Give us a Border

  Australia's Maritime Borders - not complete because of the remaining 1.8% between us and East Timor. Map presented by Timor-Leste at Conciliation Commission Hearing 29/8/16

 

Australia's Maritime Borders - not complete because of the remaining 1.8% between us and East Timor. Map presented by Timor-Leste at Conciliation Commission Hearing 29/8/16

If there is one problem over which the Australian government has complete control, it is the matter of the non-existent border between Australia and Timor-Leste.

It is true that the United Nations Conciliation Commission has ruled that it does indeed have the jurisdiction to consider the case by Timor-Leste against Australia. Timor's aim is that an internationally recognised maritime boundary be established between itself and Australia in the Timor Sea.  However, while a report is expected in twelve months, the two nations could begin discussions in the intervening period and just get on with it.

The Australian government has said it accepts the decision that the conciliation should go ahead, but reminds us that any result is not binding. No, it's not binding; meaning that it is possible that if decisions were not to Australia's liking, then it could just walk away. My ears are reddening at the thought that my nation considers it appropriate to flog this horse any further.

There is a story around that Australia has been "generous" to its neighbour as though such "generosity" is a government initiative. It is not. It is not a generous act to take two billion dollars in tax revenue from a disputed area, as Australia has done. The Laminaria-Corallina fields are now nearing depletion, and since September 1999 Australia has received, not just the lion's share, but the totality of the revenue available. Timor-Leste received nothing. During the same period, Australia has spent $1.2 billion in aid to the Timorese. A little arithmetic shows how well we have done.[1] (Actually, neither nation should have received anything from that area; the revenue should have been put into trust until it became clear just where the border should be drawn.) More claims of generosity concern an area where Timor gets 90% of the revenue and Australia 10%. What is usually omitted is that 100% of the area lies on Timor's side of half-way. So in effect, Timor has been generous to Australia, not vice-versa.

What Timor reckons it would get with the application of international law. The border expected with Australia is the green line.

What Timor reckons it would get with the application of international law. The border expected with Australia is the green line.

Australian governments of both complexions have been derelict towards Timor, because of a tunnel-visioned interpretation of "national interest" which holds our nation in thrall to larger powers. In contrast, the work of Australian civil society involving hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians over decades in supporting the Timorese people has been consistent, effective and magnificent.

As Australians know, the Timorese are not asking for charity, in fact, they have never done that. What they require is a border, properly established under international law and recognised by the neighbours. Frankly, Australians have the right to demand the same, because 1.8% of the Australian border does not yet exist, and the missing portion is directly opposite the coastline of Timor-Leste.

Our nation now has the opportunity to take one last step in the journey towards becoming a true neighbour to Timor-Leste. We could accept that the modern, internationally acceptable way of settling this issue is to establish a border based on the median line, as we have done with other neighbours such as New Zealand. We could read some history and realise what an astute, patient and even stubborn people the Timorese are. We could read the current Labor Party policy, which is to undertake talks with the Timorese immediately, with or without a conciliation process. In that context, we could wonder when the next election will be, and ask ourselves what bludgeoning this dead horse does to our international standing. We could ask the question that if Australia expects China to abide by United Nations decisions in the South China Sea, why would we hint at the "non-binding" aspect of a United Nations process in which we have agreed to take part.

We could also think about that one image with which we Australians like to describe ourselves: fairness.

[1] La'o Hamutuk, "How much oil money has Australia already stolen from Timor-Leste?: A look at Laminaria-Corallina:  Updated 4 May 2016, accessed 17 September 2016. http://www.laohamutuk.org/Oil/Boundary/laminaria_revenues.htm; Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee, Inquiry into Australia's Relations with Timor-Leste Submission No 22, 2013: 4, accessed 17 September 2016, http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=jfadt/timor_leste_2013/subs.htm