Speech in Parliament on East Timor

1.40pm | November 30, 2016

I rise to speak about the relationship between Australia and our close neighbour and friend, Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste is one of the world’s youngest countries. It is also one of its least wealthy. It ranks one hundred and forty seventh out of one hundred and eighty countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. On the latest figures, over forty percent of Timorese people live below the national poverty line. Barely half of all children receive a full course of vaccinations, and barely half of all adults can read.

All of this in one of Australia’s nearest neighbours. At its closest point, Timor- Leste is only a few hundred kilometres further away from the Australian mainland than Tasmania.

By itself, this would be enough for Australia to have a moral obligation to lend a helping hand to Timor-Leste. But our obligation is heightened by the special relationship we have with the Timorese people.

It was a relationship first forged in World War Two between the Australian soldiers serving in Timor and the local Timorese people who fed them, sheltered them, and fought with them. Countless members of the “Sparrow Force”, as the Australian contingent was known, owed their lives to the Timorese.

As the Australian War Memorial notes,

Timor's rugged terrain offered ideal conditions for guerrilla warfare, but the early success of these operations was made possible by the support of the Timorese people, who provided food and shelter, ponies for carrying heavy equipment, acted as porters and guides, and helped set up ambushes. Some took up arms themselves and fought alongside the Australians.

This support came at a heavy cost. Tens of thousands of Timorese lost their lives during the Japanese occupation, and thanks to them many more Australians were able to come home.

Amongst them was the late Tom Uren, a true hero of the Labor movement and man who was so generous in supporting me and so many others over the years. Tom was captured in West Timor and made a POW. He, like many of the Sparrow Force men, felt a ‘debt of honour’ to the Timorese and advocated for them his whole life.

In the closing years of World War Two, Australian planes dropped leaflets saying “Your friends do not forget you.”

We should not.

For some time now, Timor-Leste has been seeking to settle the maritime boundaries between our nations.

At the heart of this dispute lies a question about the ownership of vast undersea petroleum resources in the Timor Gap. The royalties that flow from development of these resources mean a lot to the development of Timor-Leste.

The World Bank estimates that 70% of the country's infrastructure was destroyed in the violence that followed the Timorese vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999. The Timorese are trying to construct and rehabilitate more than 2,100 classrooms to add new places for more than 65,000 students. There is a real need for new hospitals and health infrastructure. These development challenges are compounded by the current economic uncertainty.

Timor-Leste is currently entitled to exploit a portion of the resources that lie between them and Australia, and its budget is heavily dependent on these – more than 95% of its budgets are funded by royalties from these projects. The division of the resources (and thus the royalties that flow from them) is governed by three provisional resource sharing arrangements between our two nations.

The reason these agreements are provisional, however, is that no permanent maritime boundary has been established between Australia and Timor Leste.

The Timorese have disputed the basis on which these provisional agreements calculated the boundary between Timor Leste and Australia, and are seeking to have new boundaries established on a permanent basis.

Permanent boundaries would not only give some measure of certainty to Timor Leste, but would help give some measure of certainty to the investors seeking to develop those resources.

The only remaining problem is that the Australian government has been refusing to negotiate a permanent boundary.

We in Labor do not think this is good enough.

That is why we have committed that in government we would immediately commence discussions on a voluntary, binding international resolution for a permanent maritime boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste. If we cannot reach an agreement, we would seek the assistance of the International Court of Justice or binding international arbitration.

Our willingness to come to the negotiating table is part of our commitment to upholding the international system of laws and norms that we depend on when we express our interests about other issues as varied as whaling or navigation in the South China Sea. By voluntarily coming to an agreement, Australia is acting in accordance with the principles we have spoken up about countless times before. 

Timor-Leste is a small country that has gone through a large amount of suffering.

More than seventy years ago we said to the Timorese “Your friends do not forget you”. Now is the time to show what that means.