Multiple sources, including one who worked on the volume, said the government wanted major changes to the draft to water down revelations about the actions of Australian officials and the Indonesian military during the deployment in 1999 and 2000.
As written, the history could anger the Indonesians and humiliate senior Australian bureaucrats “who in hindsight look overly accommodating of Indonesia and its actions”, according to an academic source with knowledge of the project.
“It counteracts the triumphant post-event narrative and it shows some unpleasant truths. There is concern about just how brutal and frank the judgments are on what transpired,” the source said.
“Craig is a historian with a reputation for integrity and he is not prepared … to mince words.”
Another source suggested the government was worried the publication might dissuade Indonesia from co-operating in efforts to tackle people smuggling.
A DFAT spokesperson said the department had worked with the War Memorial on the project since 2016, providing access to its classified records and making its staff available for interview.
“We have provided comments to the War Memorial and will continue to engage constructively on all the Official History volumes,” the spokesperson said.
The official history of East Timor operations was commissioned by Mr Abbott in 2015 along with other volumes covering Australia’s operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. The 2015 budget contained almost $13 million for the project.
Professor Stockings – who served in the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) deployment in 1999-2000 as a junior officer – was appointed as official historian the following year, by which time Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister.
At the time, War Memorial director and former defence minister Brendan Nelson said of the appointment: “As Australians, we are fortunate to live in a free society, with a stable government and a privileged way of life. It is these very freedoms that the servicemen and servicewomen who represented us in Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor served to protect. For that, we must honour them, and this official history series, led by Dr Stockings, will do just that.”
Asked about the conflict with the government regarding the East Timor project, Dr Nelson said he had “no comment to make”. Professor Stockings was also approached for comment.
Brad Manera, senior historian at the Anzac Memorial in Sydney, said he had no direct knowledge of the project’s current status but Professor Stockings and his team were “historians that Australia can be proud of”.
“So if they’re being censored there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we as Australians relate to the truth and the past,” he said.
“There’s absolutely no doubt they want the story to be told in a way that does our veterans proud but also does not censor the way we see ourselves.”
September marked the 20-year anniversary of INTERFET’s deployment to East Timor, commanded by then major general Sir Peter Cosgrove, prior to the arrival of United Nations peacekeepers.
Researchers had access to highly-classified documents including transcripts of meetings with the Indonesians and East Timoreans. They interviewed Australian departmental staff and Indonesian generals, among others.
Emeritus Professor of history Peter Dennis, who said he edited parts of the volume but had no involvement in or knowledge of its status, noted the publication was lengthy and government approvals often took a long time.
He said projects of this nature regularly diverted from what was originally expected. “Any history that anyone writes – it doesn’t always turn out the way people expect it to, in any situation.”
Mr Abbott declined to comment. Last month, Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester announced Mr Abbott’s appointment to the Australian War Memorial’s governing council, filling a vacancy left by the death of acclaimed author, historian and former editor of The Age, Les Carlyon.
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.