Thursday, 25 July 2019
Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019, Passenger Movement Charge Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019, Treasury Laws Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019; Second Reading
Before the member for Reid leaves the House, I congratulate her on her first speech—her first contribution to this parliament in the new term.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak on these really important bills: the Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019, the Passenger Movement Charge Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019. Labor will be supporting these bills that give effect to the treaty between Australia and Timor-Leste, which extends the maritime boundaries of that country and establishes new arrangements for the development of petroleum resources in the Timor Sea.
It's a pleasure to follow the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Hunter and others, who have pointed out just how significant these bills are and just how important it is that we right what is essentially an historical wrong. There have been a lot of people in this parliament who have been supportive of this outcome for a long time, whether it be the member for Sydney, the member for Solomon, the member for Lingiari or others like the member for Kingsford Smith, who joins me here at the dispatch box. This is a really important development and a really important day, and I am proud to be able to speak on it.
As members would know, 20 years ago almost to the day—20 years next month—the population of Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Indonesia. Of course, as we know, there was widespread violence in Timor-Leste after that which left an estimated 1,400 civilians dead and resulted in the decimation of Timorese infrastructure. The World Bank Group estimates that 70 per cent of the country's infrastructure and 95 per cent of the schools were destroyed during the violence that followed independence in 1999. That's shameful. As a result, the newly independent country emerged as one of the world's poorest nations, with over 50 per cent of the population living below the national poverty line in 2007. Although this figure has declined to around 40 per cent at the last estimate in 2014, and there have been some improvements in some of the development indicators, there is still a long, long way to go to get the people of Timor-Leste's living standards up to what most of us would consider to be an appropriate level.
Today's bills are really about part of that effort. Like a lot of members in this House—I think especially on this side of the House—I have a connection to Timor-Leste, not as developed as some of my other colleagues, but I have spent time there. In 2007, I spent some time there doing some training for local political activists ahead of their next elections. What I observed there was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to be in Timor-Leste and to see, even where some progress had been made around the building of schools or the building of basic infrastructure, that some of the political conflict in that country that spilled over to physical conflict had impacted on some of the public infrastructure. I saw a lot of schools with roofs burned out. I saw a lot of infrastructure sabotaged. It's heartbreaking, as a citizen of a rich country like ours, to see a poor neighbour like Timor-Leste having to go through that kind of destruction as a consequence of some difficult politics. That really is part of my motivation for speaking on these bills today. We do have an opportunity to get some additional funding into that country. I hope that we can make and build a lasting difference in Timor-Leste. There are also tax aspects to this bill that are of interest to me and my Treasury portfolio.
As honourable members would be aware, we Australians have been close friends with the people of Timor-Leste for a long time now—certainly since the dark days of World War II, when 151 Australian servicemen died during the Battle of Timor, and in the following years something like 40,000 to 70,000 Timorese civilians were killed by Japanese reprisals for supporting allied forces. Regarding the contribution that the Leader of the Opposition made earlier, particularly about Tom Uren, it really is fascinating to think that a remarkable guy like Tom Uren had a connection with Timor—that's where he was captured, of course—and that they have found ways in the opposition leader's electorate to mark that relationship, which exists on so many different levels, but it is certainly something that was important to Tom Uren. And if it was important to Tom Uren, it's important to all of us in this place—a remarkable man.
The support that the Timorese gave Australia was not something we forgot. I'm told that during the closing days of the Second World War Australian warplanes dropped flyers over Japanese-occupied Timor saying, 'Your friends do not forget you.' While we haven't forgotten our friends in Timor, I think it is fair to say that we could have been better friends. We could have behaved as better friends to the people of Timor-Leste. One example of this, of course, is the maritime boundary dispute between our countries, which these bills and the treaty itself go some way to resolving.
When the anniversary of independence is celebrated next month, it is important that this legislation be in place. So I support the steps that have been taken by the government, with the support of the opposition, to make sure that we can get these bills in place and the treaty in place so that when the people of Timor-Leste celebrate on 30 August, the anniversary of their independence, this can be locked in and can be something that becomes part of the celebration. The signing of the treaty brings to an end more than 40 years of uncertainty over that shared maritime border, and I think it does vindicate the strong position we've taken on this side of the House to take those decisive steps to settle our dispute with Timor-Leste. I want to particularly pay tribute to the member for Sydney for her role in that three years ago.
