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Let's be good neighbours with Timor

  • 21 May 2014

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining Timor Leste’s erstwhile First Lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao and the Timorese ambassador Abel Guterres (pictured) at a public meeting at the Mary MacKillop Centre in Sydney, convened by long time campaigners Sister Susan Connelly and Tom Clarke from the Timor Sea Justice Campaign.  

The message was simple: 'A fair go for East Timor'.  The lecture hall was full to capacity with Australians concerned about the decency of our dealings with the Timorese over the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

In 2006, Australia and Timor Leste signed the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS).  The treaty came into force early in 2007 with a provision requiring the submission and approval of an appropriate development plan for the Greater Sunrise oil and gas deposit within six years.  The treaty was finalised at a time of considerable political instability in Timor.  It was not subject to the usual treaty review processes by the Australian Parliament, there being bipartisan criticism of Alexander Downer’s wanton haste to grab a small window of opportunity for implementation of the treaty.  In exchange for an increased share of the upstream revenue flow from any Sunrise development (increased from 18 per cent to 50 per cent), Timor agreed to Australia’s demand that we put boundary negotiations on hold for 50 years.  

Timor Leste already receives a steady revenue flow from the development of the Bayu Undan oil and gas field in the Timor Sea.  With this revenue, Timor has the money to employ the very best international lawyers to advise on boundary delimitation.  These lawyers think that Timor has a very strong case for establishing that the whole of Sunrise would fall within the Timor jurisdiction.  Equally, Australia’s lawyers continue to argue Sunrise is located under the Australian continental shelf, and that even if there be agreement on a median line between Australia and Timor, there would be little prospect of Timor getting any more than 20 per cent of the upstream revenue flow.  

A year ago, the joint venturers for the Sunrise project submitted their development proposal for a floating natural gas facility (FLNG), avoiding the need to pipe the gas to either Darwin or Timor.  The Timorese leadership are not interested in an FLNG proposal which would yield no significant downstream revenue, would contribute nothing to the development of infrastructure in Timor, and