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Issue #1632      March 26, 2014

Spying scandal – Timor Gap shame drags on

Australian security agencies spy on their own citizens and they help the US, UK and others to do so, too. The “five eyes” – the intelligence networks belonging to the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – help each other to keep tabs on individuals, groups, political, military and other developments of interest across the globe. Australia is a junior member of this club and most people realise its basic purpose is to serve US strategic interests, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite this “deputy-sheriff” status, Australia has considerable spooking capacity of its own and, as recent events have shown, it puts this at the service of transnationals operating in Australia. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the “national interest”; not even if it means cheating one the world’s poorest nations out of much of its potential oil and gas revenues.

The treaty on “Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea” (CMATS) was signed in 2006 between the Howard government and the government of Timor-Leste (East Timor). The negotiations had been tense over the years. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the ruling Fretilin party weren’t happy that the maritime boundary between the two countries was not drawn half-way between them but closer to Timor-Leste along the seabed limits of the continental shelf. The theft had been agreed between the Hawke government and Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship with a treaty in 1989 and the boundary was a major factor in Australia’s hypocritical, indulgent stance towards Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975.

In 2004, Alexander Downer promised to give Alkatiri a “lesson in politics” for his pursuit of his struggling country’s interests. It would get royalties from a Joint Petroleum Development Area and that’s it. Alkatiri would soon be removed from office in coup-like circumstances. The Howard government refused international arbitration on the maritime boundary. The Australian public knew about the humiliation of Timor-Leste’s representatives in 2004 but it wouldn’t have been aware that Australian spies had bugged government offices in Timor-Leste so that Howard’s negotiators would have the drop on their local counterparts.

All these years later, a veteran spy told Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery about the shameful operation he had been involved in. Collaery was acting for the government of Timor-Leste at the International Court of justice in The Hague. The Timorese want the current treaty scrapped and a new one drawn up. They insist the negotiations that led to CMATS were not entered into in good faith by Australia and, in light of the whistle-blower’s recent revelations, who could argue with them about that?

But rather than move to repair damaged relations, the Abbott government has turned on Collaery and “Witness K” – the remorseful former ASIS agent – and the government of Timor-Leste. ASIO raided the lawyer’s Canberra office and seized large numbers of files. Witness K has had his passport confiscated to prevent him giving evidence on the matter at The Hague. They could both be slapped with criminal charges. Attorney-General George Brandis insists the heavy-handed actions were in the oft-cited “national interest”. Suggestions they are ultimately in the interest of oil and gas companies (such as generous Liberal Party donor Woodside Petroleum) draws a sharp reaction from the conservative camp.

“Woodside is a huge Australian company and they were proposing to invest billions of dollars in Greater Sunrise [oil and gas field] to create wealth, which would inter alia have been wealth for Australians, but obviously substantially for the East Timorese as well. So I was all in favour of that. I was all in favour of it,” Howard-era Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Marian Wilkinson of the ABC’s Four Corners program.

No-one from the government’s ranks will comment on the spying allegations but there is plenty of ominous talk about grave consequences for Timor-Leste if it persists with its legal challenge to CMATS. The Abbott government is fuming on investors’ behalf that Timor-Leste stood up for a pipeline to allow processing of offshore resources on its territory rather than aboard a floating plant. At the same time, Australia poses as a friend and generous benefactor to our northern neighbour.

Peter Galbraith, head negotiator for Timor-Leste in 2004, is not fooled. His reaction to the spying revelations says it all about Australia’s deteriorating reputation in the region. “You know, it’s hard to imagine that would really be done by a friendly government and especially for what were essentially commercial negotiations. That really seems there wasn’t a national security issue here for Australia. It wasn’t as if, you know, the Timorese were posing some kind of military threat or hatching some kind of plot. This was really bugging for commercial advantage,” he told Four Corners.

Next article – Wrong again, Mr Ajaka

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