Are Timor Talks A Downer ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Crikey has been following the Timor Sea gas negotiations for a while now, and they tend to paint a rather different picture than the one reported in the mainstream press. I was surprised to read in the papers that a deal had suddenly been reached late last week - but it appears that this may just be disinformation spread by Lord Downer of Baghdad. As a Woodside shareholder I'd really like to see this finalised so the Sunrise project gets the go ahead at last - and this requires giving the Timorese a fair deal, not treating them like the Indians of Manhattan.

The weekend media faithfully reported the foreign minister's announcement on Friday that last week's Timor Sea talks in Sydney with East Timor had finished successfully. But Alexander Downer's proclamation might be premature.

"There will probably be no further need for negotiations," Downer said in The Age. "The conclusion that the officials reached will be taken back to ministers in both East Timor and Australia and be given consideration."

Downer made his proclamation on the only Black Friday of the year – and this omen held. East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri immediately challenged report of the "conclusion" of talks in the strongest possible terms: "It's an absolute lie," Alkatiri told the Portuguese news agency Lusa. "There is no accord and, if there is one, in the terms announced it would be totally against my orientations. And, thus, void."

Alkatiri insisted that Dili's stance on bilateral negotiations remained unaltered: "Let us negotiate at the table and not under the pressure of the media," he told Lusa. A familiar pattern is emerging, according to activists who've followed events. "It's not the first time Mr Downer and his posse have claimed that all is well and settled, only to discover that the East Timorese side still had issues to resolve," says Dan Nicholson from Melbourne's Timor Sea Justice Campaign.

Rob Wesley-Smith from Darwin's Timor Sea Justice Campaign is heartened by Alkatiri's response. He accuses some members of East Timor's negotiating team of wanting any agreement in the short term, even if it severely disadvantages East Timor in the long term. He names this camp as negotiators Jose Texeira, Peter Galbraith and, from the outside, the "Bob Hawke" of East Timor politics, Jose Ramos Horta.

"Were the negotiators aware that should East Timor accept the agreement East Timor would for the duration of the agreement be denied the rights to lay claims to any future oil and gas finds just outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area?" asks Wesley-Smith.

It's not the first time East Timor's negotiating team appeared to get on the wrong side of Alkatiri. According to sources in East Timor, Alkatiri might only consider putting the boundary negotiation on hold for a short time in return for a minimum share of at least 50% of the lucrative Sunrise gas field with an estimated reserve of 2.05 billion barrels of oil equivalent. Under the terms of the Timor Sea Treaty, East Timor is currently entitled to only a 18% share. Alkatiri also wanted the downstream benefits. This means piping the gas to East Timor, rather than to Darwin.

What the negotiating team was bringing home to Alkatiri was still the one-off additional payment of not more than US$3.5 billion from the revenue of Sunrise; compared with an agreed fixed percentage share. And as an added inducement, some vague promises of helping East Timor set up some infrastructure to manufacture gas for local consumption. In return, East Timor had to agree to put on hold boundary negotiations for between 50 and 99 years.

According to participants on the online East Timorese discussion group Forum-loriku, the deal on offer amounts to giving away East Timor's sovereignty in exchange for a few seashells. If Alkatiri accepts this deal he faces defeat at the next election. It looks like it's back to the drawing board.

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