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Chipping Away at Our National Blind-spots: The Vital Roles of the National Archives and Disposal Shops in Canberra

By Denis Bright

The National Archives (NAA) in Canberra has a vital role in the investigation of some of the controversial issues in Australian Foreign Policy. On 1 January 2018, the open access season should cover Commonwealth records extending to 1995 and Cabinet notebooks to 1983.

However, under Section 33 of the Archives Act 1983, some historical documents within the time span allowed for the selection of documents are still withheld. There are still concerns about the need to protect historical intelligence sharing or even sensitive financial dealings of the Commonwealth.

Protection of the reputation of predominantly LNP national governments may also be a factor in maintaining all this archival secrecy. It is a similar matter with the recent haul by the ABC of cabinet documents found in the two locked filing cabinets from a second-hand shop in Canberra.

Chipping Away at Historical Blind-spots

Let me share some of my own experiences with the perusal of historical documents to re-enforce all this fuss about guarding the secrets of our history.

Way back in 2012, I applied to the NAA for some key documents about Australia’s continued recognition of the Khmer Rouge during 1979-81. I wanted to access this historical material for coursework at the University of Queensland. Thinking that the application had been over-looked, I was pleasantly surprised to find a polite reply from the Declassification Unit at NAA in the mail. It was dated 2 January 2018.

I was offered six documents from far-off 1979. Two of the documents were still marked for partial release only. There is a right of appeal on this decision is available to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The cost would be close to two hundred dollars for the total digital order.

Surely this makes a farce of demands by Australian Conservatives for a more historically literate nation.

Are potential records of Prime Minister Lyon’s visits to Mussolini and Pope Pius XI fully opened? What of the infamous trading overtures by Robert Menzies to Japan in his capacity as Pig-Iron Bob? Was Robert Menzies official visit to Nazi Germany in 1938 encouraged by the British Foreign Office to generate a feed-back report to the heart of the Empire?

Closer to 1979, the long-saga of Australia’s involvement in Cambodia which was made possible by US inspired coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970. Here are some of the facts of the foreign policy problem as I see them in the absence of more open access to historical documents to justify my interest.

Australian Foreign Policy Towards Cambodia

Under the Guam Doctrine of 1969, President Nixon sought to transform the US Global Alliance into a shared partnership between willing states who were required to do more of the heavy-listing to achieve localized strategic outcomes.

The extent to which Australia offered direct military support to the Lon Nol Regime (1970-75) in the context of the Guam Doctrine is still unknown.

Prince Sihanouk formed a Cambodian government in exile and was sentenced to death in absentia by the Lon Nol regime in 1970 but survived to return to Cambodia after 1975.

Prior to the Cambodian coup, Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) had been king (1941-55), sometimes head of state, regent and even prime minister. Prince Sihanouk resisted attempts to join the US Global Alliance but still wanted co-operation with the US as an independent sovereign state that had negotiated its independence from France in 1953.

Prince Sihanouk faced earlier attempted coups as far-back as 1958 with the support of Thailand, South Vietnam and the US Government itself.

This low-level file was cleared for release to an applicant in 1991. It is currently available online from the NAA at no cost to other users.

While the file contains no reference to the attempted coup in Cambodia, it does suggest that Australia played an ethical role in the difficult relationships between South Vietnam and Cambodia.



Our goodwill assisted in cooling border intrusions by the South Vietnamese Military against Cambodia and fostered the release of Cambodian prisoners taken in these intrusions.

Australia’s even-handedness may have been compromised in later years, but these potential changes must be assessed with fuller documentary evidence. Perhaps the documents released in 1991 released to satisfy readers on a fools’ errands.

Opening the later files can also assist in deconstructing Australia’s responses during the Vietnam War Era.

The intrigues continued after the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Following ongoing skirmishes between Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam mounted a full-scale offensive against its socialist neighbour on 21 December 1978. Vietnamese forces had occupied Phnom Penh in early 1979.

A Cambodian government, sympathetic to Vietnam, was installed with Heng Samrin as Head of State and Pen Sovan as Secretary of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party.

The reputation of the Khmer Rouge Government after 1975 had been destroyed by some of the worst human rights atrocities in the history of humanity. Alas, Western governments continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge when it lost control of almost all areas in Cambodia after the Vietnamese military intervention.

The remnants of the Khmer Rouge continued to hold remote sections of Kampuchea with the support of some anti-Vietnamese resistance forces.

As the first anniversary of President Reagan’s inauguration approaches in January 1982, the US continued to recognise the Pol Pot Regime. This invited protests from prominent political and cultural leaders across the USA.

To his credit, LNP Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock argued for the de-recognition of the Khmer Rouge in a Cabinet Submission in mid-1980. Australia broke with the US under the Reagan Administration (1981-89) in de-recognizing the Khmer Rouge Regime in February 1981.

Tensions within the Fraser Cabinet on management of the Cambodian challenge may have prompted the resignation of Andrew Peacock as Foreign Minister. He was replaced by Tony Street on 3 November 1980 just after the surprisingly close 1980 national elections.

As foreign ministers, Bill Hayden and later Gareth Evans proved that Australia could play an independent role for Australian sovereignty within the US Global Alliance. Gareth Evans would tackle great challenges relating to the achievement of closure in Indochina in the post-Vietnam War era with Australia’s proactive involvement in Cambodian peace settlement.

All this secrecy seems to be an overkill after forty years. Documents from Prime Minister Fraser’s Office of National Assessment (ONA) do not seem to make it onto the NAA’s digital catalogue.

Let’s hope that a new generation of national leaders will reappraise the restrictions embedded into the Archives Act 1983 from a Whitlamesque perspective as the more recent cabinet documents have been retrieved by a raid on ABC offices and put back under lock and key. Opportunities for recent insights into Australian politics have been lost for another generation.

Denis Bright is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.



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  1. Sarah

    Following the path of Whitlam, Hayden and Gareth Evans in foreign policy protects our national sovereignty. Today’s leaders should not be afraid to represent us independently on the world scene .

  2. Lalnama

    Excellent article, what little we know of what actually happens in our world.
    We must as a people and therefore our government who represents us hold some moral ground for humanity and just not be a yes person to the USA
    The Australian government would be better at their job if they held their own citizens in higher regard

  3. Paul

    Thanks Denis! Great insights on such an important topic!

    Transparency and accountability go hand in hand. With some very limited exceptions, I can’t see how you can accountability without transparency.

    Open transparency promotes and reinforces accountability at every moment and leads to better outcomes and decisions in current time.

  4. Patricia

    Denis, thank you for your interesting insights and perspectives on the National Archives in Canberra in respect to Australia’s involvement in the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia. There is a delicate balance between protection of national sovereignty and transparency of government practices.

  5. Pat

    I agree Paul – accountability and transparency are important

  6. John

    Patricia – I agree that it is a delicate balance. On review of the recent media is appears that the abc was quite careful and conservative in their approach with the release of the documents.

  7. Rubio@Coast

    All this national secrecy keeps people scared and they are more likely to turn to the Liberals or other far-right parties as a result. Labor must champion progressive change to improve its primary vote. Relying on Green preferences has its limits.

  8. Tessa

    Great to find AIM Network so up to date with its commentaries.

  9. James Robo

    Interesting read particularly given recent events in Canberra.

  10. Rubio@Coast

    A legal friend discussed the raid on the ABC offices in three states possibly by ASIO personnel. Do these spooks need a warrant or can they do as they please and enter premises at 1 am? The mainstream media has not given enough attention to this abuse of power at the behest of our political leaders.

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