Oil under Troubled Water

Australia's Timor Sea Intrigue


Bernard Collaery

Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing Academic,  2020

Paperback   277pp    RRP $39.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, June 2020


This is a monumental work that completely ‘calls out’ Australia’s incredibly unseemingly bad behaviour towards the Timorese people. Its pages contain a ‘Who’s-Who’ of politicians and giants of industry who have been complicit in the extraordinary exploitation of one of the world’s poorest nations that has persisted since the early 1960s.

Bernard Collaery comes highly credentialed; an eminent QC, a former Deputy Chief Minister and Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory, the subject of raids on his home and chambers relating to the ‘bugging’ of the Timor cabinet rooms in 2004, and currently facing a ‘secret trial’ at the direction of Australia’s current Attorney-General. He has legally represented Timor-Leste and its leaders over the last two decades in an endeavour to have them receive what they are justly entitled to. This work was written in the ‘political safety’ of Cambridge in 2019. 

Collaery begins with the Atlantic Charter (14 August 1941) drafted by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill that affirmed the right of all peoples ‘to choose the form of government under which they will live’. Despite the emergence of the United Nations in October 1945, the political will and motives of those in power around the world saw the aspirations of the Charter watered down or just plain ignored.

During the Second World War, Britain, Holland and the Portuguese left the Timorese to the mercy of Japanese invasion, with meagre Australian forces trying valiantly to protect them. Post- war, Australia considered it advantageous to negotiate with Indonesia, With the US and Australia paranoid over Communist pushing into the South-West Pacific, they sanctioned Indonesian occupation of Portuguese Timor leading to that country occupying East Timor at massive humanitarian and economic cost to its people. Australian political leaders turned a blind eye to Indonesian atrocities including the massacre of five Australian journalists in Balibo on 16 October 1975 that sparked international outrage.

With Indonesia stepping up its terror campaign prior to the Timor Independence Referendum in August 1999, Australian police were part of the unarmed UN Peacekeepers overseeing the voting. [See Tammy Pemper, Scorched Earth: Peacekeeping in Timor during a campaign of death and destruction (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2019)] Subsequent violence from local militia forces saw the Australian Defence Force (ADF) leading the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) from 20 September 1999 – 28 February 2000 to protect the East Timorese people. The goodwill generated by the ADF was quickly ‘white-anted’ by Australia’s bugging of their Cabinet room in 2004.

Meanwhile international oil cartels had carried out geological surveys and were awarded mining licences by the Australian Government in seas that were obviously part of Timor’s continental shelf. Australia copped some of its own medicine when foreign companies involved have manipulated agreements that see neither Australia nor East Timor benefitting from ‘the inerts’ (highly-valuable helium gas) that are part of the LNG being extracted from the Bayu-Undan Field only 40 kilometres from East Timor’s coast. With considerable toing and froing at the United Nations in relation to a common boundary, and subsequent unenforceable resolutions, Australia has conceded the absolute minimum to the Timorese people even as late as the 2018 Timor Sea Treaty.

Collaery has meticulously detailed the manoeuvring, political evasiveness and in the case of Australia’s Cabinet decisions, invocation of ‘security necessity to eliminate transparency. Cabinet papers held by National Archives of Australia have been virtually inaccessible, or if available, been massively redacted.

As would be expected, this is a very substantial and demanding read. The inclusion of  verbatim parliamentary exchanges and impeccable referencing provide the reader with ample avenues to follow up if desired. A number of photographs accompany the text, which has been supplemented by an extensive index.

A troubling side of our political leaders and big business laid bare, and unfortunately, never to be addressed.




The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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