on this day

Gareth Evans on Cambodia: “For fuck’s sake”

Evans channels Clay Davis

Evans channels Clay Davis

On this day in 1990, not unlike many days before and since, Gareth Evans dropped an f-bomb. While hardly out of character for the notoriously potty-mouthed former foreign minister, this particular utterance of every Australian’s second-favourite four-letter word bears the laudable distinction of being the first time its use was recorded in the Hansard of the Australian Senate.¹

Evans had risen half an hour earlier to discuss ceasefire negotiations in the Cambodian civil war—an interminable, four-faction conflict which had been raging since the Khmer Rouge were expelled from Phnom Penh in 1979. The Vietnamese troops garrisoned in the country for a decade had been withdrawn the previous year, and with the sudden dissolution of the eastern bloc, foreign aid to Hun Sen’s nominally socialist government had quickly dried up. Khmer Rouge troops had advanced into the provinces to the north and west of Phnom Penh, and another invasion of the capital now appeared to be on the cards.

Well-credentialed on matters of international diplomacy, Liberal Senator Robert Hill was one of the leading members of his party’s moderate faction, at a time when there was such a thing. With the Labor Party barely scraping back into government earlier in the year with less than 50 percent of the two-party preferred vote, he could have reasonably expected to be foreign minister after the next election, which even by then was shaping up as an inevitable Labor rout.

Evans had been deferring questions on Cambodia for weeks, assuring the Senate that the government’s position would be put to the parliament on this date. Now that Evans had spoken, Hill was unimpressed. When he rose shortly after 5pm he began to excoriate the minister, accusing the government of failing to account for the strategic advantages of the Khmer Rouge and not doing enough to prevent the rehabilitation of Pol Pot.² Now, in Hill’s eyes, Evans was softening up the public for a policy change, after spending the year insisting that a ceasefire agreement would be concluded by the end of December.

A clearly exasperated Evans began interjecting more frequently from the other side of the chamber, denying that his policy had rested on the assumption that the Khmer Rouge would genuinely participate in a ceasefire agreement and an eventual election. When Hill began reeling off accusations that the Chinese government was continuing to provide military hardware, Evans finally blew his stack:

HILL
We have been disturbed by the allegations that they have now been provided with tanks by China. I see that the Minister in his statement today refutes the fact, indicating that Australian intelligence sources now doubt whether tanks have been supplied. That is interesting—it is the first I have heard of it—because it was reported not in any rag but in Jane’s Defence Weekly—

EVANS
For fuck’s sake.

HILL
For what?

Senator Terry AULICH (Acting Deputy President)
Minister!

HILL
For what?

AULICH
Order! I ask the Minister to withdraw that.

EVANS
For goodness sake.

AULICH
I ask the Minister to withdraw that comment.

EVANS
It is not on the record.

AULICH
I am afraid it is, and I ask the Minister to withdraw it. The speaker responded, it was most disorderly, and I ask you to withdraw any intemperate statement.

EVANS
Of course I withdraw it.

HILL
I think it is probably unprecedented in the history of this place.

EVANS
Well, what a monstrous piece of nonsense—

In Evans’s defence, the allegation that post-Tiananmen China was supplying tanks to the Khmer Rouge was total bullshit, the estimable reputation of Jane’s notwithstanding. Evans and Hill were still sniping at each other from across the chamber after the latter resumed his seat at quarter to six, with Aulich cutting off the next speaker to admonish them both at length.

It wasn’t until 1992 that a ceasefire was agreed upon and peacekeepers were sent in to oversee the following year’s elections, which the Khmer Rouge ultimately boycotted as expected. All in all, the blue helmets did a reasonable job in Cambodia—at least when compared to their other unfortunate forays into conflict resolution that decade³—even if we concede that Cambodia’s HIV infection rates went from zero to the highest in Southeast Asia when the arrival of UN soldiers prompted a boom in the sex trade.

The Khmer Rouge were still at it after the UN packed up in 1995, at one point taking Siem Reap, Battambang, the area around Kampot and the highway to the country’s only port in Sihanoukville. Soon the competing factions of the doomed CPP-Funcinpec governing coalition started buying off rival cadre leaders, prompting a coup that obliterated the royalist party and dispatched their supporters in the senior ranks of the military to mass graves. The extrajudicial killings from this time have never been properly investigated. Reduced to a few malnourished true believers on the Thai border, Pol Pot was drumhead court-martialled and maybe-probably murdered in 1999, and the jape was up.

Hill never did rise to the foreign ministry. The portfolio instead became the consolation prize of Adelaide’s most ridiculous bunyip aristocrat, in exchange for graciously stepping down from the Liberal leadership and clearing John Howard’s run to the 1996 election. Back in government, Hill was presented with the same choice put to what was by then the leftover rump of the Liberal Party’s moderate wing: renunciation or the backbenches. His time as defence minister during Dick Cheney’s resource war was rewarded with a posting to the United Nations, where one of his last acts as Australian representative was to fall asleep during a General Assembly speech by Kevin Rudd.

1. Technically, there were earlier recorded instances, but these were all clinical uses in relation to discussion of censorship laws. It only counts if you drop one off the cuff, says I.
2. This is a little cute. The last Coalition government, of which Hill was a member, continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia until the beginning of 1981, well after the atrocities of the previous decade had come to light. It was Andrew Peacock as foreign minister who brought about a policy change by threatening to resign from cabinet—ostensibly a human rights crusade, in reality part of a wider effort to position himself as the next Liberal leader.
3. Srebrenica isn’t a byword for classic Balkan architecture, after all.

