Australia: international oil thief

Shakedown: Australia's grab for Timor oil

By Paul Cleary

Allen & Unwin, 2007

336 pages, $29.95

This is a story about how Australia bullied East Timor out of its rightful share of oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea. Paul Cleary, a journalist for the Australian newspaper, was a media adviser with the Timor Sea Office during the bilateral negotiations. The negotiations are set in the context of East Timor's political history and its difficulties in the post-independence period. This allows the reader to gain a fuller picture of why the negotiations were crucial and how this country has been denied its resources and its freedom over and over again. Cleary has combined political history and some development theory with eyewitness accounts of the negotiations and some lessons in maritime law.

The close connections between the state and business are amply demonstrated in this book. Australian imperialism worked hard at helping secure the interests of businesses like Woodside Petroleum to access the Timor Sea resources, by collaborating to secure a deal to exploit the Greater Sunrise field and to reject Timorese requests that the pipeline be built to East Timor, rather than to Darwin. Bullying and dirty tactics, in the name of the "national interest", are all legitimate. These included accessing the communications of those who were working in the Timor Sea Office, as well as the more despicable act of withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in 2002, to avoid international adjudication of the dispute.

Cleary gives us an account of the personalities involved. In contrast to the voluminous coverage given elsewhere to people like Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, information about other political leaders in East Timor can be scant and Cleary has provided a picture of several of East Timor's political leaders who are not as well-known and perhaps not as loved by Western media commentators. These include Fretilin secretary general and then-prime minister Mari Alkatiri; lead negotiator and former Brisbane lawyer Jose Teixeira, and son of independence fighter Nicolau Lobato, Jose Lobato Goncalves who was wrested from his mother's arms just before she was executed in 1975.

The stories of many Timorese are remarkable indeed, a story of struggle, sometimes of diasporic dispersement and of survival in such recent times. Many on the other side of the negotiating table, diplomats and oil men would probably not be able to boast of such tales however. The book contrasts the Australian officials' words and actions to those of Australian civil society, particularly philanthropist businessperson Ian Melrose and the Timor Sea Justice Campaign in Melbourne.

Spending large parts of his time in East Timor, Cleary struggles somewhat in portraying the events and the excitement of the campaign for oil justice in Australia, and does not capture adequately the underlying dynamics driving the campaign. People demonstrated outside government buildings in many cities and came to wintry halls in far-flung parts of Melbourne to hear about and participate in the campaign. The Timorese civil society also ran a determined campaign against Australian officialdom, which resulted in some of these organisations losing Australian government funding for criticising Australian government policy on the Timor Sea.

Cleary has tried to reflect on the social and political realities of post-independence East Timor and how fighting the Australian government for four years impacted on the government's ability to run the country. He outlines the intention of safeguarding the income from the Timor Sea through the Petroleum Fund, but he also criticises the government for not spending enough in the economy, thus driving the economy into the ground. He documents the corruption, collusion and nepotism plaguing the early years of the Fretilin-led government.

The outcome of the 2005 negotiations, an agreement on 50% revenue from the Greater Sunrise oil field was, as Cleary has demonstrated, a vast improvement on what the Australian government was offering in 2001. In return, no maritime boundary discussions were to be held for 50 years.

When contemplating this, one is left with a distinct bitter taste in the mouth, reflecting on Australia's dirty tactics to force East Timor to accept a large compromise like this and then to brand the country as "not very well-governed", as Australian troops landed in Dili in 2006 to "restore order" following unrest.

For a well-written and informative account of yet another act of bastardry by Canberra, read this book, because the struggle continues.