consulates of Indonesia and Taiwan.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. We believe that the factors described above point to the merits of reaffirming the decision of last December, namely, that we should not move to reopen the consulate, for the time being. The question should be left under review: we are not in principle opposed for all time to the idea of reopening the consulate. Meanwhile, it is intended that our program of visits to Portuguese Timor should be stepped up in frequency to one visit every two or three months. Such a visit program will probably be necessary in any event if, as is agreed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, we were to begin a modest aid program to Timor.
  2. It is recommended that you endorse the position in paragraph 12 above. A possible parliamentary question is being submitted separately.2


First Assistant Secretary

South-East Asia and PNG Division

[NAA: Al838, 3038/10/1/2, i]