Back to All News

Adjournment speech: Timor Sea Treaty

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 16 Jun 2017

Wednesday 14 June

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:27): Today I had the opportunity to meet with a number of members from the Timor Sea justice alliance. Many of them came to Canberra from across the country to take up the very important issue of justice for the people of East Timor over the Timor oil issue. The Timor Sea justice alliance explains that they believe Australia is being unfair to Timor-Leste about sharing oil and gas in the Timor Sea. That is certainly an issue that I agree with them strongly on.

They believe the fair solution is to agree to setting the border, which has never been finalised. The current situation is not a border, but a resource-sharing agreement. I would urge all members to actually look at a map of Australia. What is quite unbelievable, particularly in this day and age when we constantly hear about security matters, is that our border is not complete. Our sea border actually has a gap in it just below Timor-Leste. It clearly is indicative of what needs to be sorted out, because the current situation is not a border but a resource-sharing agreement.

After many years of unsuccessfully requesting Australia to negotiate, in 2016 Timor-Leste launched proceedings in the United Nations for compulsory conciliation over the maritime boundary under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. I very much appreciated this briefing that I gained from the alliance today. Australia challenged the right of the UN to establish the commission, but the International Court of Justice ruled against Australia on all six jurisdiction grounds it raised. Consequently, Australia and Timor-Leste are negotiating in the Conciliation Commission for permanent maritime boundaries. It was explained to me how this is a positive move, but it needs to be accompanied by a commitment to finalise the border quickly based on the median line between the two countries. Current international practice is that the permanent border should be established according to median line principles, and that is defined as halfway between the coastlines.

The report of the commissioners under the conciliation process is due in September 2017—I understand it is quite early; I think about 9 September—however, there is every indication that, given the history of Australia's reluctance to be honest and to treat the Timorese fairly over matters regarding Timor-Leste, the negotiation through the UN compulsory conciliation process may be protracted and difficult. I think it is worth reminding ourselves why people who work on this issue and many of the people in Timor-Leste are cautious in being confident that there will be a solution here. Australia does not have a good track record here—from World War II, the Indonesian invasion and occupation, to the Balibo Five. So often the authorities have dragged the chain when it comes to doing the right thing by the people of Timor-Leste.

A press release put out in April from the Conciliation Commission refers to 'difficult issues' and says the process will be 'a marathon'. The June press release spoke of 'eventual' resolution. The Timor Sea justice alliance do not believe that this is good enough, and again I would share their assessment there. There have been olive branches offered by the Timorese government. There have been two requests for formal discussions in the life of the current Australian government, the dropping of the espionage case against Australia, and the termination of CMATS to clear the way for fair resolution. Clearly the Timor-Leste government is doing everything to resolve this issue in a very diplomatic and productive way. Now it is really up to Australia to pick up their side. Unfortunately, there have been no equivalent gestures of goodwill from Australia.

It is true that, if the parties agree to negotiate responsibly and fairly, the commission could be disbanded immediately and the two nations could engage in the formal discussions previously requested by Timor-Leste. The alliance explained that they suspect that the party that is holding up fair resolution of this matter according to international law is Australia. Sadly, this is a theme when you look at the history of Timor-Leste and the recent Timor Sea oil issues. Australia has not been a good neighbour and it has certainly not been grown up in how it has handled this. At times you would think we were still acting as a colonial country in the Pacific and east Timor Sea.

The alliance said that they find it incomprehensible that the Prime Minister and the foreign minister of Australia frequently call on China to act according to international law regarding the South China Sea, yet do not indicate any appreciation that international law also applies to Australia's actions in the Timor Sea. That is a very interesting point. Just recently the Prime Minister was in Singapore. In just about every comment from his speeches and interviews that was relayed talked about international law and a country's responsibility under international law. How ironic that back in Australia they forget their responsibilities to such a close and good neighbour to Australia as Timor-Leste.

It is also apparent that Australia is still resisting the median line principle in the negotiations. This was confirmed by DFAT to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties in March this year. It is not clear that an equitable agreement will be finalised by the end of the Conciliation Commission's mandate in September 2017, and that is very troubling. That is one aspect of the briefing that the alliance gave today that left many with concerns. The alliance also fear that, regardless of the commission's report, Australia will prolong negotiations rather than expedite an agreement based on the median line.

This is not rocket science. It is not even hard to work out what needs to be done. The work really has been done. It is a matter of Australia having a commitment and the political will to do the right thing by Timor-Leste, the right thing as a neighbour of this country and the right thing we should do in terms of foreign affairs. History is full of examples of controversy about borders. The solution is here. The process that needs to be enacted is before us. It is time that the Australian government, led by the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, in this case did the right thing.

Back to All News