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 The Vietnamese troops garrisoned in the country for a decade had been withdrawn the previous year, and with the sudden dissolution of the eastern bloc, foreign aid to Hun Sen’s nominally socialist government had quickly dried up.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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