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Timor-Leste's missing oil millions

  • 05 June 2019


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.

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