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Wednesday, 24 March 2004
Page: 21760

Senator BRANDIS (9:55 AM) —I was the Chairman of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee which conducted the hearing into this bill last Monday evening. I want to respond briefly to some of the statements that we have heard from Senator Brown and Senator Stott Despoja, both of whom participated in that hearing, and also from Senator Harris and Senator Lees, who did not. The Greater Sunrise Unitisation Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and related bill were referred to the legislation committee on 10 March, and I am advised by the committee secretariat that the hearings were advertised in the ordinary fashion on the Internet on 12 March. The secretariat also approached by telephone various interested parties, not only commercial parties but also NGOs who had taken an interest in the legislation. Only two NGOs indicated an interest in appearing before the public hearing, one of which ultimately did not appear. However, written submissions were received from four NGOs—that is, the Timor Sea Justice Campaign, which did appear; the East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis; Australians for a Free East Timor; and Oxfam Community Aid Abroad. Those submissions were before the committee and were considered by it in its deliberations, as were submissions by four interested private citizens. The only commercial party which made a submission but which did not appear before the hearing was Woodside Energy Ltd.

So although it is true to say, as Senator Brown has said, that there were only two brackets of witnesses, that is, Mr Nicholson from the Timor Sea Justice Campaign—and I interpolate to say that I agree with Senator Brown that Mr Nicholson was a very impressive witness—and the Public Service witnesses from the department of industry, Treasury, DFAT and the Attorney-General's Department, nevertheless there were eight other interested parties whose submissions were before the committee.

The next point I wish to make is that the government of East Timor did not make a submission to the committee nor indicate an interest in appearing before it. Perhaps that is not surprising, because all these bills do is give effect to an agreement between the government of Australia and the government of Timor Leste. Nevertheless, out of abundant caution I asked the secretary of the committee, Dr Bachelard, to approach the East Timorese embassy in Canberra to inquire whether or not the ambassador wished to make a submission or wished to appear, absent a written submission, at the hearing. That approach by telephone was followed up by a letter which I sent to His Excellency the Ambassador, Mr Teme, on 19 March reminding him of the hearing and again indicating that if he wished to appear on behalf of his government he was welcome to do so but there was no necessity for him to do so. The committee secretariat was contacted by the embassy during the course of Monday, and it was indicated to the secretariat that they did not wish to appear or otherwise to make a submission. So the suggestion that this has been done in a rush which has prevented interested parties, including NGOs, let alone the government of East Timor, from putting their point of view to the committee simply is not so.

Mr Nicholson, the one witness who not only made a written submission but also appeared before the committee in person, gave a very vigorous critique of the legislation and gave a very good account of himself. As chairman of the committee, I indulged Senator Brown and Senator Stott Despoja by allowing the hearings of the committee to run on for almost three-quarters of an hour beyond the scheduled adjournment time so that it could not honestly be said that there was any constraint on the capacity of Senator Brown or Senator Stott Despoja—two senators who adopted a critical attitude to the legislation—to ask the questions which they wished to ask. No time limit was imposed upon either of them.

Those are the facts. Before I sit down, I wish to comment on something Senator Harris said. This is not the time to debate the merits of these bills, but the record should not go uncorrected. Senator Harris made the assertion that the Sunrise field—which falls across the boundaries of the joint petroleum development area which has been defined in the agreement between the government of Australia and the government of Timor Leste—is in East Timorese territory. The maritime and seabed boundary between Australia and East Timor is still the subject of negotiation between those two nations. The commercial arrangements to which this legislation will give effect and which reflect the agreement of the government of Timor Leste and the government of Australia are expressly, by the terms of the agreement—which is a treaty, or has the character of a treaty, between the two nations—without prejudice to any ultimate determination of the negotiations of the line of the seabed and maritime boundary. Although the JPDA is to the north and west of the median point between the coastlines of Australia and East Timor, it is factually incorrect to say that this area of seabed falls within East Timorese seabed territory, just as it is quite incorrect as a matter of law to say that, ordinarily, the seabed and maritime boundary between two littoral states is the median point between their coastlines.

What Senator Harris did not tell the Senate—perhaps because he was ignorant of the fact—is that the edge of the Australian continental shelf, which projects from the north-western coast of Western Australia, is much closer to the southern and eastern boundaries of the land mass of East Timor than it is to the northern and western boundaries of the land mass of Australia. Senator Harris is perhaps ignorant of the fact that, in the determination of international seabed and maritime boundaries, the locality of the continental shelf between littoral states is a much more highly relevant circumstance than the median point between the coastlines. The locality of that boundary is now the subject of negotiation between those two governments. This treaty, and the agreement which gives effect to it, are expressly without prejudice to any outcome which those negotiations might produce.