Timor-Leste’s lost oil millions blamed on Australia’s ‘rip-off’

Timor-Leste oil protest
Fair share of the oil and gas cake ... a past protest in support of the Timorese claims for rightful Timor Sea revenues. Image: Consortium News

Pacific Media Centre Newsdesk

Fifteen months after a treaty pledged to usher in a “new chapter” in the relationship between Australia and neighbouring Timor-Leste, the document remains unratified and the country loses millions of dollars a month from a Timor Sea field belonging to the Timorese.

Reporting in the latest edition of Eureka Street, freelance writer Sophie Raynor, who has been living in Dili for two years, has condemned Australia for “another [action] in a long line of Australia’s failure to do the right thing by Timor-Leste”.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop signed the treaty in March last year and tabled it in the Australian Federal Parliament, saying it was “her hope” that it would be ratified by the end of the year.

READ MORE: Ramos-Horta expects Australia to pay back ‘millions’ in oil revenue

Although it remains unratified, Australia continues to draw millions of dollars a month from a 10 per cent share in a field found to belong entirely to Timor-Leste.

The Timor-Leste Governance Project estimates that field could have generated A$60 million over the preceding 12 months.

Australia will provide $95.7 million in foreign aid to Timor-Leste between 2018 and 2019.

“Technically, we don’t owe that $60 million to Timor-Leste. There’s no legal right in the treaty for either country to claim compensation for lost revenue from the Timor Sea,” writes Raynor.

‘Beatific big brother’
“But Australia’s role in Timor-Leste’s historic and hard-won independence 20 years ago this August burnished our reputation as a beatific big brother — a reputation until now unmarred, despite decades of those fractious Timor Sea negotiations, allegations of our spying and serious accusations of collusion.

“For years, we’ve positioned ourselves as an international champion of moral righteousness, of sovereignty and of self-determination, and as Timor-Leste’s liberator.

“But we can’t have it both ways. Taking unearned Timor Sea wealth is another in a long line of Australia’s failure to do the right thing by Timor-Leste.”

Former Prime Minister John Howard called the Australian-led liberation of Timor-Leste one of our most noble acts of foreign policy this century — the peacekeeping part; not the preceding 30 years of heavy-handed economic encroachment in the Timor Sea.

“Our delay in ratifying the boundary treaty and our refusal to commit to repaying that unearned money is squarely at odds with how we think of ourselves in this story,” writes Raynor

“And it’s unconscionably in breach of our moral duty to do the right thing by a neighbour.”

‘Siphoning’ millions
In April, The Guardian published an exclusive stating Australia was accused of “siphoning” millions in Timor-Leste oil revenue from the Timor Sea; an amount the newspaper said was more than Canberra had given Timor-Leste in foreign aid.

“Australia remains Timor-Leste’s largest, most financially generous and most important aid and development partner, and many Australian-funded projects provide significant and much-needed support and opportunities to Timor-Leste,” writes Raynor.

“But it’s laughable to say we’re concerned with Timor-Leste’s prosperity if we’re committed to scraping from its vaults more money than we give in foreign aid; to say we’re for its stability when we’re eroding a fragile economy’s ability to reinvest its resource wealth into education, health and agriculture; to champion regional security when we’re risking a generation of economic refugees with few job prospects at home and an in-fighting government.

“We’re more concerned with excuses than with fronting up and admitting to ripping off Timor-Leste — again.”

Eureka Street is a publication of the Australian Jesuits and is a vibrant online journal of analysis, commentary and reflection on current issues in the worlds of politics, religion and culture.

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