To give some context as to why this is such a big issue, royalties generated from projects in the Timor Sea funded more than 95 per cent of Timor-Leste's budget in 2016. That's extraordinary. Just imagine the challenges of being a country that is trying to rebuild virtually all your schools and your infrastructure and having a dispute over your primary source of revenue with one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Obviously resolving that international maritime dispute is a really complicated thing and it has taken us time to get to this point. But we as a country need to recognise how important it is and how this is part of doing the right thing in our region. We can't afford to turn our back on our international neighbours. Many of them face the challenge of dealing with the disastrous consequences of climate change, for example, as well as other challenges in our neighbourhood, in our part of the world, and we do need to do better in supporting our neighbours in their economic development.
Across the Asia-Pacific we're seeing a significant change, which makes it more important than ever that we work with people and countries to support their economic development and maintain international security and stability in our region. Labor believes that the maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste has strained our bilateral relations and that it is in the national interest of both Australia and Timor-Leste that this dispute is resolved in the way that we are attempting to do with these bills today. So we're pleased that this treaty is the first ever to be achieved by conciliation under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We welcome the resolution of this dispute with Timor-Leste, which will improve relations between our countries and provide ongoing benefits for both countries but especially for the people of Timor-Leste.
Others have gone through the details of the bills that are combining here for this debate, the ones that we support enthusiastically—the Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill, the Passenger Movement Charge Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019 and, from my point of view, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019, which amends the tax arrangements for companies that operate projects covered by the treaty. As part of the treaty, Australia agreed or provided that Australian companies would face conditions equivalent to petroleum activities affected by the 2018 treaty, which is another way of saying that we're ensuring here that Australian companies aren't worse off. Some tax changes are necessary to enforce that agreement, and that's what is in the detail of this bill, which I won't go through in any more detail.
In conclusion, three years ago Labor made it clear that we wanted to be constructive and work with East Timor to reach a binding international agreement to settle the maritime border dispute between our countries. As a country, Australia has worked with East Timor to reach a permanent resolution to the development of petroleum resources in the Timor Sea, and it really is terrific to see that this has finally been achieved. That's why we are such enthusiastic supporters of the progress in these bills and in the treaty. To the people of East Timor, our friends to the north: on the anniversary of your independence next month, we wish you all the very best. Ever since the Second World War we've been proud to be your friends. We are grateful for the opportunity to rectify what has been a historical wrong, and we wish you all the best for the years ahead.
It's a great honour to rise today to speak in support of these bills before the House, the Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019, the Passenger Movement Charge Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty) Bill 2019, which outline the new arrangements with regard to the Timor Sea maritime boundaries treaty. A number of Labor speakers have come before me, so I don't intend to speak to the detail of these bills that we now are debating in this cognate debate. Rather, I will just put on record the sheer joy I feel in the fact that the Australian parliament is finally dealing with what has been some particularly challenging unfinished business in this nation with regard to our relationship with East Timor.
We had played a leadership role in the independence struggles that took place in East Timor, so it was to our great shame that, as time passed, our relationship became quite strained when it came to discussions around the maritime boundaries between our two nations. I was really honoured to be part of a delegation that visited East Timor last October in the term of the last parliament. The member for Flynn chaired that, and I went with senators Patrick Dodson and Rex Patrick from the other place. Whilst many extraordinary things happened during that delegation in terms of the people we got to meet in East Timor and the conversations that we had there, so many people raised with us the need to get these maritime boundaries settled.
There is great excitement in East Timor about the upcoming celebrations of independence on 30 August—indeed, I met with the ambassador only last week—and people are rightly very anxious that the Australian parliament have its matters in order and that our legislation be passed. It's one thing to ratify this treaty, but there's a lot of legislation, like that before us now, that is required to implement that treaty. As I said, it remains unfinished business for Australia and East Timor, and until that takes place we won't really have reconciled the difference that grew out of some very strained relationships.
