The vote by East Timor’s parliament yesterday to oppose the establishment of an Australian off-shore asylum seeker processing centre should not have come as a surprise. Parliamentarians from the government and opposition have been saying they were against the idea since it was announced last week.
The Australian government has certainly acted unperturbed by the vote, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying the vote from the parliament did not necessarily reflect the position of the government. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has similarly said that the process is "going forward".
If by "going forward" Gillard means that discussions with East Timorese officials are continuing then this is correct. Similarly, the parliament does not in its entirely constitute the government, not least because only 34 of the 65 parliamentarians were there for the vote. However, the vote was unanimous and did include government MPs as well as those from the Opposition.
Discussions may be "going forward", but there is no doubt the vote has set up a fairly significant hurdle for the government to get over. It may be that a deal can be done, that the very persuasive East Timorese Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, can bring his government into line and that there will be agreement for an Australian asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor. A betting person, though, would be putting the odds against it.
Fretilin vice-president and member of parliament, Arsenio Bano, perhaps put it best when he said that he appreciates all that Australia has done for East Timor since 1999. But the country is still one of the poorest in South-East Asia, it still struggles to look after its own people and its resources are very limited.
What others in East Timor have also said is that many East Timorese understand what it is like to have to seek asylum and they do not like the idea of locking up people simply for seeking a safe haven.
The question is, then, what would have to be on the table for the East Timorese government to change its mind. There is no doubt that Australia would have to hold out a significant carrot to East Timor, and not mention the stick. The East Timorese have a distinct reputation for resisting imposition, so that path can only be counter-productive, as well as morally repugnant.
A significant increase in Australian assistance would probably be part of any deal done, along with the provision of resources to the wider East Timorese community, perhaps after the eventual closure of the centre in question.
The Woodside Greater Sunrise issue could be expected to also come up in, or immediately after, such a conversation. East Timor wants Australia to pressure Woodside Petroleum to build a $5 billion LNG processing plant on East Timor’s south shore. Woodside wants to build a floating plant and the Australian government has made clear it does not want to interfere. This recently led to difficulties in Australia-East Timor relations, if over the past week there has been something of a thaw.
What is under discussion between Australian and East Timorese officials, then, is perhaps less entirely focused on the asylum seeker processing centre and more on the nature and status of the wider bilateral relationship. East Timorese officials will probably be saying that their country does not exist for the convenience of Australian politicians lacking the imagination or courage to come up with a genuine alternative to off-shore asylum seeker processing -- a bizarre idea in any case, had it not become a fixture on the political landscape under the previous coalition government.
The talks will also attempt to be amicable and to be strung out until interest in the subject fades.
In the interim, perhaps the ambiguity in the Prime Minister’s asking "for the Australian people's trust to move Australia forward" may allow for an alternative to the "East Timor solution", perhaps one more consistent with internationally regulated existing asylum seeker processing and Australia’s international commitments.