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from the memory hole

Gareth Evans on the Deng Xiaoping diet: “Four puppies a day”

Like all Norfolk Terriers, we can safely assume the governor's dog sported the "old man sitting on a park bench while lost in his own memories" face

Like all Norfolk Terriers, we can safely assume the Patten family dog sported the “old man sitting on a park bench while lost in his own memories” face

 

Ask anyone who knows: dogs are tasty as heck. I am a product of western taboos, I count several handsome dogs among my friends, and I probably wouldn’t get stuck into a plate of what the Chinese fondly refer to as “earth mutton” under ordinary circumstances—at least any more than I already have. I was also born into a generation that usually has the sense to avoid theorising about the provenance of certain meat dishes at certain Footscray restaurants. Apparently, the same cannot be said for Australia’s former foreign minister.

By the early ’90s, Gareth Evans had already cemented his reputation as a sweary-mouthed headkicker. Word had leaked to the press about his office tantrums, and his propensity for throwing ashtrays and office stationery at ministerial staff. Contemporary press reports insinuated that he was off his face after negotiating the Timor Gap treaty with his Indonesian counterpart in 1988. His record in office is mixed,¹ but his charms, his wit and his sex appeal were formidable and remain celebrated.

In his parliamentary career, Chris Patten ate shit sandwiches for a living. Elevated to the British cabinet a decade into Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Patten was the public face of the poll tax, the ferocious public opposition to which precipitated the Iron Lady’s downfall. Her successor appointed him to oversee the 1992 election campaign; the increasingly clapped-out Conservative Party was reelected (topical!) but Patten lost his seat.

Had he held on, Patten would’ve likely been Britain’s next foreign minister. His consolation prize was a patronage appointment, three months after the election, as Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong—a role usually reserved for career diplomats. By all accounts, his media profile, fondness for urban strolls and abandonment of some of the stuffier conventions of protocol initially made him and his family popular figures among both the Sino-British commercial elite and the wider public.

In November, Evans was invited to discuss the future of the city with Patten, as the UK prepared to cede its last Asian dependency to Beijing. The day before his arrival, the Patten family lost their seven-month-old puppy, a diminutive Norfolk Terrier by the name of Soda. Patten, his wife Lavender, and their two daughters frantically searched the neighbourhood for hours, to no avail, and the family soon appealed for public assistance in the doghunt.

Evans was informed by the staff at Government House that the Patten family were in great distress over Soda’s disappearance. Following a press conference, he brought up the subject of the missing pup at a hobnob with local journalists, offering this theory on her whereabouts:

“The governor’s dog is probably a supreme delicacy. They’ll turn it into hors d’oeuvres for Deng Xiaoping—who, I’m told, eats four puppies a day.”

Evans’ insights into the culinary habits of China’s paramount leader were dutifully reported in the South China Morning Post and made their way back to Australia in time for his return to parliament.

The Labor government had spent much of its time in office using accusations of racism as a cudgel with which to beat the opposition; now the Liberals must have thought that the boot was on the other foot. Evans thought otherwise. When Liberal senators began to assail him in a Senate estimates hearing, he began to rail against the “breach of faith” arising from the publication of what he claimed were off-the-record comments, and insisted that an apology to Beijing was unwarranted:

“Someone at that stage made a tasteless remark—to coin a phrase—about the likely attractiveness of the Governor’s dog to those who might be minded to embark on some exercise in Cantonese cuisine as a result. I responded to that particular sally by saying that in fact I had heard in gossip in Beijing that Deng Xiaoping, who is a Sichuanese and for whom dog is a delicacy, did have some culinary tastes of that kind… It is not a matter of apologising to the Chinese because nothing has been said by me in any context that justifies an apology.”²

Indeed, no one in Beijing or Hong Kong—or elsewhere in Australia, for that matter—seemed altogether bothered by his remarks. The Chinese embassy in Canberra declared that it was “unable to comment on Mr Deng’s culinary habits, but four puppies a day seems a little excessive.” Patten called Evans “a very good friend to Hong Kong.” Rob Sitch paid homage to the incident in the opening minutes of that weekend’s edition of The Late Show:

…but the opposition had other, pointier sticks to beat the government with in the lead-up to the next election, and the incident was soon forgotten.

Evans and Patten evidently continued to hold each other in reasonable regard. The governor’s esteem in Hong Kong plummeted dramatically after he extended the country’s democratic franchise, earning him the title of “Whore of the East” in China’s state press and a stiff reception from the city’s British banking circles, who reliably privileged commerce over popular will. When Patten travelled to Australia in 1994, Evans expressed admiration for his reforms and received a public slap from Beijing in return.

At that time, the biggest shit sandwich of Patten’s career was still many years to come. Appointed BBC Trust chairman after the Conservative Party returned to office in 2010, he was the public face of the broadcaster when the Jimmy Saville scandal broke. The long-suffering Patten retired shortly thereafter; his legacy lives on in Hong Kong, where he did perhaps more than any other person to embolden the city’s democrats.

Soda was found by morning joggers four days after she disappeared. She was returned to a grateful Lavender Patten.

 

1. “An aberration, not an act of state policy.”
2. Less convincing was his rebuttal to another quote in the same SCMP article, in which he characterised the current battles withing the Chinese politburo as a process of “kicking against the Marxist pricks”. He claimed that his words were inspired by Biblical phraseology and proceeded to quote from Acts 5:9. (“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”)

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