In Whose National Interest?


This month, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer invoked a rarely used ‘national interest’ exemption clause to fast-track ratification of the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) through the Australian Parliament.

Downer’s sudden haste seemed curious, given the Treaty had been awaiting ratification for more than 12 months, and the Foreign Minister had not previously demonstrated such urgency on the subject


The national interest exemption has been used only six times in the past 10 years.

Under the Treaty, government revenues from oil and gas resources in the Greater Sunrise field are shared equally between Australia and East Timor, even though the field is twice as proximate to the latter.

In addition, the Australian Government has acquired more than one billion dollars over the past six years from another field close to East Timor, Laminaria-Corallina. East Timor has received no revenue from this field. The Treaty cements this state of affairs, in effect making East Timor Australia’s largest donor.

The Treaty prevents East Timor determining its own maritime boundary something to which it is entitled under international law. When East Timor previously sought to take the boundary issue to the International Court of Justice, Australia withdrew from its jurisdiction, preventing a lawful, impartial settlement. Many East Timorese consider Australia to be in occupation of their maritime territory. The Treaty extends Australia’s occupation for at least another 50 years.

The Treaty also prevents the use of courts or other impartial mechanisms for resolving disputes, insisting on direct negotiations between Asia’s poorest nation and one of its wealthiest.

The Treaty leaves unresolved the issue of ‘downstream’ revenues from refining, liquefying and processing the oil and gas. Understandably, East Timor would like the gas to be piped to its shore for liquefaction.

Thanks to Scratch

So why the hurry? Two months from now, East Timor will hold its first national elections as an independent nation. The presidential elections will be held on 9 April, and the date for the parliamentary election will be set after they are completed. Last week, prosecutors in Dili dropped charges against former East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. He is therefore free to contest the April elections, and retains considerable support to do so within Fretilin, which holds 55 of the 88 parliamentary seats. It’s quite possible that Alkatiri could return to power instead of the more compliant José Ramos Horta. Alkatiri’s determined approach to the Timor Gap negotiations has won him few friends within the Howard Government or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Downer had been hoping that, without Alkatiri to stymie the process, East Timor would have ratified the Treaty without demur. Perhaps this is why the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) was given barely 24 hours notice last week that they would meet Downer and hear why he wanted the Committee to ignore public submissions and rubber-stamp the deal in ‘the national interest’?

Without explanation, Downer subsequently backed down, agreeing to allow the JSCOT to proceed with the normal review process. For someone who criticised the absence of transparency when the Keating Government signed a bilateral treaty with the Suharto dictatorship in 1995, Downer’s flip-flopping with East Timor looks very odd indeed. Back in 1995, Downer said, ‘We are being hit over and over again in this country by treaties and conventions (that) are being signed, sealed and delivered without any public scrutiny or debate whatsoever. There is virtually no democracy in the world that treats its population with such arrogant contempt’. He struck a heroic pose at the time, saying that democracy should not be sacrificed ‘because we haven’t got time.’

It is not in Australia’s national interest to ratify a treaty that continues to anger and steal from its poorest northern neighbour. Instead, Canberra should take the opportunity to assist East Timor to become more financially independent and secure, thus reducing Dili’s dependence on Australian aid.

It is not merely economic poverty that has affected East Timor; as many as 183,000 East Timorese died of unnatural causes under the Indonesian occupation. If that were not enough, the population was subjected to ethnic cleansing and widespread rape, torture and other human rights abuses. Statistically, the impact is of the same order as in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

One question which Downer should answer, is why his Department has sat on the Treaty for more than 12 months, denying the public the opportunity to scrutinise it.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.