Carlo's Corner: Obviously, keeping East Timor poor is in the 'national interest'

December 6, 2013
It is clearly in all of our interests to deny the poorest nation in the region a fair share of oil and gas reserves so that a gi

Samuel Johnson famously said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” and so it was that Attorney-General George Brandis insisted ASIO's raid against a former spy who exposed Australia's spying operation against East Timor in the interests of Woodside Petroleum was in “the national interest”.

The raid targeted a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer who exposed the spying program Australia ran against the East Timorese government in 2004 during negotiations for the $40 billion Timor Sea oil and gas fields to which Woodside held the rights to develop.

East Timor responded to this violation of its sovereignty, carried out under cover of an aid program, by taking Australia to The Hague to have the treaty overturned so a fairer one could be signed.

Now sure, the “national interest” can sometimes seem like it’s one of those meaningless phrases politicians always use to cover absolutely anything.

But I am sure it is crystal clear to everyone exactly how it is in the interests of all of us to support a treaty that denies the poorest nation in the region a fair share of oil and gas reserves so that a giant corporation earns more profits. After all, if there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that what this nation needs more than anything is more poor people in East Timor.

It is a scandal our government let East Timor get any of the revenues at all, so it is no surprise that anywhere you go across this wide brown land, you hear people complain: “Did you hear they just built another school in East Timor? One less yacht for a Woodside executive — this country's gone to the dogs.”

The key reason it is so important for Woodside to get richer is because of the jobs Woodside provides — mainly to ex-foreign ministers who bullied a poor nation into signing an agreement giving a large chunk of its natural resources to Woodside.

Alexander Downer, the minister in charge of negotiations, is now officially employed by Woodside as an advisor, which makes things so much neater for tax purposes than the whole unofficial deal he had going for years.

And Downer was furious to hear East Timor had the gall to complain about an aid project being used to cover an illegal spying operation designed to help rip billions of dollars away from East Timor's public coffers and into the bank accounts of Woodside shareholders.

Enraged, he told Fairfax Media: “John Howard, I and other members of the Howard government ... made a huge, huge effort for the Timorese people.”

“We gave them 90 per cent of the [royalty] revenue from the joint development area [for oil and gas in the Timor Sea]. That's nearly all of it. So thank-you very much.”

And it is true that 90% is “nearly all” of 100%. Let no one say Downer cannot count. Whether he can read international treaties is another question because, as Clinton Fernandez pointed out in the December 4 Guardian: “If international law were to apply, then East Timor would be entitled to 100% of the oil and gas on its side of the median line in the Timor Sea.”

Just in case there was any confusion as to who benefitted from this denial of revenue to the impoverished country, Fernandez said: “This includes the single most crucial resource, namely the Greater Sunrise field, the bulk of which lies just outside the lateral boundary of the Gap.”

Greater Sunrise field being the one Woodside controls. Which is the company Downer now works for.

Far be it for me to allege Downer is a corrupt corporate shill who helped steal desperately needed oil revenues from a country with more than one third of its population living in poverty, so that a large oil and gas company could get even richer. Some things are so obvious that allegations are a waste of time.

Downer strangely failed to mention that he had actually tried to bully East Timor into accepting even less than 90%, threatening to cut aid unless East Timor agreed to only 50%-60% of the 100% to which it is entitled.

Downer also neglected to note Australia's support for Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, which economically devastated the country. Indonesia's genocidal occupation, committed by a military Australia helped train and fund, killed more than one third of the population.

Australia then signed an illegal treaty with Indonesia in 1991 to take control of the Timor Sea's oil and gas reserves — before resistance in East Timor and opposition internationally finally forced Australia to back Timorese independence, and reluctantly negotiate a new treaty.

But still, the Australian government eventually conceded East Timor could have “nearly all” of the revenues to which it is legally entitled, derived from its own natural resources.

And some people call these politicians heartless.

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