FRANK BRENNAN SJ. The cost of Alexander Downer cutting corners on Timor Leste a decade ago.

Jan 12, 2017

If only the government and their supporters like News Ltd had been prepared to listen to the parliamentary committee a decade ago.  

This week’s announcement that Australia and Timor Leste have agreed to the trashing of the Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty give cause to revisit the behaviour of Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and his dealings with the Australian Parliament back in 2006. It was of course the Howard Government that instituted Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) – the parliamentary review process for treaties. It was the Howard government that then shortcut those processes without due cause in 2006. So now here we are ten years later, trying to put things back together.

In 2006 Minister Downer explained to the parliamentary committee that the national interest exemption

‘was invoked to take advantage of an immediate and short term opportunity in East Timor to bring the CMATS Treaty into force while complying with the understanding with East Timor that the countries would, as far as possible, synchronise their domestic treaty processes. The East Timorese Government has recently indicated to the Australian Government that East Timor now wishes to move ahead expeditiously to bring the CMATS Treaty and Sunrise IUA into force. It has an opportunity to do this prior to presidential and parliamentary elections which will occur over the next few months. The Australian Government is working to place itself in a position to match East Timor’s preparedness to have the treaties enter into force soon. Given the importance of the treaties to our interests in the Timor Sea as well as those of our close neighbour, East Timor, the Government would not wish to allow an opportunity to pass to finalise our agreed arrangements for the Timor Sea. It is uncertain when an opportunity would arise after the East Timorese elections period. I therefore consider that the CMATS Treaty action needs to be taken before the usual twenty sitting day period following tabling elapses, under the national interest exemption recognised by the Government and JSCOT.’

Here is the response by the parliamentary committee in February 2007:

‘Both the Minister and the Department informed the Committee that the CMATS Treaty has been publicly available since its signature in January 2006. The Committee understands the desire of the Government to move synchronously with the East Timor government in ratifying this treaty. However, given the early public availability of the Treaty, it has not been adequately explained why it was not referred several months earlier for review. The Committee’s previous endorsement of the Sunrise IUA should not have been used to infer support for CMATS. The CMATS Treaty contains new and important obligations and raises different issues which should have been subject to the usual process of scrutiny and review. In this instance the national interest exemption should not have been invoked before the Committee was given a reasonable opportunity to consider and report on the Treaty within the Government’s timeframe.’

Good to see outlets like News Ltd are now saying that there is a need to get on with negotiating maritime boundaries. If Mr Downer hadn’t been cutting corners a decade ago, much of the present angst could have been avoided in my opinion. If only the government and their supporters like News Ltd had been prepared to listen to the parliamentary committee a decade ago.


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