The arrival of Foreign Affairs officials in East Timor this week to discuss a regional asylum seeker processing centre comes as the East Timorese parliament rejects the proposal. While East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has not closed the door on the idea, he has been, at best, polite about it. As an election issue, it will remain alive and kicking.
The government's policy of seeking talks with East Timor about establishing an offshore centre got off to a bungled start last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirmed, denied and finally confirmed again that East Timor was the government's preferred site.
Australia’s relationship with East Timor is at its lowest ebb since 2005 when Alexander Downer bullied then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri into accepting a fundamentally unfair division of the Timor Sea between the two countries. Since then, however, Australia has sent troops and police to help control serious instability in 2006 and has continued to be East Timor’s single largest aid provider.
Yet in recent weeks, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has attacked Australia in ways that have left diplomats reeling and which are beginning to cast doubts over the future of the relationship. The fall-out between the two countries is being driven from within East Timor. In this, confusing categories is playing a major role, as illustrated by East Timorese journalist Jose Belo in The Age on Tuesday 15 June.
A serious dispute has broken out between Australian oil company Woodside and the East Timorese government over the processing of gas from the Greater Sunrise field in the Timor Sea. The dispute looks set to lock up one of the richest gas fields in the region and cost Woodside hundreds of millions of dollars already spent on research and development.
At the heart of the dispute is East Timor’s claim for natural gas taken from the joint Australian-East Timorese field to be processed into LNG in East Timor. Woodside has rejected that option, saying it wants to process the gas on a floating platform in the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government has said, however, that its position is not negotiable and that without an agreement on refining in East Timor there will be no agreement to proceed with drilling.
Steve Holland wrote in Crikey yesterday complaining about a supposed ‘media blackout’ in East Timor. As with another issue, he is wrong about this. There is no media ‘blackout’, but rather a refusal by the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, to continue to feed into under-researched stories that have already been shown to be factually incorrect.
Refusing to comment on an incorrect premise does not, of course, equate to ‘censorship’, as Steve Holland claims.
As a matter of principle, all governments, including those of small and democratic neighbours, should be open and accountable. For those who have been following East Timor for some time, this has generally been shown to be the case.