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Solidarity In Good Moments And Bad

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Member for Solomon Luke Gosling recognising 21 years since The International Force East Timor (INTERFET) in Darwin recently. INTERFET was a multinational non-United Nations peacemaking taskforce, organised and led by Australia in accordance with United Nations resolutions to address the humanitarian and security crisis that took place in East Timor from 1999–00 until the arrival of UN peacekeepers. (supplied)

Bai bom tuek, ton tolik tane is a Tetum proverb that means "solidarity in good moments and bad".

It clearly captures the intense loyalty that binds the Australian and Timorese people, one that was forged on the emaciated backs of Australian 2/2ndCommandos and the local Timorese 'criados' who carried their kit, scavenged for food, and helped them survive for a year as they waged a guerrilla-style war against the Japanese in 1942.

We inflicted a disproportionate number of casualties and kept an entire division of the Japanese army tied up and away from the Papua New Guinea theatre of war. We were hugely outnumbered, and occasionally resupplied from Darwin, but we chiefly got by thanks to the local Timorese.

This incredible relationship inspired me to join the Australian commandos and also to work to repay the debt of honour between our countries. I served in the Australian Army as part of the parachute infantry and in the commandos and worked in Timor-Leste as an adviser to the Timor-Leste Defence Force.

In 2002, I travelled to Timor-Leste to shoot a documentary called "A Debt of Honour".

While there, I found the newly independent citizens radiating hope for the future, despite horrific scenes of village upon village reduced to burned-out shells and rubble by decades of brutal fighting and the devastation that followed the independence ballot.

I distinctly remember staying with ADF troops at Balibo Fort, the same hilltop town where five young Australian newsmen were killed by Indonesian forces in 1975—forty-five years ago this month—during the invasion of Timor. Local villagers shared their perspectives on this incident, which made me want to honour these slain Australian and New Zealand journalists.

I founded a not-for-profit organisation Life, Love, and Health, which ran development projects including raising money for the Balibo House Trust. After years of hard work, the house where the Balibo Five stayed has been renovated and includes a museum. The trust does incredible work to develop the local economy through education, training, and tourism. A living memorial.

Even though the bonds between ordinary Australians and Timorese have never wavered, Australian governments have regularly deviated sharply from a policy of "solidarity in good moments and bad".  Some of the first people I met in Timor-Leste were independence leader and former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmão, his wife Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, and Xanana’s highly competent and committed legal adviser, former Australian politician Bernard Collaery, with whom I stayed in Dili.

Recently, Bernard was back in a Canberra court. He’s being prosecuted by the Commonwealth for allegedly conspiring with Witness K, who is also being prosecuted, to illegally obtain classified information to advantage Timor-Leste over Australia during maritime border negotiations with large commercial implications.

I can’t comment on details of the case, because the matter is before the courts. But beyond the case, which has stirred up a lot of hurt for many Timorese and Australians alike, the bigger picture is that this Government has missed an opportunity to put old ghosts to rest for good.

In choosing to prosecute Collaery and Witness K, Attorney-General Christian Porter decided in six months to do what his predecessor, George Brandis, chose not to do in his entire term. But the reasons for prosecuting these two Australians—the real reasons—are crucial details this Government is being uncharacteristically silent about.

Mr Porter is yet to provide a detailed explanation for his decision to prosecute Witness K and Collaery, to spell out why this action is in the public interest. If the Government really cares about transparency and accountability, there’s a very easy place to start: just be upfront with Australians. They can handle it.

I hope the Government lifts its increasingly tightening gag on journalists (while cutting their jobs), public servants, and whistle-blowers, but I’m not holding my breath. By all accounts, the Abbott Government’s anti-transparency instincts have only toughened under Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

All Australians value the rule of law as one of the pillars of our democracy. Naturalised citizens swear to uphold our laws. Our soldiers swear to defend them when they enlist. But there are limits to how far you can push an unquestioning law-abiding attitude in a free society.

Laws don’t always equate justice. When a law is unjust, free citizens have a right—in fact, a duty—to dissent, to protest, to organise, and to express their will at the ballot box. And if any of them are accused of breaking the law, they have the right to an open trial, which also exists to protect our legal system from becoming simply a politicised kangaroo court.

The Law Council has reminded the Government that open justice is a basic rule of our society. It said that the law Collaery is accused of breaking stacks the deck against "the rights of the accused".

I’m not a lawyer, but as a democrat I’ll continue to watch this case closely, because I believe the Washington Post’s arresting motto is true on both sides of the Pacific: "Democracy dies in darkness".

Luke Gosling is the Federal Labor Member for Solomon in the Northern Territory.

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