Rex Patrick is fighting for the release of documents which expose Australia’s spying on Timor-Leste to cheat the little country out of oil and gas reserves. He is in court in Melbourne this minute but it’s a game of “We can neither confirm or deny”. The former senator and unbowed transparency warrior kicks off his first column for Michael West Media today.
If you thought the Attorney-General dropping charges against Bernard Collaery was a sign that secret trials in Australian courts and tribunals were a thing of the past, you would be wrong.
Today, in Melbourne, a secret hearing is taking place where the government is trying to prevent the public disclosure of 22-year-old cabinet documents relating to the Howard government’s plans to defraud the newly independent and impoverished nation of Timor-Leste of their oil and gas resources.
January 1 is the biggest day of the year for the National Archives. It’s the day they unveil cabinet papers from 20 years prior. Last year, among the documents named but not released was a year 2000 cabinet submission entitled “Timor Gap Negotiations”.
I put in a request to get access to it. The Archives is an organisation charged with safely storing and making available significant historical government documents. But their response was one of ‘‘sorry, no access’’.
Dirty old deeds
That was the wrong thing to say to a transparency warrior.
Everyone – Australians, Timorese and informed members of the international community – knows that we did the dirty on Timor-Leste in 2004 when we used the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to spy on their sea boundary negotiating team after we had agreed to negotiate in good faith.
Yet the government has adopted a crazy ‘‘neither confirm nor deny’’ approach to the spying operation, which just makes our officials look like a child with chocolate all over his face in front of the fridge neither confirming or denying they touched the chocolate.
I sought a review of the archives access refusal decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Almost immediately, without me making so much as a submission, the archives conceded they might have got their decision wrong and granted me access to about two-thirds of the document.
Public hearings occurred in May this year, where I argued that the disclosure of a two decades old negotiating strategy related to a treaty and agreement that are no longer in force couldn’t possibly be harmful to our international relations. I pointed out that the current government could not be blamed for the position taken by an Australian government six prime ministers ago.
People already appreciate that the Albanese government has a different international personality to the Morrison government. How can Albanese, or even Morrison for that matter, be linked with the international decision-making of Howard?
I argued that the release of documents would pale into insignificance in the context of the successive wrongdoings of the Australian Government over the past 30 years including encouraging Indonesia’s moves to annex Timor when the Timorese desired independence through to the spying on Timor’s sea boundary negotiating team to gain financial advantage for Australian and foreign oil and gas companies.
Bound and gagged
In the public hearings the government did not present their arguments as to why the cabinet documents should stay hidden from public view. That argument takes place today behind a sound-proof door in the Melbourne registry of the AAT.
As the applicant arguing the documents should be released, I can’t hear what the government’s arguments for non-disclosure are. I can’t challenge their arguments. I can’t cross-examine their witnesses’ statements. And they won’t let me have a lawyer in the room either.
When you’re involved in a fight with the Archives about their refusal to grant access to historical documents, you start with one hand tied behind your back because you are not able to see the contents of the documents you’re arguing about. When they close the court, they tie your other hand behind your back. It’s hardly a fair fight, but they seem most comfortable with that idea.
The time for secrecy around the government’s attempts to defraud the newly independent nation of Timor-Leste of their oil and gas resource has come to an end. Australians want full disclosure. The Timorese want that too, and while there is still secrecy there will always be an elephant in the room when officials from the two countries meet.
As former Timorese president Xanana Gusmao deposed in these proceedings in support of my call for transparency, “Continued secrecy creates a sense of suspicion and impropriety and cannot remain a feature of our good neighbourly relations.” He should be listened to.