Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Timor-Leste's missing oil millions



Julie Bishop was all smiles in New York on the afternoon of 7 March 2018, as she signed the historic maritime boundary treaty between Australia and Timor-Leste — officially bringing to an end decades of dispute over the ownership of multi-billion-dollar oil and gas reserves buried in the Timor Sea, closing the door on a bitter and embarrassing part of Australia's history, and ushering in what she'd later call 'a new chapter' for the neighbouring countries' beleaguered relationship.

Jose Ramos Horta, his face half in shadow. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)In Dili at the end of July — on her first and only visit to Timor-Leste as Foreign Minister — Bishop told a press conference she'd tabled the treaty in Australian Parliament, and it was 'her hope' that it would be ratified by the end of the year.

Fifteen months on from its signing, the treaty remains unratified — and Australia consequently continues to draw millions of dollars per month from a 10 per cent share in a field found to belong entirely to Timor-Leste.

The Timor-Leste Governance Project estimates that field could have generated $60 million over the preceding 12 months. Australia will provide $95.7 million in foreign aid to Timor-Leste between 2018 and 2019. Technically, we don't owe that $60 million to Timor-Leste. There's no legal right in the treaty for either country to claim compensation for lost revenue from the Timor Sea.

But Australia's role in Timor-Leste's historic and hard-won independence 20 years ago this August burnished our reputation as a beatific big brother — a reputation until now unmarred, despite decades of those fractious Timor Sea negotiations, allegations of our spying and serious accusations of collusion. For years, we've positioned ourselves as an international champion of moral righteousness, of sovereignty and of self-determination, and as Timor-Leste's liberator. But we can't have it both ways. Taking unearned Timor Sea wealth is another in a long line of Australia's failure to do the right thing by Timor-Leste.

John Howard calls the Australian-led liberation of Timor-Leste one of our most noble acts of foreign policy this century — the peacekeeping part; not the preceding 30 years of heavy-handed economic encroachment in the Timor Sea. Our delay in ratifying the boundary treaty and our refusal to commit to repaying that unearned money is squarely at odds with how we think of ourselves in this story. And it's unconscionably in breach of our moral duty to do the right thing by a neighbour.

In April the Guardian ran an exclusive stating Australia was accused of 'siphoning' millions in Timor-Leste oil revenue from the Timor Sea; an amount the paper said was more than we'd given Timor-Leste in foreign aid. Australia remains Timor-Leste's largest, most financially generous and most important aid and development partner, and many Australian-funded projects provide significant and much-needed support and opportunities to Timor-Leste. 


"We're more concerned with excuses than with fronting up and admitting to ripping off Timor-Leste — again."


But it's laughable to say we're concerned with Timor-Leste's prosperity if we're committed to scraping from its vaults more money than we give in foreign aid; to say we're for its stability when we're eroding a fragile economy's ability to reinvest its resource wealth into education, health and agriculture; to champion regional security when we're risking a generation of economic refugees with few job prospects at home and an in-fighting government. We're more concerned with excuses than with fronting up and admitting to ripping off Timor-Leste — again.

Our history with Timor-Leste is long and chequered. We invaded the neutral territory of then-Portuguese Timor during World War II in an effort to stave off the Japanese. We fought bravely, and with crucial support from highly valued Timorese criado helpers — to whom we dropped 'we shall never forget you' flyers as we were evacuated to safety. 

After 1960s seabed negotiations with Indonesia proved favourable, we turned a blind eye as the country invaded a newly independent Timor-Leste, murdering hundreds of thousands of its citizens — thinking Indonesia would be an easier negotiating partner over the Timor Sea. 

And since Timor-Leste's independence, we've signed a series of Timor Sea agreements assuming we have a far greater claim to its wealth than prevailing international standards say. We've spied on the Timorese government and prosecuted those who told the truth. With the 2018 New York treaty signing, you may have thought the story was over; we'd now do the right thing. Julie Bishop said this was a new chapter. The end of the greed, the collusion, the spying, the lies.

Timor Sea Justice campaign spokesperson Tom Clarke told the ABC in April it's 'incredible to think what Australia has attempted to get away with. It's almost impossible to thing that we would treat another neighbour like New Zealand like this. It makes you think about why Australia has done this with one neighbour and not any other.'

Until now, we’ve believed our own story of Australia as Timor-Leste’s liberator. But until we loosen the economic restraints of the unratified maritime boundary treaty and its still-southward-flowing millions, Timor-Leste remains shackled — and our moral duty to do right by our neighbour remains ignored.



Sophie RaynorSophie Raynor is a freelance writer just returned home to Perth after two years living in Dili.

Main image: Jose Ramos Horta visits Sydney, Australia, in 2009. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Sophie Raynor, Timor Leste, Timor Sea, oil, Julie Bishop, John Howard



submit a comment

Existing comments

An extremely informative article, Sophie. Thank you. Confronting stuff.

