Two Government Ministers of State from Timor-Leste were in Canberra last week participating in the 2015 Timor-Leste Update at the Australian National University in Canberra.
A report in the Australian newspaper had indicated that maritime boundaries would be "the elephant in the room."
This was not so.
Minister of State Agio Pereria gave a keynote speech at the opening session and did not shy away from discussing maritime boundaries. He said:
"On the question of maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea; the final delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea is a national imperative for Timor-Leste. A vital step towards achieving full sovereignty. Currently, there are no defined maritime boundaries between Timor-Leste and its neighbours Indonesia and Australia. We are pleased to have commenced discussions with Indonesia towards permanently setting maritime boundaries. We are sitting down as good neighbours to come to an agreement that is equitable and that will benefit both nations into the future. Timor- Leste is asking Australia to do the same; to discuss maritime boundaries. There is a common misconception that the maritime boundaries between Timor-Leste and Australia were settled via the Timor Sea Treaties; but they are temporary arrangements without prejudice to the settlement of maritime boundaries that are only relevant to the exploitation of natural resources in the Timor Sea.
Like Timor-Leste, Australia has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which imposes an obligation on States to reach final agreements on maritime boundaries. To this end, we are hopeful the new Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, will revisit his government’s position and offer Timor-Leste the same opportunity to settle maritime boundaries, similar to what past Australian governments have offered to Australia’s other maritime neighbours. All that Timor-Leste is seeking to discuss with Australia is an equitable solution, founded on international law."
Minister of State Antonio da Conceição, spoke focussing on his portfolio which covers Education and social affairs.
My sources tell me that after the two Ministers gave their keynote presentations a question and answer session was held with some very direct questions regarding maritime boundaries. At that point, quite rightly, the representative of DFAT, Ms Elly Lawson, joined the Ministers as part of the panel. She followed the DFAT line that Australia holds to the treaties, they were agreed in good faith and that they are a good deal.
The panel remained dignified as Minister of State Pereira calmly and respectfully explained Timor-Leste's position. This I understand was not the most comfortable moment for Ms Lawson, who in fairness was doing her job in presenting the DFAT key messages.
From my point of view I cannot understand how the words "good faith" can be used when it is alleged that Australia spied on the Timor-Leste negotiating team under the guise of an Australian Aid project - but I digress ...
Minister of State Pereira pointed out that the concept of Australian generosity was turned on its head if you consider that the entire JPDA could be Timor-Leste's exclusive zone if it had a maritime boundary based on international law.
Later on the evening of the 19th of November the Ambassador of Timor-Leste to Australia, H.E. Abel Guterres, speaking to several hundred official guests at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Proclamation of Independence held at the Australian National Museum, was also speaking plainly.
He spoke of the many positive dimensions of the bilateral relationship that Timor-Leste enjoys with Australia and but he also said:
"With regard to issues in the Timor Sea both countries are yet to seat together and meaningfully negotiate Maritime Boundary delimitation between our two countries as required under international law. As a neighbor, friend and ally, Timor-Leste remains hopeful that Australia and Timor-Leste can settle this dispute and delimit our maritime boundaries. We also hope that under the new Visionary Leader and Statesman the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, Australia will reconsider its refusal to negotiate maritime boundaries."
Interesting days are ahead ....