Stunning breakthrough on Timor Sea boundary


Photo by Mark Skulley

Timor-Leste and Australia have reached agreement on the “central elements” over a deal to settle a maritime boundary between the two countries.

The deal emerged from a series of confidential meetings in Copenhagen in the last  week.

Timor’s chief negotiator, former President and resistance hero Xanana Gusmão, hailed it as opening a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

Australia and Timor are participating in talks conducted by a Conciliation Commission pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The Conciliation Commission today released a statement which said the agreement came as a package.

In addition to boundaries, the package “addresses the legal status of the Greater Sunrise gas field, the establishment of a Special Regime for Greater Sunrise, a pathway to the development of the resource, and the sharing of the resulting revenue.”

The statement said the parties will now turn to formalising the agreement and addressing a number of remaining issues and points of detail.

“Until all issues are resolved, the details of the Parties’ agreement will remain confidential.”

“Nevertheless, the Parties agree that the agreement reached on 30 August 2017 marks a significant milestone in relations between them and in the historic friendship between the peoples of Timor-Leste and Australia.”

The aims to finalise an agreement by the end of October this year.

The parties will also start to engage with other stakeholders in the Timor Sea regarding the implications of their agreement, in particular with respect to the Greater Sunrise resource.

Gusmão hailed the agreement and thanked the Commission for its “resolve and skill in bringing the Parties together, through a long and at times difficult process, to help us achieve our dream of full sovereignty and to finally settle our maritime boundaries with Australia.”

“This is an historic agreement and marks the beginning of a new era in Timor-Leste’s friendship with Australia.”

Timor-Leste’s Agent in the proceedings, Minister Agio Pereira, echoed the sentiments:

“This agreement was made possible because of the strength and leadership of the father of our nation, the Chief Negotiator, Xanana Gusmão, who worked with the Commission and Australia to secure the political and economic sovereignty of our nation and secure the future of our people.”

“With our joint success at resolving our dispute through this conciliation process, Timor-Leste and Australia hope to have set a positive example for the international community at large.

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop MP, said it was a “landmark day in the relationship between Timor-Leste and Australia.”

“This agreement, which supports the national interest of both our nations, further strengthens the long-standing and deep ties between our Governments and our people.”

The Chairman of the Commission, Ambassador Peter Taksøe-Jensen of Denmark, speaking on behalf of the Commission, made the following statement:

“I commend the Parties for being able to reach an equitable and balanced solution that benefits both Timor-Leste and Australia. These negotiations have been challenging, and this agreement has only been possible because of the courage and goodwill shown by leaders on both sides. ”

“The key moment in these negotiations transpired on the evening of 30 August, and the significance of that date is not lost on the Commission. Both countries will now look back on this date fondly.”

See full Conciliation Commission statement here:




Australia makes historic shift on Timor Sea boundary, agrees to negotiate


Xanana Gusmao addressing the conciliation commission in The Hague last year.

The Turnbull government has quietly overturned a 50-year foreign policy by agreeing to negotiate a permanent maritime boundary with East Timor.

A joint statement issued today the two countries emerged out of compulsory conciliation proceedings, which is being conducted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“For the further conduct of the conciliation process, the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia have each confirmed to the other their commitment to negotiate permanent maritime boundaries under the auspices of the Commission as part of the integrated package of measures agreed by both countries,” the statement said.

“The governments of Timor-Leste and Australia look forward to continuing to engage with the Conciliation Commission and to the eventual conclusion of an agreement on maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea. ”

“The Commission will hold a number of meetings over the course of the year, which will largely be conducted in a confidential setting.”

“The governments of Australia and Timor-Leste remain committed to their close relationship and continue to work together on shared economic, development and regional interests.”

The announcement marks a major shift by Australia since the conciliation proceedings began last year in The Hague.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has yet to explain the reasoning for the dramatic change in policy

Last year, Australia argued unsuccessfully that the five-member conciliation commission did not have jurisdiction to hear the dispute. It also argued that pre-existing treaties were legally binding.

The conciliation outcome will not be binding on the two countries, but today’s announcement indicates the Australia’s representatives have a mandate to negotiate.

Today’s announcement confirmed that Timor has given written notice that it planned to terminate the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) which was struck in 2006.

Link to joint statement:

ABC decision to can Pacific shortwave radio broadcasts is plain dumb


Olympic pool, Suva.

During a recent reporting visit to Fiji, I was delighted to hear a new phrase – the “Coconut Wireless”.

This is local slang for the spread of information and rumour over long distances, including vast expanses of sea, and often by word of mouth.

One of my contacts in Suva said her mother once telephoned her from a distant island to say that she had heard of a tsunami warning in the Fijian capital.

My contact told her mother that no warning had been issued. She attributed it to the “Coconut wireless” being at work, in much the same way that the Bush Telegraph operates in Australia.

On the same trip, I repeatedly heard about the importance of radio in the Pacific as a source of news and information.

Hence, I was stumped by this week’s muted announcement by the ABC that the national broadcaster had decided to end shortwave broadcasts within Australia and internationally from the end of January 2017

Link to ABC statement:

As things stand, Radio Australia broadcasts shortwave services to PNG and the Pacific islands nations which are important (and strategic) neighbours for Australia.