Edward Fido | 11 June 2019  

An excellent article! My only slight quibble is with Tim Clarke’s assessment that Australia would treat other neighbours like NZ differently. Australia’s unilateral amendments to social security laws to exclude New Zealanders (to whom reciprocal rights had been granted under the TransTasman arrangements) is a long-standing bone of contention. This was followed up by subsequent restrictions or denials of service. A brief history of this rather shameful saga can be found here: https://theconversation.com/new-zealands-bondi-bludger-and-other-australian-myths-22391

Justin Glyn SJ | 11 June 2019  

Thank you for that sad information.. Until Australia admits it has a very sordid past, and is not that noble nation portrayed by some media and many politicians,it may never prosper, or be able to be a peaceful country... Thank you all journalists who write the truth...

Bernie | 12 June 2019  

Bravo... I suggest you also write an article for GLW... or maybe the Saturday Paper (not sure you can pick it up in Perth).

Stephen Langford | 12 June 2019  

Thank you ever so much for this important article, Sophie. Your sentiments echo those of many Australians who have been appalled at the way Australian governments have betrayed and attempted to cheat our East Timorese brothers and sisters and gallant WW2 allies out of their resources. I have been involved in East Timorese solidarity for about 43 years and know the dark history too well.only too well. It should be remembered that the East Timorese bled mightily for Australia during WW2. Out of a total population of 500,000, about 70,000 Timorese lost their lives. About 40,000 of those casualties were massacred by fascist Japan because they were in villages that had sheltered, supported and worked with the Australian commandos. This was an incredible sacrifice made by the East Timorese in the struggle against Japanese fascism. When the troops of the fascist Indonesian dictatorship illegally invaded East Timor in 1975 and occupied it brutally for 24 years, Australian leaders turned their backs on our WW2 allies and aided and abetted the invaders. It is estimated that almost one third of the population were wiped out by the TNI and 80% of its infrastructure was destroyed.. Yes, it is true that the Howard government made the decision to led the UN peacekeeping force in 1999 to remove the TNI after the East Timorese voted for independence. However, it has to be said that we were a very reluctant saviour. The brilliant book Reluctant Saviour : Australia, Indonesia and the Liberation of East Timor (2005), by Professor Clinton Fernandes shows just how reluctant our leaders really were. Not long after the East Timorese won their independence, Australia's leaders were working on a plan to defraud the new nation of Timor-Leste - the poorest in SE Asia with huge problems arising from the occupation - out of much of its oil and gas resources. When the Timorese leaders realised that Australian security had spied on their leaders to force them into accepting a very unfair deal related to the maritime border and the resources in the Timor Sea, they took Australia to the International Permanent Court of Arbitration (IPCA) in the Hague. In March 2018., the IPCA ruled in Timor's favour. By then, the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring & Analysis - La'o Hamutuk - estimated that Australia had about $5 billion that had come from it's 1/2 of the Timor Sea. Since the signing of the agreement arising from the court case, the Australian government has not paid any of the money that it owes Timor-Leste. As a result, the people of the poorest nation in the region are giving "aid" to the wealthiest nation. With the treatment of asylum seekers, the East Timorese and the West Papuans is it any wonder that many view Australia as an immoral pariah?

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 12 June 2019  

Great Article. You only have to look within to realise what this great country is capable of.. A mention for the Australian Indigenous struggle, lands and rights taken from them.

NC | 13 June 2019  

This fine article should be required reading for any politicians and advisers intending to travel to Dili for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Independence vote on August 30. The history of the official Australian dealings with Timor is only redeemed by the actions of so many private individuals and groups who have invested themselves for decades in partnership with the extraordinary Timorese people. Only the continued effort to tell the truth can redeem us from the greed, deceit and trickery of successive Australian governments. Will it be enough? Are we telling the story truthfully, relentlessly, widely? Of course, we're up against it, in view of the difficulty the Australian nation finds in telling the truth about our own Indigenous peoples. We must never let up. Good for you Sophie!

Susan Connelly | 13 June 2019  

The Timor-Leste Governance Project's estimate of the amount of money Australia has taken from the 10% share of Bayu-Undan in the year since the boundary treaty was ratified is too low -- the actual amount is AUD $97 million. And, of course, that's on top of about AUD $8 billion which Australia took in between 1998 and 2018 from oil and gas fields which it now agrees are in Timor-Leste's Territory. See http://www.laohamutuk.org/Oil/Boundary/laminaria_revenues.htm

Charles Scheiner | 13 June 2019  

Who in the ALP is sticking up for Timor-Leste? Senator Pat Dodson? He visited Dili with other MPs (including CA MP Rex Patrick) last November. Who's the new Laurie Brereton who tipped the balance for Timor in 1999 with great results?

Pat Walsh | 13 June 2019  

Similar Articles

The radical implications of 'they are us'

  • Genevieve Lloyd
  • 04 June 2019

When Jacinda Ardern uttered the words 'They are Us' in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, a powerful vision hovered over the impending debates on the meaning of what had happened. Something hitherto invisible came into view and was repudiated: a conceptual structure underlying the operations of social power.


Boris, Brexit and taking it up to political bull

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 03 June 2019

An enduring memory of the 2016 Brexit campaign was the claim by pro-leavers that the EU was extracting some £350 million a week. The claim, ignoring EU subsidies, returns and contributions to Britain, was so outrageously proud and inaccurate, it stuck. Which leads us to a novel citizen's experiment on the issue of lying in politics.