Two Tutorials in Politics


When the Timor Sea Treaty was presented to the East Timor Parliament in 2002, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, public servants and advisers were abused with unprintable insults. Many feared it was a sell-out of the country’s sovereignty.

This hostile political environment strengthened East Timor’s hand in the subsequent negotiations. If this was the reaction to a treaty that gave East Timor a 90 per cent share, then a supplementary agreement fixing East Timor’s share of the biggest and closest oil and gas field, Greater Sunrise, at just 18 per cent could not go anywhere near the Parliament until Australia yielded to a maritime boundary or another means of resolving ownership of the disputed resources.

With the Treaty hanging in the balance, Alkatiri wrote to Australian Prime Minister John Howard on 3 October 2002 proposing the commencement of formal maritime boundary discussions. Howard said in his reply of 6 November that negotiations would commence ‘once’ the Treaty and the Sunrise agreement were in force.

He had a point. The two sides had negotiated the interim arrangements, and it made perfect sense to see them put in place before moving on to a permanent settlement. For East Timor that wasn’t the point. Ratifying the Treaty meant giving up a powerful bargaining chip, and this was exactly what Howard wanted to achieve.

The stand-off reached a climax on 27 November 2002 when Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer flew to Dili. Alkatiri said that rather than talk about the Sunrise agreement, the two sides should begin at once to negotiate a permanent maritime boundary.

Downer was in no mood for what he considered game-playing by this micro-State. The previous month, 88 Australians had been killed by suicide bombers in two Bali nightclubs, and a voice recording of Osama bin Laden had linked the attack to Australia’s intervention in East Timor, he said. Australia had a lot more to worry about than East Timor. It had to be concerned about ‘the implications for our relations with other countries, especially Indonesia’.

Downer pounded the table as he bluntly warned that Australia could leave all of the Timor Sea resources in the ground until it got its way: ‘We don’t have to exploit the resources. They can stay there for 20, 40, 50 years.’ Towards the end of the meeting, Downer warned Alkatiri that he was a captive of his Western advisers and in need of a tutorial in politics. ‘We don’t like brinksmanship,’ said Downer. ‘We are very tough. We will not care if you give information to the media. Let me give you a tutorial in politics not a chance.’

A media adviser in Alkatiri’s Timor Sea Office (TSO), Zoe Cottew, produced a full transcript of this stormy meeting. Alkatiri, while being fluent in English, chose to speak in Portuguese, which meant that the translation slowed down the exchange to the point where Cottew wrote a longhand record of the entire meeting.

In early 2003, the TSO circulated the full transcript on a confidential basis to a number of people in Australia. One of the recipients forwarded it to the website Crikey, which published it, under the headline ‘Pompous Colonial Git.

The transcript’s accuracy was reinforced by Australia’s accusations that East Timor had secretly taped the meeting, which it had not done. But its inadvertent release reinforced international sympathy for East Timor and perceptions of the bullying style adopted by Australia in the negotiations.

Late one afternoon in the first week of March 2003, the Australian Ambassador to East Timor, Paul Foley, banged on the door of the TSO, and informed two advisers working there that the Australian Foreign Minister wanted an urgent meeting in Dili to sign the Sunrise agreement.

The advisers told Foley that the day chosen by Downer was in fact Ash Wednesday, a public holiday in Catholic East Timor. Ministers would be out of Dili on that day, and the signing would have to be held at another time.

Foley was operating under strict instructions and did not seem to take on board the significance of Ash Wednesday. He said Downer wanted East Timor’s signature on the Sunrise agreement before Australia began the process of ratifying the Treaty. This was because Downer thought that East Timor’s advisers would ‘play tricks,’ Foley told them.

Later that night the Ambassador went searching for other East Timor advisers and found a group in the newly built, waterfront restaurant in the tropical chic Esplanada Hotel. Foley vented his Minister’s rage, telling the group that Downer was ‘fed up’ with the ‘lies and dishonesty’ of the new East Timorese Government and its Prime Minister, and that Downer was insisting on the Wednesday meeting.

