Timor Leste - Australia Agreement

17 October 2017

I rise to speak in the Senate on the recent landmark agreement between Timor-Leste and Australia. This agreement, regarding the legal status of maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea, was reached as a result of Timor-Leste's invocation of the compulsory conciliation procedures in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. This ruling vindicates Labor's position and brings to an end more than 40 years of uncertainty over this maritime boundary.

In February last year, Labor committed, when next in government, to reaching a binding international resolution with Timor-Leste, through either bilateral negotiation or international arbitration. This was an agreement that needed Australia to show good faith to be concluded, and it needed to be concluded because Timor-Leste is running out of oil and gas—which means, of course, that its economy is suffering as it's running out of money. Its main Bayu-Undan gas reserve in the Timor Sea is a field that will be exhausted within five years. So the government has been having to spend the country's sovereign wealth fund, the $16 billion petroleum fund, which accounts for 90 per cent of its annual budget, much faster than it is able to progress the development of a diversified economy, which it needs to replace the fund in question.

I recall for the Senate that, since Timor-Leste became an independent nation in 2002, this maritime boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia has remained in dispute. Timor-Leste claimed that the boundary should be drawn in the middle of the sea between the two states using the principle of equidistance, under which a median line should be drawn between Australia and Timor-Leste. And, as I'm sure the Senate is aware, any delimitation drawn according to this principle would see the sea border drawn significantly closer to Australia than Timor-Leste, and the majority of gas and oil reserves in the disputed territory would fall within Timor-Leste's maritime boundary.

Australia set its northern maritime boundary with Indonesia in 1972, based on the principle of natural prolongation. Since then the development of the 1982 UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, favoured the median line boundary as advocated by Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste initiated a conciliation procedure under UNCLOS in April last year relating to the maritime boundaries. A conciliation commission consisting of five members appointed by both Australia and Timor-Leste was empowered to make recommendations but not legally binding orders. Although this was the first occasion such a commission met under the UNCLOS framework, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, who I had the pleasure of catching up with during his recent visit to Hobart last month, was extremely complimentary of the commissioners. It was chaired by His Excellency Peter Taksoe-Jensen, the Danish Ambassador to India, with Dr Rosalie Balkin, Judge Abdul G Koroma, Professor Donald McRae and Judge Rudiger Wolfrum. I would like to echo the praise of Dr Ramos-Horta for the commissioners' efforts in bringing the dispute to an end. As shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, said:

The maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste has strained our bilateral relations and has gone on too long.

Indeed, should the final agreement and the gas field prove as supportive to its development plans as hoped, Timor-Leste could reap the economic benefits of an area containing oil and gas deposits worth an estimated $50 billion. I've tabled a motion in the Senate urging the Turnbull government to adhere to and implement, in good faith, the terms of this landmark agreement.

Labor is committed to multilateralism and a rules based international order. We believe all nations benefit from abiding by international norms. If we want to insist that other nations play by these rules, we should adhere to them as well. I believe instruments such as UNCLOS contribute to the maintenance of that order by facilitating peaceful resolutions of disputes between states, like other maritime border disputes, and could play a vital role, particularly in the one in the South China Sea.

Dr Ramos-Horta commented that this agreement has the potential to resolve more than 40 years of tension and uncertainty between Australia and Timor-Leste and to serve as a catalyst for a new era of collaboration and cooperation. He was hosted in Hobart by Tasmanian Medical Volunteers and the East Timor Eye Program at the Hobart Eye Surgeons clinic on Saturday, 9 September. It was one of the most moving and motivating receptions I've ever attended. Dr Ramos-Horta is an extraordinary individual. He is one of the great figures of the Asia-Pacific, in this century and the last. He has been a strong supporter of eye health and treatment for people suffering from avoidable blindness in Timor-Leste for many, many years. A statistic that shocked me at the time was that over 13,000 people in Timor-Leste are needlessly blind, mostly due to cataracts, a condition that can be overcome with a simple operation that takes less than 20 minutes.

The East Timor Eye Program was established in July 2000 by Dr Nitin Verma, the 2013 Hobart citizen of the year and a Tasmanian finalist in the 2013 Australian of the Year awards. Dr Verma is a humanitarian, a researcher, a teacher, a surgeon and a member of the Order of Australia. He's a partner in the busy Hobart Eye Surgeons clinic and the head of ophthalmology in the Royal Hobart Hospital. He is also the Honorary Consul of Timor-Leste.

The East Timor Eye Program works to assist to make Timor-Leste self-sufficient in the provision of eye care and works towards completely eradicating preventable blindness by 2020. Each year, eye teams travel to Timor-Leste on one- to two-week visits to distribute spectacles and perform consultations and operations. As Dr Ramos-Horta made clear, it is not only the eye care expertise that the volunteers bring to Timor-Leste that's important; it is the training they undertake and the skills they pass on and leave in Timor-Leste so the nation can autonomously deal with and prevent its own problems. It is the shocking beauty of watching people get to see again after simple cataract surgery that motivates Dr Ramos-Horta and Dr Verma in this work.

Many Australian surgeons and other professionals, many of whom are Dr Verma's colleagues from Hobart, have become regular volunteers, generally funding their own trips to Timor to treat patients and teach local health workers. It's such a wonderful thing that they do to give to the Timor people. They are some of the many wonderful people from Timor-Leste, Australia, New Zealand and around the world who are working so hard to make such vital contributions to the future of this new and tiny nation. On behalf of the Australian Senate, I want to express our gratitude to every one of those people.

Australia has a strong interest in a prosperous and stable Timor-Leste. At the Hobart event, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta said—and I agree—that the next five years will be a key period for the growth of Timor-Leste both democratically and economically. Some weeks after the parliamentary election in July, a minority government has been formed. Parliamentarians from both opposition parties are being offered ministries in a government of inclusion, building on the consensus model of the previous government. It is a key moment for Timor-Leste's democratic consolidation, one of opportunity.

But Timor-Leste still needs our support. It still needs Australia's support and hard work and the example of its people, and the humanitarian heroes from the East Timor Eye Program stand it in good stead. We are such close neighbours with such strong people-to-people links. Since Timor-Leste's independence in 2002, Australia has been its largest development partner. I hope this agreement will help to open up Timor-Leste's future as it steps forward into it. I know there are many people in Australia and all over the world who will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the Timorese people, and I wish Timor-Leste well into the future.