The ABC claims the savings from decommissioning the service will be reinvested in a “more robust” FM transmitter network and an expanded content offering for the region that will include English and in-language audio content.

The ABC’s director of radio, Michael Mason, argued that while shortwave technology has served audiences well for many decades, it was “now nearly a century old and serves a very limited audience.”

“The ABC is seeking efficiencies and will instead service this audience through modern technology,” Mason said.

The story was picked by Radio New Zealand, which said the decision had caused “upset around the Pacific” because shortwave remained a vital communication link in remote areas.

The report noted that many remote islands had no access to the internet and the ABC planned to shut down the shortwave service in the middle of the cyclone season.

Radio NZ interviewed Lowy Institute fellow, Sean Dorney, who worked for decades as a foreign correspondent in the Pacific for the ABC.

“There seems to be a belief in the ABC in Sydney that there’s no one living in the Pacific, let alone listening to shortwave radio,” Dorney said.

“For instance my wife is from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea … her brother who lives in the village, still listens to Radio Australia on shortwave.”

“So there’s a listenership out there. I think this I probably a money saving venture but I think this is a very, very sad decision, especially for those people in the Pacific who have relied quite considerably over the years on Radio Australia.”

Link to Radio NZ report:

Within Australia, most publicity over the planned shut down of the ABC’s shortwave radio had dealt with the impact on remote areas in the Northern Territory, which also needs to be considered.

But the decision seems to be shortsighted when it comes to the Pacific, another instance of Australian officialdom not weighing the modest costs of a service against the value it provides in our part of the world.

It came during a bipartisan visit this week to the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu and Samoa by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, and her Labor counterpart, Penny Wong.

Maybe these two perceptive politicians can put in a good word for Radio Australia’s shortwave service to the ABC management.

Statement by Bishop on her visit with Wong:


Rising body count of Australians in Syria and Iraq


At least 58 and up to 66 Australians are believed to have been killed in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, according to new Federal government figures.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection included the figures in evidence tendered in a case before the Fair Work Commission this week, in which the DIBP sought to end protected industrial action at Australian airports on public safety grounds.

Most of the evidence from the Australian Border Force’s assistant commissioner strategic border command, Clive Murray, is covered by confidentiality orders and cannot be published.

However, one statement by Murray – which is not confidential – said the recent industrial action at airports posed particular problems because it was being staged as 30-minute rolling stoppages nationally, which could be held at any time over a fortnight.

Murray, who was previously managed the AFP’s international network on serious and organised crime, said the national terrorist threat for Australia set by ASIO remained unchanged at “PROBABLE” over the last two years.

He summarised the current threat and response to terrorism in Australia as:

*48 people charged as a result of 19 counter-terrorism operations since September 2014 when the national terrorism threat level was raised to the current level

*15 convicted terrorist offenders in jail, with 37 before the courts on terrorism-related charges

*four attacks and ten major counter-terrorism disruption operations since September 2014

*around 110 Australians currently fighting or engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq

* around 200 Australians have travelled to Syria/Iraq since 2012, with more than half of them still active in the conflict zone

* at least 58 and potentially up to 66 Australians believed to have been killed in Syria/Iraq

* about 40 people have returned to Australia after travelling to Syria/Iraq and joined groups involved in the conflict

* some 200 people in Australia being investigated for providing support to participants in the Syria/Iraq conflict, including for “funding and facilitation” or seeking to travel

* around 185 Australian passports have been cancelled or refused in relation to the Syria/Iraq conflict


Some of the figures given by the ABF’s Murray seem to tally with figures given by the Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis at Senate estimates hearings in May this year.

For example, the ASIO chief quoted an “unchanged figure” of about 110 Australian citizens who were “actively engaged in hostilities or directly supporting hostilities in Iraq and Syria, fighting with ISIL.”

Lewis also said about 190 further Australians were involved in “direct support” with just over 400 “high-priority investigations going on”.

“There are 50 Australians that we can confirm have been killed in Syria and Iraq. That figure may be as high as perhaps 59, but I just am not in a position to speak further on that difference. But it is certainly 50 confirmed.”

Lewis added said that 177 passports had been cancelled while 33 had been suspended, which also seems to tally with the information given by Mr Murray.

However, the evidence given in the Fair Work proceedings by the ABF’s Murray refers to “at least” 58 fatalities in Syria/Iraq and potentially up to 66 deaths, which is higher than the figure quoted by the ASIO chief.

Murray said his confidential evidence contained more details on known or likely threats, but unknown threats were a “much more significant concern”.

“Without knowing what threats may manifest, in which ways, and at which times, ongoing vigilance taken through the application of ongoing effective borders control is critical.”

It should be noted that the CSPU argued that airport personnel in key security roles were exempted from the industrial action to protect public safety, but the Department had failed to manage the industrial action.

The Fair Work Commission terminated the bargaining covering DIBP employees, which puts an end to legally-protected industrial action in pursuit of a new workplace agreement after almost three years of fruitless bargaining.

