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Wednesday, 8 March 2000
Page: 14229


Mr SNOWDON (10:25 AM) —I am pleased to make a contribution to the debate this morning on the Timor Gap Treaty (Transitional Arrangements) Bill 2000 for a number of reasons, including my historical interest and my involvement in the issue of East Timor, and the mere fact that I am the member for the Northern Territory and what that has meant over a number of years.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I was the chairman of the Timor Gap Task Force under the previous government. The purpose of that task force was to facilitate as far as we possibly could, as interested observers, developments in the zone of cooperation, and at the same time ensure that Australia got a fair share of the benefits. Of course, the agreement over the Timor Gap ensures that, but we were very concerned to keep our eyes on the ball. The Timor Gap Task Force had participants from the industry, from the trade unions and from governments—the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth government—and we had regular briefings from the joint authority.

That was very useful because it gave me an understanding of the issues involved in the development of the Timor Gap. I have to say that an important aspect of that is the agreement itself, which has been referred to previously by other speakers. An aspect which is crucial, of course, is a fair division of the spoils, and that is that the benefits which accrue are divided roughly fifty-fifty between ourselves as a signatory and a partner, in this case UNTAET, acting on behalf of the East Timorese, previously the Indonesians.

I see this as a very positive sign. I have to say I was a person who had difficulty in accepting the initial signing of the agreement because of my own position on the question of East Timor. I was an advocate of the East Timorese cause over many years and yet a member of a government which had signed an agreement based on de jure recognition. That was something I had not really agreed with in the first instance and so it was quite difficult. Nevertheless, accepting de jure recognition is what we did under previous governments. It was initiated by the Fraser government in 1977 or 1978. As a result of that we accepted Indonesian occupation of East Timor and its annexation and we accepted Indonesian governance of the area.

On that basis we signed the agreement over the Timor Gap. It is a good agreement. I think it is fair to say that it is an agreement which can be seen by all parties as providing a fair distribution of the resources and as providing the capacity for industry to recognise that they, despite the sensitivities involved in the area, can develop the resource in an appropriate way.

Not long after the United Nations became heavily involved in East Timor last year we had visits by senior spokesmen for the CNRT, not least by the leadership. One of those people who came here very early on was Dr Mari Alkatiri. He came here to talk with our government about the way in which CNRT would approach the issue of the Timor Gap. In my discussions with Dr Alkatiri he made it very clear that their concern was to facilitate the ongoing development of their region and that it was not their desire for there to be any impediment to the commercial development of the Timor Gap. He did say, and I think it is a caveat which was mentioned previously by the shadow spokesman on foreign affairs, that at some point when East Timor has its own government and is independent of the United Nations it may seek to renegotiate the agreement.

I think we should say that is well and good. We should welcome the possibility of sitting across the table from a sovereign government of East Timor to renegotiate that deed if that is required. The important element of that is that renegotiation should not cause a difficulty for those people who are planning to invest considerable resources in the development of the region. It seems to me that the message which has been given by the CNRT leadership, independently from UNTAET but I am sure UNTAET has given it as well, is that it is their desire to facilitate the development in an appropriate way. Clearly there is the real question that, if there are major impediments to the ongoing development of the region and the investment of the billions of dollars which have been earmarked for Bayu-Undan and potentially for Sunrise, it is important that it does not take with it sovereign risk as a result of the actions of governments, given that agreement has been reached and given that they are working under the current arrangements and an agreement which has been signed initially by Australia and Indonesia and, subsequently, with an exchange of letters by Australia and UNTAET. That formalisation was made, as we have heard previously, on 10 February of this year.

I say that this is an important milestone. It is an important milestone for our country, Australia, to come to terms with our responsibilities as a neighbour to East Timor. Over recent months we have seen Australia become involved in East Timor in a very positive way. Despite whatever reservations I might personally have had about our past relationships and our de jure recognition of Indonesian occupation, I think it is fair to say that over recent months Australia has acted and shown its bona fides in a way which should be applauded by all Australians. I know it is recognised and acknowledged by the East Timorese community. Not only have we repaid an enormous debt in the form of the relationship that we have had with East Timor historically as a result of the Second World War through the leadership of General Cosgrove and INTERFET; we have recognised in a mature way the importance of the East Timorese being self-determining in their relationships with us. That, to me, is extremely important.

I know the previous speaker, the member for Blair, spoke of our relationship with the Indonesian government. It is true that it is very important to us that we maintain a very strong relationship with Indonesia. I personally believe that we are in a position to extend that relationship to well beyond what it has been, certainly over the last 12 months, as a result of what has happened recently in East Timor.

Important also is recognition by us of what this really means to the East Timorese community. Those of us who have had the privilege of visiting East Timor will understand how devastated that community is and will understand how important access to whatever material resources and benefits flow out of the development of the Timor Gap will be to the people of East Timor.

I do not think it is unreasonable to say that we should not be building false hopes. The fact is that we are talking about the development of a resource which is dependent on a whole range of factors which are by and large beyond the control of government. We are hopeful that this will be a boon that will provide the potential for tens of millions, if not billions, of dollars over the years ahead to our respective countries but it may not. I think what we need to comprehend is that while ever it does, the use of those resources, in terms of the benefits it will bring to the East Timorese community, is extremely important.

For my own community in the Northern Territory, we have been and are well placed to take advantage of the benefits that will flow from the development of the Timor Gap. We know already of the plans by Phillips Petroleum—and now we hear by Woodside and Shell—for the further development of the resources which come out of the Timor Gap through plants developed in the Northern Territory near Darwin. Those are very important to our economy. I do not think we should underestimate their importance to our economy or the fact that they will provide significant benefits to the people of the Northern Territory.

I have had some discussions with the people involved in these developments previously, and it is very clear that, whilst their interests are commercial, they see there are significant benefits of a non-commercial nature which will flow to those people who are participants in the Timor Gap. The spin-offs which will flow to my community in the Northern Territory are clearly significant and are very welcome, as they would be significant and welcome to the people of East Timor.

There is one issue about this which causes me some irritation, and that is the fact that really we have the United Nations as a partner in this deal at the moment. In my view, the quicker the United Nations is replaced, in a sense—at least in terms of these formal arrangements—by a sovereign government or sovereign representatives of East Timor, the better. That may well take some time, given the internal factors which are at work in East Timor and the need for the United Nations to act responsibly. I think it is extremely important, and I know that it is at the forefront of the minds of the senior people within the United Nations. UNTAET should act in concert with advice and with the views of the people of East Timor, particularly those people who act as the leaders of CNRT. I do not think we should underestimate that importance.

It is not appropriate for UNTAET to make decisions in isolation. I am not saying that they would intend to do that; I am hoping they will not. Certainly, statements which have been made by Mr de Melo and certainly by the Secretary-General of the United Nations would lead us to believe that that will not be the case. Nevertheless, it is an observation which I think is worth while making. There is a real issue here about the East Timorese community being able to develop their own views about the world, to develop their own relationships with people of the world and to ensure that arrangements which are made on their behalf by UNTAET meet their objectives and their priorities. I am hopeful that that will be the case. I am just saying that I have some reservations about the role of the United Nations.

Nevertheless, this is an important piece of legislation and it is something which I think we can be proud of in terms of our role in it. I look forward to an ongoing relationship with the people of East Timor through this arrangement. It will be part of a very wide relationship. There is no question about that. As a person who lives in the Northern Territory, I am looking forward to that partnership, of Australia being a very close neighbour to the people of East Timor. I think this is a very important piece of legislation and I commend it to the House.