Subject: Age: People of East Timor deserve a future by Paul Cleary - opinion

The Age ­ September 2, 2007

People of East Timor deserve a future

Paul Cleary

Four years ago, then premier (of Victoria State) Steve Bracks led a solemn procession through the main street of Balibo, East Timor, wearing the headdress and rainbow-coloured skirt of a Timorese king. At his side, and in the same garb, was the hero of East Timor's long struggle for independence, Xanana Gusmao.

Bracks opened the "flag house" in Balibo, which had been the base of the five Melbourne newsmen before they were slain by the Indonesian military in October 1975. With funding from the Victorian Government, the house, which still retains a faint impression of the Australian flag painted by Greg Shackleton, was turned into a community centre. It became a living memorial to the newsmen.

The modest project was a poignant example of a state government stepping in and playing a role on an issue in which successive federal governments had woefully failed.

Gusmao at the time held the largely ceremonial role of president of newly independent East Timor. But now, as Prime Minister, and with a formidable challenge ahead, he has asked Bracks to step in again to address the real threat of East Timor becoming a failed state. In recent years, Bracks has followed events closely through regular meetings with Gusmao and his wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao.

East Timor's current difficulties can be traced back to the Howard Government's failure to properly support the new democracy in its formative years.

Australia's greedy grab for Timor oil meant that East Timor was hugely distracted from the task of nation building because it had to fight for its resources. Australia's opening offer in negotiations in 2000-01, and the treaty signed in 2002, did not fully recognise East Timor's rights under international law.

And, according to World Bank representative Elisabeth Huybens, East Timor did not have the resources it needed to exist as an independent state. Australia was also a mean neighbour when it came to foreign aid. East Timor was a devastated country in need of a Marshall Plan, and instead it got $40 million a year from 2002. Aid has been increased to almost double that amount in the latest budget.

Now that East Timor has become a "Xanana republic", the big challenge is to run a functional administration that can deliver basic services and generate jobs, jobs and more jobs. The hordes of rock-throwing youths in Dili are the result of an economy that went backwards in per capita terms for five successive years. In part, this came about because the government was unable to spend all of the money it had available.

Bracks told The Sunday Age that his focus would be addressing a growing culture of "corruption and cronyism" by introducing checks and balances into the awarding of government contracts and appointments.

A key reform challenge is to tackle the centralised administration introduced by the former government, which required ministers to approve even the smallest decisions. Bracks is right to make decentralisation an important focus of reform.

But he seems cautious when it comes to hitting the spending pump, saying this has to be done in a "sustainable way". East Timor already has a good system for saving its oil revenue, but it was unable to spend anywhere near the sustainable limit set by its Petroleum Fund law. As a result, the economy, and the country, imploded.

There is little that is sustainable about East Timor in its current state. As well as reforming public administration, Bracks needs to focus on how the Government can get the economy rolling by introducing job-generating public works programs and give the long-suffering people of East Timor a future.

- Paul Cleary is a former adviser to the East Timor Government and author of Shakedown: Australia's Grab for Timor Oil.

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