Revelations by a former employee of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) of illegal “bugging” of East Timor government officials, and the Attorney-General’s actions in ordering a police raid on his home and the office of East Timor’s solicitor in Canberra, have now damaged relations between Australia and East Timor, a relationship forged during Australia’s efforts to win the country its independence in 1999, and subsequent peace-keeping efforts.
The ex-ASIS employee alleges that the agency installed secret listening devices in the Cabinet Office and the East Timor Prime Minister’s office in 2004, during negotiations with Australia over the Greater Sunrise oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea.
East Timor is currently seeking an arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, declaring that a treaty it signed in 2006 with Australia, sharing royalties from the Greater Sunrise Field, is invalid.
If the treaty is overturned, it would create major uncertainty over ownership of the Greater Sunrise gas reserves. The action is designed to make further development of the huge Greater Sunrise Field too risky for oil and gas exploration companies.
However, there is no evidence that the alleged bugging had any effect on negotiations between Australia and East Timor’s government, because the position of both parties was very clear at the time.
The Commonwealth government is obviously extremely upset that a former ASIS officer has made this issue public. However, it is far from clear that a police raid on his home, and that of the solicitor representing East Timor in The Hague, will help matters.
It has been known for some time that the former ASIS officer had prepared a statement which was being used by East Timor. If a breach of Commonwealth laws was suspected, he could have been charged on summons, avoiding the appearance that the federal government is panicking over claims that, according to former foreign minister Alexander Downer, were made years ago.
East Timor’s aim is the entirely understandable one of forcing the gas exploration companies to build gas-processing plants in East Timor, rather than construct plants on the Australian mainland or floating platforms at sea.
Australia has facilitated the construction of gas-processing plants in Australia, and has refused to put pressure on the gas producers to build processing plants in East Timor, claiming that the construction of the plants is a business decision for the gas producers.
However, in light of the poverty which exists in East Timor, and the economic importance to that country of the gas production facility, Australia’s unwillingness to assist East Timor’s development in this way has been a mistake.
The 2006 treaty was one of a number of legal documents which Australia has signed with East Timor to enable development of natural gas fields off the north-west coast of Western Australia to go ahead.
These agreements, along with the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, are interim documents to enable economic development to proceed, without prejudice to the claims by either country to the maritime boundary between the two countries.
After it became an independent nation, East Timor objected to the 1972 Australia-Indonesia seabed boundary treaty, which set the boundary near the edge of the continental shelf.
There are several aspects of the dispute which deserve consideration.
In dealing with a poor neighbour such as East Timor, where poverty is rife and economic development is crucial to lifting the people’s standard of living, Australia needs to have a far stronger pro-development policy.
Up to the present time, Australia has relied on the presence of peacekeepers as Australia’s major contribution to the country’s development. While this has been necessary in a country with deep political divisions, it is clearly not sufficient.
The strained relations between Australia and East Timor come at a time when the Chinese government has used its embassy in East Timor to aggressively expand its influence in this new nation.
China has constructed large buildings for East Timor such as the Foreign Affairs Department offices, new army barracks, the Defence Forces headquarters, and even the Presidential Palace. These were built using Chinese rather than local labour.
China has also supplied patrol boats for maritime surveillance and diesel generators to supplement East Timor’s power supplies.
Like Cuba, which has supplied doctors and is training East Timor’s doctors, China has also brought in medical teams and police, trained public servants, and invited students and government delegations to Beijing.
A high proportion of East Timor’s population is under the age of 25. If they cannot get a proper education, meaningful employment and acceptable standards of health, the country could face stagnation and social unrest.
Australia needs to adopt a far more intense, pro-active policy towards our regional neighbours — building local industry, infrastructure, education, training and health. Otherwise, we risk being totally marginalised.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.