There is a long history of people seeking to redress this past wrong around the maritime boundaries. I know a number of my colleagues have spoken of this. As the Leader of the Opposition did earlier in this debate, I would like to acknowledge the role and connection of Mr Tom Uren, a giant within the Australian Labor movement and a man who had a deep and personal connection with Timor-Leste, having been taken as a prisoner of war there. But there have been many champions on the Labor side to seek redress for Timor-Leste over these last few decades. I acknowledge the work of the member for Lingiari, who will be speaking after me, who has had a very long association not just with Timor-Leste but with this great project that we need to now settle with our neighbours.
I also acknowledge the work of former member Janelle Saffin, who has long championed the rights of Timor-Leste people in Australia, and of my colleague the member for Sydney, both in her personal capacity and in her former capacity as the shadow minister for foreign affairs and international development. She is steadfast in her determination to have these maritime boundaries settled. I was very fortunate to attend the National Press Club luncheon in which she delivered a terrific speech outlining Labor's approach now. It reminded us all that we call on other nations across the world to abide by international norms and to settle our disputes within rules based systems. She challenged us by saying, 'If we expect that of other nations then we need to actually adhere to that advice ourselves.' We traditionally have had a good record in doing that, but it is far from a flawless record. Certainly, it drew attention to the situation in Timor-Leste at that point because Timor-Leste had suffered decades of war and starvation before gaining their independence. Australia played a key role in gaining that independence. That was a really proud moment for many of us in Australia.
But the maritime boundary dispute poisoned relations with our new neighbours, and I don't think we should understate the damage that has been done. The member for Sydney rightly stated at the National Press Club in very clear terms that this was a situation that had to change both for the sake of Timor-Leste people and for our own sake, because we want to regard ourselves as good global citizens. I think it would be fair to say that that was the time at which Labor redoubled our efforts to enter into good-faith negotiations with Timor-Leste to settle those boundaries between our two countries. There were many representatives of Timor-Leste present at that National Press Club speech, and they were truly delighted to hear this news that there was going to be a shift in Australia's approach.
Not only did we say that we were going to seek to settle the maritime disputes but the then shadow minister for foreign affairs, the member for Sydney, made the important additional statement that, if we weren't unsuccessful in negotiating a settlement with our neighbour, we would be prepared to submit ourselves to an international adjudication or arbitration system. That was a very important statement to make. We would subject ourselves to the international frameworks because it would be in the national interests of both Australia and Timor-Leste to do so. That's because it was a matter that required settlement. We had both signed up to using these international frameworks and entering into a rules-based system for the settling of disputes. It was only right that we would be willing to freely participate and submit ourselves to that as well. It was a big shift of momentum in the debate.
I believe this is one of those remarkable examples in which oppositions can actually lead and shape debates in the national interest and encourage governments to come on that journey as well. We stand here today, some years later. That speech that the member for Sydney delivered was back in February 2016. We are a few years on, but I am truly delighted that the government has also committed itself to the settlement of this unfinished business between Australia and Timor-Leste.
As I said, it is critical that these bills get passed by the Australian parliament in this sitting. We need these laws to be enacted so that the treaty can do what it is intended to do. It should be the centrepiece of celebrations for Timor-Leste's Independence Day at the end of this month. Time is short. I am going to leave my speech there to enable my colleagues to continue with their contributions, but it is with tremendous joy that we get to take part in a parliament that might finally sign off on some of that unfinished business between Australia and Timor-Leste.
I thank the member for Newcastle for her contribution on the Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019 and associated bills and her acknowledgement of others who have participated in the debate not only in this chamber but also the Senate over the many years passed in support of the Timor-Leste people. She mentioned Janelle Saffin, and I do want to reaffirm the importance of Janelle's advocacy and support here. Previously, of course, in former parliaments, advocates such as Ken Fry, Cyril Primmer, Tom Uren, Jean McLean and Jean Melzer were all very important in advocating around the issues to do with East Timor, particularly after the occupation of Timor-Leste, as it is now known, by Indonesia way back in December 1975.
