The Skull Beneath the Skin

Created by Peter Nicholson (

Created by Peter Nicholson

By Margo Kingston
10 May 2013

In his Cry, Freedom speech this week, Shadow Attorney General George Brandis said this:

‘But at least the debates about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which we have seen in the past couple of years, have been a sharp reminder to the Liberal Party of its historic mission. For in the freedom wars, there has been only one party which has stood steadfastly on the side of freedom.’

@NoFibs has disproved this claim – indefensible given the Howard Government’s record – in several pieces which detail just some of the relentless assaults on free speech and political freedom by the Howard Government. At all times Brandis was a member of Howard’s team, and a minister in the late years. See our ‘You must remember this, George’ archive.

A new chapter in the 2007 update of my book told the saddest, baddest, meanest story of the Howard Government’s intolerance for free speech which disagreed with it. It’s hard to believe unless you are cognisant of the anti-free speech values of neo-liberalism (see the IPA philosophical rationale in Howard’s blueprint for Abbott to stifle dissent )

In short, the Howard government signed a contract with a small East Timorese NGO to monitor human rights in local prisons. Before the contract, the group joined other local NGOs to sign a statement urging Australia to recognise international dispute settling bodies in the East Timor Sea oil dispute. When Downer was informed, he broke the contract and ordered his department to lie to the group about the reasons.

When the official told to lie, Peter Ellis, protested that this would breach the ethcial duties of public servants, his career was over.

Cry, Freedom.

The Skull Beneath the Skin

On 10 December 2004, the fifty-sixth anniversary of the world’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the horrors of  the  Second World War, Downer announced grants to ten NGOs in the Asia-Pacific. ‘Australia has a proud tradition of protecting and promoting human rights,’ he said. The Timorese NGO Forum Tau Matan would get a grant to ‘monitor and educate community groups and legal officials about prison conditions’.

Accordingly, on 25 January 2005, the senior AusAID diplomat in East Timor, Peter Ellis, made a written offer on Australia’s behalf of $65,830, which became a legally binding contract when Forum Tau Matan signed off on 22 February.

While organising local media coverage to hand over the cheque, Ellis saw the NGO statements on the internet. Acting on the orders he’d received when posted to Dili to note the Howard government’s ‘political sensitivities’ about funding NGOs, he scrupulously referred the statements to AusAID’s head office in Canberra. Downer was advised.

Downer hated NGO criticisms of Australia on the Timor Sea negotiations. In a BBC interview back in May 2004, he had complained of ‘hysterical and emotional and irrational claims’ and ‘a whole lot of emotional claptrap which is being pumped up through sort of left wing NGOs’. He meant Oxfam, which in the same month, on the second anniversary of independence, had released a report noting that ‘the Australian Government is reaping more than $1 million a day from oil fields in a disputed area of the Timor Sea that is twice as close to East Timor as it is to Australia . . . In total, Australia has received nearly ten times as much revenue from Timor Sea oil and gas than it has provided in aid to East Timor since 1999.

’In May 2005 Downer, responding to the information dutifully channelled by Ellis, ordered that Australia renege on the contract with Forum Tau Matan because it had signed the NGOs’ statements. In doing so, Australia broke its word and breached the law of contract and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

Ellis later recalled that: ‘I was pressured by some individuals, orally and in writing, to provide false reasons to Forum Tau Matan, and to – in effect – maintain a secret blacklist as the basis for future funding decisions. The apparent aim of this pressure was to reduce embarrassment to Australia (or to the Australian Government) from the true reasons emerging. When I objected on the grounds of the honesty requirements in the Australian Public Service (APS) Code of Conduct [and] the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) and the Financial Management and Accountability Acts – I was urged in writing not to raise the Code of Conduct [in discussions].’

Read chapter:

Read the new e-book intro from Still Not Happy, John here.

‘Still Not Happy, John!’ is published by Penguin.

Still Not Happy, John!

You can download it as an ebook by clicking here.

Margo’s ‘You must remember this, George’ reading list:

Howard’s blueprint for Abbott to stifle dissent

Brandis, free speech charlatan

Freedom Wars: The George Brandis speech

The Forgotten People

A day in the life of Our House under siege

Nazi Greens an enemy of democracy, government decrees

Brandis: Enemy of free speech, friend of false speech, on children overboard

@NoFibs Feature on ‘Brandis Remember This Freedom’

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  1. Joy Cooper says

    Alexander Downer was/is an arrogant, nasty POS who was a typical sleazy Liberal. Do remember the outrageous treatment the East Timorese people received regarding THEIR oil wealth & how Downer & Howard flimflammed them in the distribution of proceeds, of the oil in the Timor Sea, but did not know of the equally egregious treatment of the honourable Peter Ellis.

    Thank you for letting us know of this, Margo. These people never change, they just get worse. The future is frightening if the LNP get into power.

  2. Sandra Searle (@SandraSearle) says

    Have just purchased the EBook edition of Still Not Happy John. I intend to sit down & digest it and share it with as many people as I can. That way I can discuss (or argue) from a point of knowledge & truth.
    My admiration goes out to you Margo, you are like a dog with a bone when it comes to truth, justice & democratic principle. I only wish that there were more journalists out there who would start to come out of the woodwork, show some backbone & join the quest to stop this repugnant LOTO & his mob from getting into power in September. He doesn’t deserve to.

  3. Margo Correct me if I am wrong but I understood the reason Whitlam did not interfere with Timor because the Americans had decided that Indonesia would control Timor and west Papua is this belief incorrect.
    But there are other reasons for not getting involved with East Timor in 1975 because supply was being denied at the this time.
    If we look back in history we will see that America set the agenda for take over of countries like the resettlement of the Jews in Palestine.
    I would like to thank you for the historical record of these events as we will not learn of this from the media that are around today.

    PS was it true that the Americans supported Sukarno because they were afraid the Russians wanted to supply Indonesia with arms