Australia’s Imperial Exploitation of Timor-Leste: Why They Are No Different to Their Colonial Monarchy

Australia’s Imperial Exploitation of Timor-Leste: Why They Are No Different to Their Colonial Monarchy

. 8 min read

The relevancy of monarchical rule is now, more than ever, called into question. With the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, over 150 million people spread across the 15 remaining Commonwealth realms, have unintentionally emboldened themselves to consider transitioning to an autonomous republic at a time of unprecedented change. Australia’s deep-rooted identity as a constitutional monarchy places it at the center of such discourse, particularly as recently-elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese brought the Labour Party back into power after nine years of federal Liberal rule. Moreover, his appointment of the nation’s first ever “assistant minister for the republic” is indicative of probable progression towards absolute independence.

Much of this global debate surrounds the imperial, colonial past of the British Empire, of which the monarchy is representative, actively contributed to, and continuously benefits from. Whilst this is undoubtedly valid dialogue—particularly for Australia where a referendum is currently underway to constitutionalize an indigenous body in parliament—the potential ‘death’ of a colonial empire sparks an entirely different national discussion. Although indigenous Australians continue to be painfully reminded of the ongoing impacts of colonialism, Australia silently but actively exerts a parallel imperial force on others. It is no wonder that Albanese has danced around the subject since the Queen’s passing; any recognition, let alone criticism, of British imperial exploitation directly contradicts the current actions of a government he oversees.

Australia is not just a mere victim of the ancient world power of the British Empire, but instead remains steadily following in its colonial footsteps. In particular, these footsteps land directly on one of the poorest countries in the world, and Australia’s own island neighbor: Timor-Leste.

Albanese’s Timely Timor-Leste Deal

Vastly hidden amongst discussions of the British Crown’s direct role in Australia’s colonial past, there is an underlying denial of Australia’s ongoing identity as an empire in their own right—an identity that has never been shrouded in secrecy for Timor-Leste.

In a show of distinguished partnership in September of 2022, Anthony Alabanese appeared to take a positive step in rebuilding a very rocky relationship with the Southeast Asian nation; by signing a brand new defense pact that allows military personnel protection in each respective country, cooperative activities across the shared Timor Sea are made easier. Whilst promoted as an “affirmation of close security cooperation,” it is no coincidence that the agreement comes less than a month after Timor-Leste’s president, José Ramos-Horta, threatened to turn to China for economic support if Australia’s government-supported energy giant, Woodside Energy, continues to reject their call for cooperation surrounding the construction of a pipeline in a key area of the Timor Sea. Clear concern for drawing China into the Indo-Pacific and forfeiting Australia’s sustained power over the island nation underpins Albanese’s deal, and more importantly, does nothing to address the real problem in this unstable relationship.

Downer and the 2004 Bugging Scandal

In May 2022, former Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer was featured on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) QandA program. Given this platform, he was able to answer questions, or perhaps equivocate around them, concerning an event which works well to define this lopsided international relationship. That is, a 2004 scandal involving the installation of listening-devices in the room of an important meeting between the Timor-Leste and Australian governments. With Downer strawmanning to the irrationality of criticizing intelligent services for merely acting as they should—“The suggestion that we somehow have intelligence services but they don’t collect intelligence is … is absurd”—it becomes clear that such officials are either completely incompetent in identifying power imbalances, or keenly aware and consciously manipulative. The former notion of carelessness seems substantially more desirable than intentionality, and yet it is so quickly disproven. Such a ‘standard’ intelligence mission certainly takes on a different meaning when executed under the guise of an altruistic foreign aid program, and when enacted on a fledgling country that Australia boasts to be at the forefront of international support for.

An example of one of the funded training programs provided under Australia's development partnership with Timor-Leste, similar to the foreign aid program used to disguise Downer's unlawful intelligence mission. Photo by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The meeting in question that influenced such an exploitation of power covered critical negotiations over a long-contested reserve of oil and gas in the Timor Sea. In particular, a shared expanse of maritime domain that Australia has a history of bending the rules for, to ensure that they had a ‘rightful’ claim to the plethora of natural resources. In essence, entitlements to the estimated US$46 million worth of oil and gas hidden within the Greater Sunshine Field have been a point of contention between the two nations for over 33 years; for Woodside Energy, an economic opportunity, for Timor-Leste, an economic necessity.

Treaties upon Treaties

Without understanding the relatively brief, but extremely telling history of relations between Australia and Timor-Leste, it can be difficult to grasp the significance of this maritime domain struggle. The transition away from the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty, between Australia and Indonesia, marks the historical pivot for Australia’s reign over emerging Timor-Leste. Rather than an equal split of the Timor Gap revenue as with Indonesia, Timor-Leste’s 2002 independence introduced a revised Timor Sea Treaty which adjusted the revenue split to a 90/10 favoring Timor-Leste. Upon first glance this presents as a seemingly promising improvement. Yet it is littered with furtiveness and a strategic redefining of internationally-accepted terms. So, whilst the breakdown of revenue within the shared region is favorable to the burgeoning nation, the reality is quite different. Rather than the codified maritime boundary principles under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), wherein the “median line” between the countries divides sovereignty within the area, Australia strategically argued for an economic division along its continental shelf; suddenly, the resources of the Greater Sunrise Field which spans the border of the joint petroleum development area (JPDA), are overwhelmingly Australian—approximately 82/18. This unusual, tactical maneuver enshrouds acquisitive imperial sentiments, and it was no accident.