Since that time, neither side of this parliament has covered itself in glory. Today is a chance for us, as the member said, to rectify what has been an anomalous situation and, much to our shame, one where we have been the bovver boy. The member for Solomon mentioned the 2/2nd and 2/4th independent companies. The 2/2nd arrived in December 1941-early 1942, in East Timor. They were out by September or October. The 2/4th took over, and they left in December 1942. My father subsequently served with the 2/2nd, so I am fully aware and very cognisant of the importance of the role of these independent companies, later commandos, and the protection that was provided to them by the East Timorese, where we were able to contain 12,000 Japanese troops. But, at the same time, whilst that was happening, and post the departure of the Australians, 40,000 Timorese lost their lives. There's a debt of blood here. In 1975 we saw the Indonesians march in, and we acquiesced. Subsequent to that Indonesian takeover, up to a quarter of a million East Timorese lost their lives. When you think about what that means to us and our responsibilities just as human beings, we've got to rectify this. And today we get a chance to do a bit of that.
We had the Fraser government sitting by, complicit, as the events of 1975 unfolded, and subsequently giving de jure recognition, which was reaffirmed by the Hawke government, shamefully, in 1984. I remember these days vividly because I was involved in working with supporters of Fretilin in Australia post December 1975, and I had the great privilege of being involved—'involved' is a difficult word in this sense. After 1999, at last, under the Howard government, the Australian government took a position that was morally the right thing to do, to head INTERFET. That was very important, and that was referred to by the member for Solomon.
My office in Darwin was really very active in talking and working with members of the East Timorese community, both in East Timor and in the Northern Territory, in particular. Today—and I should have said this at the beginning—we have in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly the first East Timorese person to be a member of a parliament in Australia, Sandra Nelson. Her mother, Rosa, is the sister of Jose Ramos-Horta—so he's her uncle—and the member for Solomon told me that her brother, Joao Carrascalao, was his medic when Major Gosling, as he then was, was serving in East Timor. So there are connections here.
Post the start of INTERFET on 20 September 1999, I went to Dili—I think in November. Subsequently I had the great privilege of doing a number of things, but these most clearly stick in my mind. I had the opportunity to attend the first Fretilin conference after the Indonesian occupation. As well as being at the launch of that party's first campaign for the election of the constituent assembly, I also attended the National Council of the Timorese Resistance, CNRT, after the United Nations took over East Timor. I also had the great privilege of being at the opening of the Constituent Assembly when it was elected in June 2002. At that first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, the first meeting of the new parliament, there was no official Australian representative. That says more about Alexander Downer and John Howard than it does about the rest of us. But I went there, and the guests of honour on the floor of the chamber at the swearing in of the new members of parliament included the then Northern Territory Chief Minister.
When you think that in a couple of weeks the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition will be in East Timor together, that is a good thing. That is a really good thing. But it really only marks the rebalancing of the ledger. It doesn't cover the enormity of what's gone on in the past and the bullying behaviour of Australian governments—the role of Alexander Downer in negotiating the Timor Gap treaty. I remember two things in particular. In 1989 there was the initial negotiation of the joint area between Australia and Indonesia with Ali Alitas, who was the Indonesian foreign minister, and Gareth Evans, the foreign minister for Australia, in Darwin. I can still visualise the media at the time of them signing a document in the air over the Timor Sea. That was all fine and terrific, except it excluded the role of the East Timorese; it was all about Indonesia and Australia.
Subsequently, in 2002, when there was a renegotiation after Timor-Leste gained independence, there was still no permanent maritime border negotiated. Regarding Alexander Downer—and the member for Solomon referred to this earlier—Mari Alkatiri, who was a good person, was the Prime Minister and was negotiating with Alexander Downer over the Timor Gap. Downer, in a most belligerent fashion, stood over Mari Alkatiri. And here I quote from a book by Kim McGrath, a great Australian—Crossing the Line: Australia's Secret History in the Timor Seain which she quotes Paul Cleary, who writes about those meetings and the interaction between the two. At the end of this interaction a lecture was being given by Alexander Downer to Mari Alkatiri in which he said:
We don't like brinkmanship. I think your Western advisors give you very poor advice that public opinion supports East Timor in Australia. We are very tough. We will not care if you give information to the media. Let me give you a tutorial in politics—not a chance.
What a disgrace. What an absolute bloody disgrace. And that was Australia's foreign minister. We learned subsequently that they'd bugged the conference. We've still got Australians in the courts for belling the cat, because of the role of an Australian government.
