Subject: Govt scolded for bypassing examination of gas treaty


Govt scolded for bypassing examination of gas treaty

06/22/2007 03:27:41 PM EDT CANBERRA TIMES

A parliamentary committee has criticised the Howard Government for rushing the controversial treaty on exploiting natural gas in the Timor Sea.

The Government invoked the rarely used national interest exemption to bring the treaty into force in February without giving the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties an opportunity to scrutinise it.

After conducting an inquiry, the committee has reprimanded the Government for its inadequate explanation as to why the power was invoked.

Liberal backbencher and committee chair Andrew Southcott said the power was meant only for use in extreme circumstances.

However, the committee has concluded that supporting the treaty was in the national interests of both Australia and East Timor.

The treaty will allow the exploitation of Greater Sunrise, a natural gas field between the two countries.

The estimated $US20 billion ($A23 billion) revenue over the life of the field will be shared equally between the two countries.

The treaty was signed in Sydney 18 months ago and prevents both countries from pursuing maritime boundary claims for 50 years.

Many of the submissions to the committee's inquiry raised strong objections to various sections of the treaty.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told the committee the reserve power had been used because East Timor had wanted to bring the treaty into force before its presidential and parliamentary elections.

However, the committee made its displeasure known in a report tabled in Parliament.

''Given the early public availability of the treaty, it has not been adequately explained why it was not referred several months earlier for review,'' the report says.

''In this instance the national interest exemption should not have been invoked before the committee was given a reasonable opportunity to consider and report on the treaty within the Government's time frame.'' The majority of submissions received by the committee claimed Australia was not being generous by agreeing to give East Timor half of the gas and oil revenues.

They argued that since Greater Sunrise was twice as close to East Timor as it was to Australia, all the resources should have belonged to East Timor.

The struggling country should have received a higher percentage of royalties from gas revenues.

Several submissions to the inquiry criticised the freeze on maritime boundaries.

They accused Australia of contravening international law on this issue.

However, Mr Downer said the suspension of maritime boundary claims for a significant period would help build strong bilateral relations.

It would also further confidence in Australia's offshore petroleum industries. Australia is currently the fifth- largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, with 7 per cent of global volume.

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