Just as Australia is bedding down the Snowden spying controversy (documents revealing that Australian intelligence agencies tapped the phones of the senior Indonesian leadership, including Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife), another scandal is emanating, this time from the ‘halfling-island’ of East Timor. A former mal-administered colony of Portugal, and brutally oppressed former province of Indonesia, East Timor is taking the Australian government to The Hague claiming that in 2004, Canberra spied on negotiators in order to give unfair advantage to Australian oil and gas giant Woodside Petroleum during the bilateral treaty – Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS).
A retired (un-named) ASIS officer who was allegedly ordered to plant a bug in the East Timorese cabinet room, had an attack of conscience and decided to act as a star witness against the Commonwealth of Australia. Attorney General George Brandis ordered raids on the office of Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery (acting on behalf of the East Timorese government), and on the home of the retired ASIS officer and whistleblower, preventing him from appearing in The Hague by confiscating his passport.
The Left of Australian politics has come out in force to criticise Prime Minister Tony Abbott for defending the ‘unethical behaviour’ of the former LNP Howard government. And while it may seem that the un-named ASIS whistleblower was morally correct to rat on his colleagues and on Howard officials who used an arm of Australian intelligence for the commercial gain of an Australian company, we have to look a little deeper into this to understand why this happened.
East Timor in 2004 was far from a stable country. Having been liberated by an Australian-led military intervention in 1999 (INTERFET) at an approximate cost of AUD 400 million to the Australian taxpayers, (an Australian action which by its very nature almost sparked a war with Indonesia), the domestic political wash-up in the East Timorese capital Dili, post-liberation, was far from clear. Deep-seated ethnic divisions and antagonisms wracked the new nation. It was unclear whether the duumvirate of then President Xanana Gusmao and nationalist agitator José Ramos-Horta would hold. In fact the newly formed military (the Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste or F-FDTL), clashed with police units in September 2003 and December 2004, leading to speculation that East Timor might in fact become a failed state on the door-step of both Indonesia and Australia. In this climate of uncertainty it was in the national interest to determine just how resilient the East Timorese leadership was and what their plans and motivations were regarding the rich oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. That East Timor would always feel an aggrieved party to the negotiations stands. As one of Asia’s poorest countries and with a population of over 1 million, Dili could not have realistically expected the lion’s share of the oil and gas due to a number of factors. Woodside Petroleum, the commercial entity that would provide the monies and technologies to extract and distribute the resources, needed more than simple assurances from East Timor that ‘everything would work out OK’. Woodside would not have made a commitment unless they knew that their part in this deal was secure. Furthermore, as one of Australia’s largest commercial entities, it was not unreasonable for the Howard government to use Australian intelligence assets to assess the lay of the land. There was a lot to lose had things gone wrong. As it stands, the treaty that was negotiated in 2004 would still make the East Timorese a much richer society. But now, using the skills of an Australian lawyer, the confession and ‘moral anguish’ of the very person who allegedly spied on the East Timorese, and support of a part of the anti-establishment Australian media and the East Timor lobby, a case is being made to scrap the 2004 CMATS treaty. So, who loses if the treaty is scrapped? The East Timorese. Renegotiating a new treaty with East Timor is not expected to be a quick undertaking. And even if it were, there is one screamingly obvious point that needs to be made. East Timor is rated 119/177 by the recently released Transparency International Report, the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. What does this mean? It means that even if a successful renegotiation of the oil and gas treaty and a successful legal push by the East Timorese in The Hague were to happen, there remains the central question – how would this wealth be spent?
While the now East Timorese Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao claims: “Raiding the premises of a legal representative of Timor-Leste and taking such aggressive action against a key witness is unconscionable and unacceptable conduct. It is behaviour that is not worthy of a close friend and neighbour or of a great nation like Australia,” it is worth remembering that just because a country is ‘poor’ does not give it a greater case for ever increasing charity. As Australia ‘birthed’ and subsidized a large proportion of post-liberation East Timor through government assistance and other programs, East Timor should approach its relations with Australia from a position of enduring gratitude and friendship without which they would not have had independence. For those who believe in redistributing wealth in favor of the ‘downtrodden’, let’s be under no illusion; the downtrodden are usually in their position not just because of prevailing unfavorable externalities, but also because in many instances their privileged elite lack the moral and ethical capital to improve the situation of their people and take comfort in blaming others for their position.
By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International