It's about time we got over ourselves and treated people properly, fairly and with respect. This treaty gives us that opportunity. And I do lay credit at the feet of the member for Sydney, and the speech that was referred to by the member for Newcastle, in bringing this forward so that we end up with conciliation over the boundary issue and we end up seeing a proper allocation of resources from this area to Timor-Leste, and that is as it should be.
We shouldn't be afraid of accepting the critique that we've really had our hands in their pockets for too long. It should've been 100 per cent from day one, not 80-20, 90-10 or 70-30—a very nifty drawing of boundaries to make sure we get a huge slice of the action at the expense of almost the poorest people in the world. So it is important that that situation is rectified, and it is rectified as a result of this legislation.
I want to thank the government, although, as the Leader of the Opposition said, this stuff could have been debated in November of last year. Why has it taken so long? They had no business prior to the election; we knew that. But, nevertheless, it's being done. It is important that we move forward but also have an eye to the past and understand the challenges that the people of Timor-Leste confront, that we appreciate their heroes that led them to the position that they're in today and that we appreciate that we need to do a lot more than we've done in the past in working with our near neighbours.
I commend particularly the member for Solomon for his ongoing relationship with the people of Timor-Leste and in the new role he's achieved and been given by the Leader of the Opposition in trade with our near neighbours. The Timorese are wonderful, forgiving people, really, and I think we should show our appreciation in a proper way. I had the great privilege of welcoming Xanana Gusmao to Australia after he was released from Indonesia, and I escorted him onto the floor of this House. That was a great honour, and it is a great honour to speak in this debate today to support this legislation to see, at least partially, wrongs of the past rectified.
Thank you, Deputy Speaker, I'll tell my wife. We have matching Queensland colours today, Deputy Speaker—good to see! I rise to speak on the Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019 and acknowledge the great contributions from those from the Labor side already in this debate.
I'm just going to give a little bit of history first. Timor-Leste, previously called East Timor, was the eastern half of the island of Timor—the area colonised by Portugal in the 16th century. Why Portugal? Well, because the countries of Spain and Portugal sat down together—they were the big maritime powers of the time—and struck the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529, which basically divided the world in two—on this side of the planet, on the 141st degree of longitude, which is basically that bit of the Queensland border west of Toowoomba. If you kept going west, from Haddon Corner down to Cameron Corner to the western boundary of New South Wales down until it hits the Murray—it's actually not quite on 141st degree of longitude from the Murray down south, because Victoria actually stole 3½ kilometres off South Australia and went a little bit further west. There are lots of arguments as to what happened. They actually had a big argument for 60-odd years about that 1,800 square kilometres on the western side of Victoria that Victoria took off South Australia and it ended up in the Privy Council in 1914, where the Privy Council basically said: 'South Australia, you're never getting that back. That's now a part of Victoria.' I mention the world being divided in two because that's what this legislation is all about: where people draw lines on maps in terms of who owns what. That's what this legislation, which I commend the government for, is sorting out.
Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony until Fretilin—the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor—declared independence. That lasted only about nine days before the Indonesians came in and declared East Timor to be the country's 27th province in 1976. That continued until 1999, when, after the United Nations sponsored an act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and Timor-Leste became the first new sovereign state in the 21st century on 20 May 2002. It has been a close friend of Australia ever since.
The reason this legislation is here is mainly resources. Timor-Leste is a very poor country, with nearly half the population living in extreme poverty. It is one of our closest neighbours and a country to which Australia owes a great debt, because of the great work that the East Timorese people did in World War II supporting Australian farmers, but it is a very poor community apart from the fact that they have petroleum. The Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund provides most of the East Timorese government's income. In fact, the International Monetary Fund has called Timor-Leste the most oil-dependent economy in the world. So it is important to get this right for East Timor, a land where many people in villages are still relying on subsistence farming; anything we can do to assist our good friend and neighbour is a good thing, obviously.
