Subject: AGE: Who's the bully

So who's playing Saddam Hussein this time? by Reverend David Pargeter

March 4 2003

In 1990 a large regional military power, Iraq, invaded a small neighbour, Kuwait, after accusing it of stealing oil from an oilfield straddling their common border. Both major political parties in Australia supported military intervention to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Fast-forward to 2003. A large, wealthy regional power, Australia, is bullying a small impoverished neighbour, East Timor, over the sharing of oil and natural gas fields across a common border - this time in the Timor Sea.

And, as with Iraq, a deadline is approaching that could throw one small country into chaos, this time in our neighbourhood.

The Australian Government is seeking to pressure East Timor to make concessions that will undermine its legal claims to the Greater Sunrise natural gas deposit in the Timor Sea.

The leverage comes from East Timor's immediate needs for the revenue from the oil and natural gas deposits. Because it needs money so desperately, it might be forced to sign away future rights. And Australia is being the bully.

Canberra is threatening to delay ratification of the Timor Sea Treaty, which could mean that the Japanese customers for the Bayu Undan deposit may walk away, by March 11. At present East Timor would get 90 per cent of the revenue from the Bayu Undan development, but to do so the Australian Government is trying to make sure that East Timor forgoes its claim to a larger share of the neighbouring, more lucrative, Greater Sunrise deposit.

Australia's aggressive stance on East Timor is not of the military kind, but of the economic variety. East Timor is far too weak to offer any resistance to Australia's war on its potential income.

Revenues lost by East Timor from the gas and oil of the Greater Sunrise area mean loss of money for essential healthcare, education and infrastructure in the fledgling democracy on our doorstep.

At stake is the future of East Timorese children, whose lives will be needlessly lost if their government misses out, because of Australia's tough tactics, on its fair share of the natural gas and oil revenues in the Timor Sea.

To its credit, the Australian Government has conceded a 90 per cent share to East Timor for those oil and natural gas deposits that it previously shared 50/50 with the occupying power of East Timor, Indonesia. However, more valuable deposits lie outside the shared area and these deposits fall within areas to which East Timor has legal claim.

As things stand, East Timor will get only 18 per cent of the revenue of the Greater Sunrise field (expected to deliver $8 billion in tax revenues to both governments over its life). However, legally East Timor may be entitled to all of Greater Sunrise.

More ominously, Australia is making claims to the edge of the continental shelf, in which case East Timor would get nothing, even from the deposits in the zone that is shared at present.

In March 2002, Australia showed its contempt for independent arbitration by withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice on issues of maritime boundaries. So East Timor has legal claims but is being denied avenues for an independent umpire to hear them. Some friend to East Timor Australia is turning out to be!

The key issue here is not a legal one, but a moral one. Will a wealthy power like Australia do the right thing and allow East Timor sufficient oil and natural gas revenues for development to be stable and self-sufficient?

The Australian Government clearly does not have the same need for the revenue, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister's public consideration of further cuts to the top income tax rate rate for wealthy Australians.It makes great play of its military (United Nations-backed) intervention in East Timor - albeit after both Australia's main political parties turned a blind eye to the 200,000 who died during Indonesia's occupation of the country.

But after the "battle" our actions have been less than honourable.

Our foreign aid to East Timor is pitiful - just $44 million has been allocated in the 2002-2003 budget.

And now there is this unseemly grab at oil revenues that rightly belong to a people in desperate need.

The one thing Dili does not need is an aggressive regional power siphoning off its oil and gas reserves.

And, by the way, when will we hear more strongly from the Labor Party on this issue, especially as it too has a stain to wash away with regard to the first Indonesian aggression against East Timor?

The Reverend David Pargeter is director of the justice and international mission of the Uniting Church in Australia (Synod of Victoria and Tasmania).

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