|Subject: Book Review: Shakedown:
Australia's grab for Timor oil
Shakedown: Australia's grab for Timor oil
By Christine Kearney
Ugly. Rapacious. Bruising and governed by the narrowest definitions of
national interest. These are a few of the descriptions that spring to mind
after reading this devastating portrait of Australia’s negotiations over
oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea.
A thorough account of foreign policy thinking in the 1970s demonstrates
how, early on in the piece, the Timor Sea influenced Australia’s overall
position on Timor. Indeed, just days after a 1974 coup in Portugal,
officials in Canberra were arguing that Australia would get a better deal
on a maritime boundary if Indonesia controlled Timor, rather than an
independent Timor or its colonial power, Portugal.
Similarly, in 1978, then foreign minister Andrew Peacock announced that
Australia was formally accepting East Timor as part of Indonesia. This
paved the way for a formal recognition of Indonesia’s occupation. In the
words of the author of this book, "the only reason for this speedy
decision, was the seabed and boundary, which of course meant oil".
The well-researched first third of the book shows Australia’s Timor
tragedy, and the part oil and gas resources played in it, to be a
substantial foreign policy edifice built up over decades. But the real cut
and thrust of the story comes post-1999.
In January 2000 the retreating Indonesians had leveled Timor’s
capital Dili so comprehensively that a team of visiting Australia
diplomats had to book a negotiating room on a cruise ship in Dili harbour.
Accommodation aside, they lost no time trying to convince the Timorese
that they should accept the Timor Gap Treaty. This Treaty, which Australia
had spent 10 years pursuing with Indonesia, would have given Timor just 20
per cent share of the known resources on its side of the Timor Sea.
At this point in the book and at many others, it beggars belief that
none of the Australian diplomats and foreign affairs officials sent to
negotiate with Timor were troubled by Australia’s stance.
One notable exception is former DFAT staffer Bruce Haigh, whose
analysis of the Australia-Indonesia-Timor nexus is particularly
insightful. The 'big lie', that nothing untoward was happening in Timor
during Indonesia’s occupation poisoned us, he says. "It had an
effect on the ethics of this country. You see it being played out in the
daily deniability games of Howard, and the federal public service".
While this is overall a compelling read, the technical detail about
what was on the table at different stages of the negotiations can be
difficult to digest.
This was, after all, a complicated and protracted dispute and its very
nature played into Australia’s hands. The detail was difficult for the
Australian public to digest and Australia’s team, too, was vastly more
qualified at this sort of negotiations.
Certainly in the early stages, Timor had to rely heavily on foreign
consultants. Some of these hired guns were incredibly committed, others
bewilderingly ignorant of Timor.
High-profile negotiator Peter Galbraith, the son of economist John
Kenneth Galbraith, was both a blessing and a curse for Timor. While his
stature and force of personality initially made a good battering ram for
Timor, he was notably absent from later negotiations. One gets the sense
that he rallied to the fight at first, but then as the negotiations wore
on, he tired of them.
If Galbraith was a sprinter, then the former Timorese Prime Minister,
Mari Alkatiri comes across as pure, disciplined, distance runner.
On the Timor Sea, Alkatiri was a dogged and formidable foe for the
Australians and for his trouble, he earned some extraordinarily hostile
treatment. Cleary says the Australian government so disliked him that when
the treaty was finally ready in 2006, Australia suggested that the foreign
ministers of each country sign the deal, in the presence of their prime
ministers, in order to avoid having Alkatiri sign it with Howard
This final agreement the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in
the Timor Sea was a success for Timor, in that it was able to claw back
a better share of resources. Timor’s resource share rose from 22 per
cent to 60 per cent and revenue increased from 8.4 billion to 24 billion
over the lifetime of the resources.
But from the disputed BCL fields, Timor gained nothing. These are the
same fields from which Australia, since 1999, had been reaping $1 million
And this Treaty did not close the Timor Gap. Timor still does not have
a permanent maritime boundary with Australia. The agreement "as far
as maritime rights were concerned, succeeded in going back to the time
when Indonesia occupied Timor," says Cleary.
There are two things in this admirable account I would take issue with.
Cleary argues that post-independence, the Timorese ruling elite visited a
type of Animal Farm upon their people. This is a harsh assessment. I would
argue that the failures of the first independence government were
predominantly born of inexperience and a lack of good accountability
mechanisms, rather than greed and pure self-interest.
the other is that, in conclusion, Cleary says it is "not too long
a bow to draw to say that the deal that has been struck is instrumental in
fomenting the current situation in Timor-Leste".
I think it is too long a bow to draw. The most appalling thing about
these negotiations is not that they fomented the 2006 civil unrest in
Timor, but that they amounted to daylight robbery, pure and simple, of a
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