Grubby oil grab that left a tiny country gasping

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Shakedown: Australia's grab for Timor Oil, by Paul Cleary. Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2007. ISBN 9781741149265. RRP $29.95

Shakedown: Australia's grab for Timor's oilUgly. Rapacious. Bruising and governed by the narrowest definitions of national interest. These are a few of the descriptions that spring to mind after reading this devastating portrait of Australia’s negotiations over oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.

A thorough account of foreign policy thinking in the 1970s demonstrates how, early on in the piece, the Timor Sea influenced Australia’s overall position on Timor. Indeed, just days after a 1974 coup in Portugal, officials in Canberra were arguing that Australia would get a better deal on a maritime boundary if Indonesia controlled Timor, rather than an independent Timor or its colonial power, Portugal.

Similarly, in 1978, then foreign minister Andrew Peacock announced that Australia was formally accepting East Timor as part of Indonesia. This paved the way for a formal recognition of Indonesia’s occupation. In the words of the author of this book, "the only reason for this speedy decision, was the seabed and boundary, which of course meant oil". 

The well-researched first third of the book shows Australia’s Timor tragedy, and the part oil and gas resources played in it, to be a substantial foreign policy edifice built up over decades. But the real cut and thrust of the story comes post-1999.

In January 2000 the retreating Indonesians had levelled Timor’s capital Dili so comprehensively that a team of visiting Australia diplomats had to book a negotiating room on a cruise ship in Dili harbour. Accommodation aside, they lost no time trying to convince the Timorese that they should accept the Timor Gap Treaty. This Treaty, which Australia had spent 10 years pursuing with Indonesia, would have given Timor just 20 per cent share of the known resources on its side of the Timor Sea.

At this point in the book and at many others, it beggars belief that none of the Australian diplomats and foreign affairs officials sent to negotiate with Timor were troubled by Australia’s stance.

One notable exception is former DFAT staffer Bruce Haigh, whose analysis of the Australia-Indonesia-Timor nexus is particularly insightful. The 'big lie', that nothing untoward was happening in Timor during Indonesia’s occupation poisoned us, he says. "It had an effect on the ethics of this country. You see it being played out in the daily deniability games of Howard, and the federal public service".

Shakedown: Australia's grab for Timor oilWhile this is overall a compelling read, the technical detail about what was on the table at different stages of the negotiations can be difficult to digest.

This was, after all, a complicated and protracted dispute and its very nature played into Australia’s hands. The detail was difficult for the Australian public to digest and Australia’s team, too, was vastly more qualified at this sort of negotiations.

Certainly in the early stages, Timor had to rely heavily on foreign consultants. Some of these hired guns were incredibly committed, others bewilderingly ignorant of Timor.

High-profile negotiator Peter Galbraith, the son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, was both a blessing and a curse for Timor. While his stature and force of personality initially made a good battering ram for Timor, he was notably absent from later negotiations. One gets the sense that he rallied to the fight at first, but then as the negotiations wore on, he tired of them.

If Galbraith was a sprinter, then the former Timorese Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri comes across as pure, disciplined, distance runner.

On the Timor Sea, Alkatiri was a dogged and formidable foe for the Australians and for his trouble, he earned some extraordinarily hostile treatment. Cleary says the Australian government so disliked him that when the treaty was finally ready in 2006, Australia suggested that the foreign ministers of each country sign the deal, in the presence of their prime ministers, in order to avoid having Alkatiri sign it with Howard

This final agreement — the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea — was a success for Timor, in that it was able to claw back a better share of resources. Timor’s resource share rose from 22 per cent to 60 per cent and revenue increased from 8.4 billion dollars to 24 billion dollars over the lifetime of the resources.

But from the disputed BCL fields, Timor gained nothing. These are the same fields from which Australia, since 1999, had been reaping $1 million per day.

And this Treaty did not close the Timor Gap. Timor still does not have a permanent maritime boundary with Australia. The agreement "as far as maritime rights were concerned, succeeded in going back to the time when Indonesia occupied Timor," says Cleary.

There are two things in this admirable account I would take issue with. Cleary argues that post-independence, the Timorese ruling elite visited a type of Animal Farm upon their people. This is a harsh assessment. I would argue that the failures of the first independence government were predominantly born of inexperience and a lack of good accountability mechanisms, rather than greed and pure self-interest.

The other is that, in conclusion, as Cleary quotes Peter Andren MP saying, "[it is] not too long a bow to draw to say that the deal that has been struck is instrumental in fomenting the current situation in Timor-Leste".

I think it is too long a bow to draw. The most appalling thing about these negotiations is not that they fomented the 2006 civil unrest in Timor, but that they amounted to daylight robbery, pure and simple, of a poor neighbour.

 

Recent articles by Christine Kearney.

What it feels like to have to run

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks for the review of the book which I must read. I felt really angry about how Australian officials have betrayed a core value of justice, especially to such a tiny impoverished nation. For years I have taken a great interest in Timor Leste, worked with Timorese students and have many friends currently working there, often at significant personal sacrifice. I am so ashamed of those Australian negotiators who have deprived the Timorese people of their just benefits - and debased Australia's good name(?) as a caring country.
Kevin Treston | 14 June 2007


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