Subject: SMH: Ungrateful Timor gets the Downer treatment

Ungrateful Timor gets the Downer treatment

By Richard Ackland

May 28, 2004

'After all we've done for them," moaned Alexander Downer, the Foreign Minister, on Four Corners a couple of Mondays ago. Those ungrateful East Timorese beating their wretched little chests and complaining about Australia wanting the lion's share of the oil and gas fields lying between the two countries.

"I think they've made a very big mistake thinking that the best way to handle this negotiation is trying to shame Australia, is mounting abuse on our country, um, accusing us of being bullying and rich and so on, when you consider all we've done for East Timor," Downer said with a pained expression.

All we've done? Such as 24 years of recognition of Indonesia's illegal annexation while the place was systematically pillaged and raped.

The great Australian ugliness has continued even after East Timor's independence. There were reports in November 2002 that Downer was banging the table and abusing the tiny country's Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, over the seabed gas reserves.

This dispute is not all that complicated. There are oil and gas fields that lie substantially closer to East Timor than to Australia that are the subject of a "joint development zone". Before East Timor's independence in May 2002 Australia and Indonesia were splitting the royalty revenues from this zone 50:50. It seemed like a very good deal for Australia.

Maybe in recognition of the geographic and legal reality, Australia changed the royalty split just before independence to 90:10. This has made Downer doubly hurt. As he said on Four Corners: "In the end we decided to give them 90 per cent of the government revenue on the basis of generosity."

There are other richer gas fields, such as the still underdeveloped Greater Sunrise, which is even closer to East Timor than the fields in the joint development zone. More than 20 per cent of Greater Sunrise lies in East Timor-controlled waters and 80 per cent in the joint development zone. For East Timor it's a fight for its economic future, to be able to survive without having to depend on someone else's version of "generosity".

The legal argument boils down to how and where the seabed boundary is drawn. From 1958 the convention was to follow the continental shelf as the basis for our economic zone. Since then Australia has ratified the modern (1982) Law of the Sea convention, under which states have tended to adopt an equidistant line approach.

In relation to our seabed border with the Solomon Islands, with the French in the Southern Ocean and with the negotiations with New Zealand over the Tasman Sea, the equidistant line is the approach Australia has accepted.

With respect to East Timor we have adopted the continental shelf position. Happily for Australia our shelf protrudes quite a way to the north.

The reason has as much to do with our Indonesian relations as it does with East Timor. Between 1971 and 1973 Australia negotiated seabed deals with Indonesia based on the old continental shelf convention, which greatly favoured Australia. If we were to suddenly adopt an equidistant line approach with East Timor, Indonesia would be bound to jump up and down and threaten our vital economic interests secured in the early 1970s.

What is really irksome about the impasse is that Australia has withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in relation to maritime boundary issues. We did this just before East Timor's independence in 2002. From now, these things are to be determined bilaterally, even if negotiations drag on longer than the exploitation of the finite resources in dispute. As Downer put it, we don't want "courts and arbiters and, you know, people over there in The Hague deciding on our relationships". It's an odd thing to say if one accepts that we are a nation governed by the rule of law.

Possibly it reflects a new international direction for Australia. After all, the Justice Minister, Senator Chris Ellison, recently blocked the extradition of two Australians wanted in Hong Kong to stand trial in relation to the construction of faulty underpinnings in an apartment complex.

Nonetheless Australian jurists are exported to sit on international courts and tribunals, including Justice David Hunt and Sir Ninian Stephen. Sir Gerard Brennan sits as a judge of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. Others are expected to abide by their authority.

As Foreign Minister, Downer has a selective approach to the application of the rule of law when it comes to the interests of Australians. Only on Tuesday he was on the radio saying that the Kurds' continued detention of an Australian citizen has its limits. "If their concerns are sufficient and their evidence is sufficient they should bring charges against him."

Imagine holding an Australian citizen for an extended period without charges. How upsetting is that? The hypocrisy of this befuddled minister never ceases to amaze.

Support ETAN, make a secure financial contribution at

Back to May menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu