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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6102

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:00 PM) —I will not speak long on this matter but, as the Democrats representative on the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, and in view of the Democrats'—indeed many other people's—longstanding interest in issues relating to East Timor and indeed this particular treaty, I thought I should speak briefly on it. I apologise to the committee and to the people who appeared at public hearings throughout the country that I was not able to get to any of the hearings. I certainly read transcripts and submissions that were provided to the inquiry. It is an issue that the Democrats and I take seriously. I would not want people to get the impression that, because I was not able to attend hearings, that is not the case. As people would recognise, trying to cover all the different workloads and responsibilities one has is not always easy. This was particularly so over that period of time. Nonetheless, the issue is an important one. The fact that I felt it necessary to put in a minority report reflects that.

I understand and recognise the rationale behind the committee's recommendation, but the Democrats still retain some concerns. It is fairly obvious to all of us, no doubt, that the future of East Timor very much depends on its offshore resources. It is of course an extremely poor country and it will very much rely on its ability to generate revenue from this resource. For that reason, the Democrats have some concerns that the East Timorese may have been locked into a situation that is not as beneficial as it could be for them.

According to its terms of reference, the treaties committee is perhaps not normally meant to consider what is in the national interest of another country. We consider what is in our national interest, and that is appropriate, but East Timor is a special case for a number of historical reasons and its interests need to be given greater priority than perhaps we would give to those of other nations that we are negotiating treaties with. Secondly, it is in Australia's own interests to have East Timor develop as a prosperous nation and as one that is able to operate in an independent and self-determined way. It has, as a nation, set a great example to people around the world with its perseverance for justice. It is in everybody's interests for East Timor to be able to succeed, to be seen to succeed and to continue to provide inspiration for others around the world who struggle for freedom.

There were a number of significant submissions that raised concerns about aspects of the treaty. The Democrats or I have raised concerns, in previous reports, about the Australian government's decision to exclude Australia from the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice with respect to maritime boundary disputes. We recorded our opposition to that decision when the government made it in March this year. We believe that we should support the structures and principles of the international legal system, including in relation to this particular case. We put forward a number of recommendations. We acknowledge that it is best not to have this issue dangle on indefinitely, for the sake of the interests of both countries at government level and also for the sake of the countries that are seeking to utilise this resource. I know there are a number of Australian companies, such as Santos and others, which are looking to utilise some of the resources such as natural gas. I recognise that it is desirable to have it all concluded as promptly as possible, but we believe that there are still issues relating to the seabed boundaries that could do with ongoing examination.

The Democrats repeat our opposition to the government's decision to remove itself from the jurisdiction of the ICJ pertaining to maritime boundaries. We believe that there need to be express provisions in the treaty relating to environmental standards, particularly given that the area is going to be subjected to significant exploitation in relation to gas and oil. Environmental standards are important, as are occupational health and safety standards. It would have been useful for the Australian government to make a clearer commitment to providing training for East Timorese nationals and residents who are seeking to enter the resource industry. Skilling up the citizens of East Timor is again something that is in our national interests. Nonetheless, we support the 90 to 10 ratio that was agreed to and, given that undoubtedly this treaty will be ratified, we look forward to the provision of that source of income for the East Timorese to be able to be applied in conjunction with ongoing aid and assistance from the Australian government to help in the very crucial issue of the further economic and social development of the East Timorese nation.

Question agreed to.