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Deja vu for Timor as Turnbull neglects boundary talks

  • 21 March 2016


When Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister six months ago, our Timorese neighbours thought there might be an opportunity to draw a line on the past and to kick start the negotiation of a permanent maritime boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste. For the moment, they find themselves sadly mistaken.

Rui Maria de Araujo, the fairly new prime minister of Timor-Leste, wrote to our very new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull inviting him to turn a new leaf in the Australia-Timor relationship. It was not to be.

However the Timorese should not lose heart. They are well used to winning the hearts and minds of Australians even when Australian political leaders appear to be tone deaf to their pleas. This time they have convinced the Labor Party about the justice of their cause, and there is every chance that the Australian community will rally behind them after the federal election.

Behind the scenes, there is still plenty of legal intrigue about Australia's 2004 bugging of the Timor cabinet offices during the negotiation of CMATS, the most recent treaty delaying the negotiation of a permanent maritime boundary. 

Australia has refused to issue a passport to the ex-ASIS officer, 'Witness K', who was involved in the bugging and who is happy to give evidence for the Timorese before an international tribunal. It would be best for both sides if the neighbour's dirty laundry were not put on public display.

Under CMATS, the two countries agreed to put the negotiation of a permanent maritime boundary on hold for up to 50 years. The hope was that a business plan for the exploitation of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas deposit in the contested Timor Sea could be finalised within six years and the mining completed before the need to negotiate a maritime boundary.

This was not to be. It is now nine years since CMATS came into effect and there is still no prospect of an agreed business plan.


"Turnbull will have to stop preaching on the South China Sea if he is not prepared to act in the Timor Sea."


The Timorese have a sense of deja vu with Australian politics. Back in 2002, the Howard Liberal-National Party Government decided to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in relation to the determination of maritime boundaries. The Labor Party in opposition was not able to commit to a reversal of that decision.

When Howard's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer then rushed the