Seated at the table was Einar Risa, an agreeable and high-calibre Scandinavian who had served as a diplomat and Secretary of State for Development Co-operation in the Norwegian Government, and in senior management positions in the national oil company Statoil. Risa had just been appointed executive director of the Timor Sea Designated Authority (TSDA), the joint authority established to manage the Treaty area. While Foley represented one of his employers, Risa told him that he had never before seen or heard an ambassador issue such insulting comments about his host country. While he did not know what was meant by diplomacy in Australia, he said, Foley’s ‘schoolyard bullying’ was not the international norm.

As Australia held off ratifying the Treaty, Alkatiri wrote to Howard on Tuesday 4 March and said he would be ‘submitting the [ International Unitisation Agreement for Greater Sunrise] IUA   immediately to my Council of Ministers for its approval’. He was trying to buy time. This was not enough to satisfy Downer who wanted East Timor’s signature on the agreement immediately.

The next morning, 5 March, Ash Wednesday, Howard telephoned Alkatiri from his office in Parliament House, Canberra. At the time, Alkatiri was refusing to take calls from Downer, but now he was about to receive another tutorial in politics. That morning the Australian Government had tabled in the House of Representatives Bills for the ratification of the Timor Sea Treaty.

Howard told Alkatiri that unless East Timor signed the Sunrise agreement the Bills for the Treaty would remain ‘stalled’ in the Lower House, which meant that the Bayu-Undan development would collapse. ‘It was an ultimatum. Howard said that unless we agreed to sign the new deal immediately, he would stop the Senate approving the treaty,’ a senior East Timorese official was reported as saying.

Downer spoke to Ramos Horta, and the two agreed that East Timor would call an extraordinary Council of Ministers meeting the following morning, Thursday 6 March, to endorse the Greater Sunrise deal. It was agreed that Downer would fly to Dili that day for the signing, but Alkatiri remained unconvinced, and it took the combined weight of Ramos Horta, the President of the Parliament, Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres, and Xanana Gusmão, who was now President of the Republic, to persuade him to proceed with the signing.

Later that day Downer signed the agreement in the same room.

Back in Canberra in the Senate that day, the Greens, the Australian Democrats and Labor spoke out strongly against the Australian Government’s tactics. It was evident to the opposition Parties that the Australian Government was
prepared to sacrifice the Bayu-Undan development in order to lock in its 79.9 per cent of the Sunrise field. Senator Bob Brown of the Australian Greens launched a spirited attack on the government that culminated in his accusing Howard of having engaged in ‘blackmail’ against East Timor. Brown told the Senate:

I believe we are being ambushed with this legislation we are being ambushed, in the interests of big oil companies, to cheat East Timor. This is the big oil companies, with the active compliance of the Prime Minister, no less, defrauding East Timor of its resources. It is a fraud. It is illegal. Last night, as the newspaper reports tell us, the Prime Minister phoned his opposite number in East Timor to deliver blackmail. What John Howard did was coerce a poor and weak neighbour through blackmail.

The President of the Senate asked Brown to withdraw the word ‘blackmail’ but he refused. The Coalition and Labor voted to have Brown expelled from the Senate for the rest of the day. He said after being ejected, ‘Blackmail is a word that has been used in the parliament a thousand times since 1981 but it is never more appropriately used than on this occasion.’

Howard claimed to have been misrepresented and made a personal explanation to the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, in another place, allegations were made by Senator Brown that I had sought to intimidate or strongarm the East Timorese leadership over the Timor Sea negotiations. Those claims are totally false. I did call the Prime Minister of East Timor yesterday to ask whether East Timor’s formal approval of an international unitisation agreement could be completed in time for a visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs today to sign that agreement My call to Dr Alkatiri, which was totally civil and cordial in accordance with our close relationship, related solely to formal processes and not to any of the substance of the negotiated package. Might I add my very warm personal congratulations to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on his skilful guidance of this matter.

Alkatiri relented and agreed to sign the Sunrise agreement, but he refused to do so personally, instead delegating this task to his Justice Minister, Ana Pessoa. That evening the Timor Sea Treaty Bills went through the Australian Senate.

This is an edited extract from Paul Cleary’s Shakedown: Australia’s Grab for Timor Oil (Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.95). In Hobart, the book will be launched by Senator Bob Brown at the Hobart Bookshop, on Wednesday, 27 June, 6:00 pm. In Melbourne, the book will be launched by the Honorary Consul to East Timor Kevin Bailey at the Trades Hall on Thursday, 28 June, 6:00 pm.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.