However, the decision allows the CPSU to push for the Commission to arbitrate a new agreement, an outcome that was opposed by the government which is trying to cap public annual public sector pay rises at 2%.

FOOTNOTE: It seems I was the only journalist who attended the Fair Work proceedings, which is a common occurrence in tribunals and courts nowadays.

So, I thought it worthwhile putting the information on the public record, even though I have some scepticism about the claims made by Australian security agencies when it comes to domestic terrorism levels.

The statistics quoted by the ABF’s Clive Murray are not stated in the decision by Fair Work Commissioner Nick Wilson, which is available here:

Finally, I don’t know whether the figures on travel to Syria and Iraq include the former Coalition MP and junior minister, Wyatt Roy 🙂

Worries over press freedom in Timor-Leste



The Timor-Leste government faces a stern test of its attitude towards press freedom when two journalists appear in court on Friday on charges of “slanderous denunctiation”.

The charges relate to a story published late last year in the Timor Post about the Prime Minister Rui Aria de Araújo and his former role as a finance ministry advisor in a state telecommunications tender.

The story contained an error, which was acknowledged and corrected as required under Timor-Leste’s press law.

But journalist Raimundos Oki, and a former editor of the Timor Post, Laurenco Martins, face up to three years’ jail if convicted.

A range of media freedom groups, including the International Federation of Journalists, have called for the charges to be dropped. They argue the charges amount to criminal defamation and will set a worrying precedent.

During a visit to Dili in May, I asked the Prime Minister about the charges during an interview that mostly dealt with the maritime boundary dispute with Australia and the Timorese economy.

In reply, de Araújo made one semi-valid point and one claim that is simply implausible.

The PM insisted he could not direct the State prosecutor to drop the proceedings – as suggested by international press organisations – because this would amount to the executive interfering in decisions taken by an independent legal office.

But de Araújo he also argued that he had sent details of the publication to the prosecutor as an ordinary Timorese citizen, not as the Prime Minister.

This last claim is nonsensical because, well, he is the Prime Minister.

Besides, his overall stance is contradictory. On one hand, de Araújo is arguing it would be improper to direct the prosecutor to drop the case, but on the other he reckons that it’s perfectly fine for the PM to lob a dossier complaining  about a media report into the prosecutor’s in-tray.


The broader point is that the entire Timorese leadership – from Xanana Gusmao , Jose Ramos Horta, President Taur Matan Ruak and PM de Araújo – have to decide if they want their country to have a free and independent press.

If the answer is yes, they should address the Media Law that came into force in 2014.

The charges against the two journalists are under the Penal Code, but both pose threats to press freedom.

Here is a piece about press freedom in Timor-Leste for the Walkley magazine on August:

Here’s a link to a petition calling for the charges to be dropped:

Here’s a link to an article on regional press freedom by ABC journalist and Walkley trustee Michael Janda:





Why is the board of Chevron Corp visiting Australia, all at once?

A cavalcade of five private jets landed at Fiji’s Nadi international airport on Saturday that reportedly carried the upper echelon of the oil giant’s board and management.

The Fiji Sun newspaper reported on Sunday that the jets were ferrying the board of directors of Chevron Corporation to meetings in Australia.


The paper said the Chevron jets were in Fiji five years ago, so the visit is not a first.

A spokesman for Chevron Australia confirmed that members of the board were visiting Western Australia for a few days.

However, the company did not respond to questions on the purpose of the visit and whether any major decisions were pending.

The interest of the board is understandable, given an interrupted mid-year start to production at its $US54 billion Gorgon LNG plant on Barrow Island which has endured big cost blowouts in the construction phase.

There have also been delays at Chevron’s $US29 billion Wheatstone project in WA

So there’s a lot for the Chevron chairman and chief executive, John S. Watson, to mull over  with the rest of the board (


Australian objections in Timor Sea case thrown out

The Permanent Court of Arbitration has thrown out the Turnbull government’s argument it did not have jurisdiction to hear a dispute about disputed maritime boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia.

In a decision published on Monday the five-member Commission said it was competent with respect to the compulsory conciliation over the maritime boundary.

“There are no issues of admissibility or comity that preclude the Commission from continuing these proceedings,” the decision.

Under the ruling, the 12-month period for the compulsory conciliation will run from the date of the arbitration which was dated September 19.

The conciliation will not be binding on the parties, but the Turnbull government will come under increased international scrutiny during the process, which is conducted under the UN

Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Timor-Leste government welcomed the decision, which followed a three-day hearing held in The Hague.

Timor’s Minister of State Agio Pereira – who is also their agent in the proceedings – said: “This process is an opportunity to set a good example in our region and we will engage with respect for the commission and its recommendations, ever conscious of the importance of maintaining the best possible relationship with our close neighbour Australia.”

Chief Negotiator and former Prime Minster, Xanana Gusmão thanked the Commissioners for their expertise and noted “Just as we fought so hard and suffered so much for our independence, Timor-Leste will not rest until we have our sovereign rights over both land and sea.”

Before the decision, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis said that Australia would abide by the Commission’s finding on jurisdiction but noted the final report was not binding.

Link to further information on the proceedings:

Link to today’s decision: