Rex Patrick is a fighter against injustice. Defeated for re-election on May 21, he will be a loss to the Australian parliament when he leaves the Senate on June 30. He is using those few remaining days to fight for the fair treatment of the Timorese people and the man who blew the whistle on Australian spying, writes Callum Foote.
Senator Rex Patrick has written to the new Attorney-General and Foreign Minister urging them to heal relations with East Timor in light of Penny Wong’s diplomatic win with other Pacific Island countries.
The letter stems from Patrick’s recent battle with the National Archives in the courts of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal where Patrick challenged the government department’s decision to keep key cabinet documents from 2002 relating to the bugging of East Timor a secret.
Patrick and his office were after key legal documents which if disclosed would shed light on the motivations of the government in negotiations with Australia’s poorest neighbour, East Timor (Timor-Leste), that resulted in Australian company Woodside laying claim to half of the oil and gas riches found in the waters around the former Portuguese colony and Indonesian territory.
Patrick wrote to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus arguing for “an alternative course to the previous government’s path of counterproductive secrecy” asking to have “the National Archives consent to the Tribunal making a new decision granting full access to a 2000 Cabinet Submission related to the Howard Government’s Timor Gap negotiation strategy with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor”.
This comes after new Foreign Minister Penny Wong began her fight against China’s diplomatic advances in the Pacific region, flying into Samoa and Tonga days after Beijing’s Foreign Minister signed deals with the island nations after a tour through five countries which resulted in a dozen bilateral agreements and an aborted security and trade deal with 10 Pacific nations.
Ahead of Wong’s second trip through the Pacific in nine days, she said Australia understood that the security of the Pacific “is the responsibility of the Pacific family, of which Australia is a part”.
“We understand that we need to work together like never before, for our peoples and for generations to come,” Wong said.
Patrick’s concerns about the relationship with East Timor are backed by Xanana Gusmao, the small nation’s inaugural president. Gusmao spoke to the tribunal supporting Patrick’s claims, saying that “based on my roles representing Timor-Leste I have formed the view that full disclosure of the historical Cabinet documents relating to the Reported Facts will assist the bilateral relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste by further strengthening the ties that Timor-Leste and Australia have painfully rebuilt during the conciliation process.”
Importantly, Gusmao continued that “secrecy creates a sense of suspicion and impropriety and cannot remain a feature of our good neighbourly relations”.
The near total lack of transparency regarding Australia’s dealings with Timor Leste has dramatically damaged our relations with the country in the years since Australia led the INTERFET (International Force East Timor) mission that helped the nation gain independence in 2002.
Professor Michael Leach of Swinburne University of Technology has researched and published widely on the politics and history of the small nation. A founder of the Timor-Leste Studies Association, he says that:
Though I understand the need for secrecy generally in international relations, it’s now well established that one of the major obstacles to the improvement in the relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste is secrecy. There’s a pattern of secrecy undermining the bilateral relationship with Timor-Leste that’s now well established and puts it in a special category.
The new incoming president of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta, has raised this issue that the spying which occurred on Timor-Leste back in 2004 was an unfriendly act to a friendly ally and neighbour and its not in the normal register of intelligence activities because it was for commercial purposes.
You see Jose Ramos-Horta’s point is that this is not standard intelligence gathering, this was for a commercial purpose and then the people who ordered that, the relevant minister at the time and others ended up as paid consultants on the board of Woodside.
Leach refers to the former foreign minister Alexander Downer’s role on the board of Woodside after his retirement from politics in 2008 and Ashton Calvert, the departmental secretary at the time, ending up on Woodside’s board in 2005.
The case of Bernard Collaery
The persecution of Bernard Collaery and Witness K is intimately linked to Australia’s relations with East Timor.
The bugging “certainly undermined the relationship between Australia and Timor Leste for a long time. If you like, the prosecution of Bernard Collarey is an unsightly hangover of that period which has otherwise passed,” says Leach.
“The question does come to the fore about whether this prosecution should be dropped, and there is some indication that it may well be.
“Political interference in prosecution is never a good look, whether you are instituting them or dropping them.”
However, Leach believes that the reason that Australia-Timor relations are back on track is because the CMATS treaty was challenged and the challenge to the CMATS treaty was on the basis of want of good faith which was directly bolstered by Collaery and Witness K’s exposing of the 2004 bugging.
“So the series of events which went to this prosecution are the same series of events which have improved the bilateral relationship enormously.”
“There’s a strong whiff about this stuff, and I think it’s time for the Australian state to just drop the prosecution of this person. Really we should be looking elsewhere for evidence of wrongdoing in this matter,” Leach concludes.
The offices of the Foreign Minister and Attorney-General have been contacted for comment.