65 Letter from Willesee to Whitlam

Canberra, 10 December 1974


There have been a number of recent developments in relation to Portuguese Timor about which I think you would wish to be acquainted before you proceed overseas.1 In particular, I have now received the text of a resolution adopted on 13 November by the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Caucus proposing that a delegation of the Committee should visit Portuguese Timor in the near future and asking for Foreign Affairs co-operation in this matter. The resolution appears to have been adopted in anticipation of the visit to Australia of Mr Ramos Horta, one of the leaders of the pro-independence FRETILIN party. Mr Horta subsequently addressed the Committee and also had discussions with Mr Andrew Peacock. As a result the latest idea seems to be that a joint Government-Opposition group should visit Portuguese Timor, perhaps in late January.

The resolution adopted by the Caucus Committee also calls on the Government to confirm its commitment to self-determination in Portuguese Timor and expresses the belief that the Government should establish a diplomatic mission in Dili.

Each of these matters has been reviewed in a comprehensive paper just finalised in my Department and which includes a number of recommendations in regard to future policy in Timor.2 I have not yet had time to study the paper in detail. But briefly it concludes that Australia's interests would best be served by a policy of non-involvement in Portuguese Timor. It is not proposed that the Government should ignore or tum its back on the Timorese. But it is suggested that so far as possible in present circumstances Australia should resist being drawn, in a policy sense, into its problems. The paper also comes down in favour of avoiding an identification of Australian and Indonesian public attitudes on the Portuguese Timor issue. You are aware in this regard of reports suggesting that the Indonesians have been considering pre-emptive military action in Timor. While the latest reports provide a more reassuring picture of Indonesia's immediate intentions, I tend to agree with the paper that we must try to avoid any public impression of 'collusion' with Indonesia over Timor. Privately we should be trying to bring the Indonesians to accept that an independent Timor, if that is what it is to be, need not necessarily damage Indonesia's (or Australia's) interests.

The paper considers the possible disadvantages of a policy of non-involvement. These relate primarily to the situation in Portuguese Timor itself. Not only Horta but some other Timorese leaders are looking to Australia to provide some kind of balance to Indonesia. Australian reticence could only disappoint them, while denying us the opportunity of influencing the Timorese leaders away from harmful courses of action. Nevertheless, the paper concludes that, on balance, Australian interests would best be served by remaining politically detached from the problems of Timor so far as we are able, while keeping our options open and our policy under continuous review.

It is clear that, against this background, a visit by a joint Parliamentary delegation would be unwelcome in focusing public attention on the issue of Portuguese Timor and involving us more intimately in it. The attached 'list of disadvantages' covers the most obvious of these. My main concern is the possibility of damage that too forward an approach on Portuguese Timor might imply for Australian-Indonesian relations. We cannot, of course, allow Jakarta any kind of veto over our foreign policy, including our policy towards Timor. But nor should we allow our relations with Indonesia to be at the mercy of Mr Ramos Horta and his FRETILIN group.

I recognise the difficulties in trying to forestall the proposal for a visit. But I also believe that the effort should be made.

I am also concerned, although perhaps less so, about the proposal for re-establishing the Consulate in Dili. I believe this too could lead to pressures on us to involve ourselves more deeply in Portuguese Timor's problems than we should risk doing. I am not against the idea of a mission in Dili for all time. Circumstances may, and possibly will, change - and there may well be pressures of strictly consular work which might lead us to change our minds. But for the moment I feel we should stay our hand.

I should imagine that the foregoing would be in line with your own thinking on Portuguese Timor following your discussions with President Soeharto in Yogyakarta last September. It would be helpful to have your endorsement of the approach I am proposing, particularly on the question of the visiting mission.3


  1. It is quite clear that Horta wants to use the group's visit for his own political ends. In local eyes the visit of an Australian Parliamentary delegation under Horta's auspices would identify Australia as supporting his political party.
  2. Such a visit is itself likely to give an exaggerated impression of Australian interest in Portuguese Timor and will encourage those who see a 'fourth' solution for Portuguese Timor, that is to say, some form of association with Australia.
  3. Given the present lack of public support in Portuguese Timor for incorporation with Indonesia, together with Horta's anti-Indonesian outlook, it is to be expected that the visit of the delegation will be used to heighten feeling against Indonesia in the territory and, I should think, also to promote anti-Indonesian attitudes among members of the delegation.
  4. On the return of the delegation to Australia we could expect public statements which could reflect the anti-Indonesian impressions members might have gained in Portuguese Timor. These will make the conduct of our relations with Indonesia more difficult than the problem of Portuguese Timor in itself might otherwise make them.
  5. It would be likely to lead to pressure for us to open a mission in Dili and to take the initiative to embark on a direct bilateral aid program in Portuguese Timor, both of which would be against our policy interests in the territory.
  6. I think we should be concerned to avoid outside interference in Portuguese Timor. A visit by a joint Parliamentary delegation would be the most substantial external incursion into Portuguese Timor, apart from Santos's visit there, in recent years. Would it not encourage others?
  7. Sovereignty in Portuguese Timor remains with Portugal. It is not for Horta or any other local leader to invite a Parliamentary delegation from Australia. (The Government, in my view, would only wish to consider the idea of a Parliamentary mission to Portuguese Timor if an invitation were forthcoming from the Portuguese authorities in Lisbon.)

[NAA: AI0463, 801/13/11/1, iv]