Long before Timor-Leste gained its independence, Australia was attuned to a possible loss of profit, labeling the issue as politically sensitive and covertly accepting that the Indonesian treaty had “failed to deliver benefits to East Timor.” Rather than rectify this as a powerful partner, they purposefully allowed Timor-Leste to lose US$1 million per day “due to Australia’s unlawful exploitation.” Just as the Queen’s supposed benevolence to charities was funded on the backs of enslaved minorities and colonialism, Australia’s “deep and abiding interest in Timor-Leste’s future prosperity” is duplicitously characterized by imperial power exertion; by completely restricting the island’s necessary economic growth, Timor-Leste is left stranded in deep poverty without the means to claw its way out.

Timor-Leste was not ignorant of this ongoing exploitation, hence the aforementioned reopening of discussions in 2004, but because their government was unaware of any disguised intelligence interference from its supposed development ally, an agreement to supersede the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty with the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) was reached; finally, the Greater Sunshine Field was split evenly, 50/50 — a truly Australian ‘fair go’ had at long-last been realized. Or not.

A Strategic Exclusion from International Law

The problem still remained that under current International Law, Australia shouldn’t have any claim over the territorial field at all; a 50 percent entitlement is still dramatically less than the 100 percent Timor-Leste was legally authorized to have. It is no surprise, then, that when the bugging became public in 2013, Timor-Leste promptly rejected the CMATS Treaty, rightfully contesting its validity due to Australia’s good-faith conduct being tainted by espionage.

Furthermore, speaking to the truly suppressed nature of Australia’s legitimately imperial manipulations is that Timor-Leste could not even turn to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), nor the compulsory jurisdiction of UNCLOS, to ensure Australia answered for its history of exploitative wrongdoings. All the way back in 2002, a mere two months before Timor-Leste won the battle for independence, Australia had quietly excluded itself from both international systems. With one swift exit, Australia had successfully prevented Timor-Leste from exercising its inherent rights under international law and now was able to rely purely on ‘diplomatic’ negotiations. One can understand why this might be intensely useful for a country predicated on the exploitation of a developing nation—now it was a simple game of power politics.

This may seem like opinionated speculation, but such sneaky legal activity is confirmed by official cabinet documents; in 2000, Australia expressed concern that the potential independence of Timor-Leste may rupture their existing agreement with Indonesia (which, of course, it did). It was a concrete reason to preemptively exempt themselves from international jurisdiction, yet one that further solidifies a national valuing of economic expansion over the human rights of Timor-Lestians; connections between this and the British empire’s prodigious wealth at the expense of slavery and racial genocide speak for themselves.

Rewriting History

In response to Timor-Leste’s arbitration, Australia raided the home of Witness K., a secret agent involved in the bugging who partnered with barrister Bernard Collaery to build a case against Australia’s misuse of intelligence services for private, commercial advantage—particularly, during a heightened time of regional terror following the 2002 Bali bombings. Collaery’s office was also raided and marked the beginning of a years-long prosecutorial attack on the alleged whistleblower. This focus on punishing truth-telling, rather than rectifying the harm that economic greed has caused for Timor-Leste citizens, ultimately reveals Australia’s identity as a modern-day empire. With a wealth that already profoundly exceeds Timor-Leste’s, Woodside still wanted to deprive one of the poorest countries in the world of a chance to survive in the most basic sense of the word.

The final agreement signed between the nations occurred in 2018, shortly after Timor-Leste terminated the espionage claims in the permanent court of arbitration. What’s more interesting than the decision to at last define the maritime border by the median line is Australia’s public reaction. Surprisingly, Australia now sanctimoniously promotes the importance of international “rules and norms” as if it had always favored the stability of UNCLOS regulation. The government is so far removed from its own actions that it can praise peaceful negotiation without guilt as if it hadn’t spent the last 18 years advocating for antiquated guidelines solely to exploit Timor-Leste for its own pecuniary benefit. The adjusted deal in line with UNCLOS, which gives 70 to 80 percent of the Greater Sunrise Field’s revenue to Timor-Leste depending on where the pipeline is constructed, is so much more than just an attempt to save face. It is a purposeful rewriting of history akin to the monarchy’s dismissal of its own colonial roots, and its imperialistic impacts are just as devastating to Timor-Lestians, who are still currently suffering from this enforced poverty.

Even today, the pipeline is far from being ready to provide Timor-Leste with the needed resources. Woodside continues to deny the nation’s demands to develop the pipeline from Timor-Leste’s shores, rather than Australia’s Darwin coast. Despite a clear understanding that the prosperity of the island depends on not just the oil and gas returns, but the “second-order economic and social benefits” derived from the consequential workforce required to undertake the project, Woodside is relentless in its denials—such is the egalitarian Australian culture.

The company, valued at US$37.4 billion, should be well aware of the benefits of preparing future generations by providing working and leading experience, as its own corporation reaches 15 countries, employing thousands of people globally.

If we are to have any form of conversation about Britain’s exploitative imperial history and the relevancy of monarchy in modern day Australia then it is imperative we also open the floor to Australia’s ongoing exploitations and actively recognize Australia as its own imperialistic empire today.