Previous speakers have touched on the fact that the call to correct this wrong and to get it right came mainly from the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, in one of her recent speeches. She was calling for justice and not just because of that debt stretching back to World War II, when people like Tom Uren, who was a prisoner of war, were assisted by the East Timorese. Tom has been a great friend of the East Timorese. He was a prisoner of war on the Burma railway and the like, as the previous speaker, the member for Grayndler, mentioned. The member for Sydney called for justice to make it right, to repay the debt, because to do so is obviously in our national interests. Why? Because we must have a safe, stable community. Timor-Leste is a Christian country in the middle of Asia, a country that we have great connections with and a country that we need to make sure is stable, developing and growing. We obviously need to get the balance right.
The Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019 gives effect to the treaty that has been struck between Australia and Timor-Leste that recognises the extended maritime boundaries for Timor-Leste, and makes new arrangements for the petroleum development and revenues and the opportunities that will flow from making sure that the East Timorese are able to access all of those resources. There is an area struck out—the special regime area—where the gas fields known as Sunrise and Troubadour have their own set of arrangements, which include protection for current Australian petroleum activities, because the Greater Sunrise Special Regime area is a joint venture between Timor-Leste and Australia. There will also be some international areas to do with the gas pipelines to make sure that we get the best possible outcomes in terms of the value of the resources, and there are a few other things we need to sort out in terms of taxation arrangements for the companies that are operating in this area. It is a great opportunity for this government to do the right thing and to do things that are in the national interest that will benefit Australians.
We know that this coalition government doesn't have a big legislative agenda. This treaty was concluded on 6 March last year, so this could have actually taken effect much earlier. Instead, we see stunt after stunt from those opposite. They're all about the cheap politics and trying to wedge Labor rather than doing things that are in the national interest. This is important legislation on the world stage. We have a shadow over us because of the behaviour of past governments, as detailed by the member for Lingiari in her speech, which should be listened to and read. We have a shadow that springs from the Liberal and National parties and now there's a chance to do it right. I'm glad to see that the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister will be travelling to Timor-Leste to make this right. But I would ask the coalition, the government of the day—the government about to enter its seventh year—to actually start focusing on the nation and on the people it's supposed to be benefiting rather than on the cheap politics. I commend these bills to the House.
In the debate on these bills, the Timor Sea Maritime Boundaries Treaty Consequential Amendments Bill 2019 and related bills, we've heard the military and geopolitical history traversed ably by the member for Solomon, the member for Lingiari and the member for Morton. I want to take this opportunity to join with the member for Newcastle to celebrate, if you like, that this legislation is before the House. Our relationship with Timor-Leste over decades has been a point of great shame for me personally. I have always felt strongly that the previous treaty did not do justice to our nearest neighbours and that the previous positions of Australian governments of both colours did not go to the fairness that Australians like to see themselves espouse. It is terrific to see the bills come into the parliament today and before us to ensure that the new treaty does represent the values of our great country. It is an incredibly important relationship with our neighbour to north.
Like the member for Newcastle, I was incredibly proud when federal Labor changed its position in 2016 under then shadow minister Plibersek's leadership. I join the member for Newcastle in reading into Hansard a quote from the member for Sydney's National Press Club speech. She said:
Timor-Leste suffered decades of war and starvation before gaining independence. Australia played a key role in securing that independence—a proud moment for many Australians.
The maritime boundary dispute has poisoned relations with our newest neighbour.
This must change, for their sake, and for ours.
It is terrific to be here today to see that change forever, to see that the new treaty is going to be enacted, and to be able to proudly say that we've now come to a point where our values are driving our actions and our friendships with our nearest neighbours.
We've traversed the fact that we haven't always been the best neighbours. Today is a proud moment for all of us in this chamber. This treaty demonstrates our commitment to international law and rules—and, I would add, to fairness. I commend Australia's intention to have robust bilateral relationships with Timor-Leste and to jointly develop the Greater Sunrise gas fields, and I commend the bills to the House.
These bills implement the first tranche of measures to implement the recent treaty on maritime boundaries between Australia and East Timor. Sadly, the history of Australian negotiations with East Timor over maritime boundaries has been shameful and fraught with scandal. Australia unlawfully bugged the East Timorese cabinet to give it an unfair advantage in negotiations on the original maritime boundary treaty—to give it the upper hand in dividing the benefits of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. That is a fact, and we did that to one of the poorest nations in Asia, which is really reprehensible.
As I mentioned, East Timor is one of the poorest countries in our region, with little revenue base other than these oil and gas reserves. In 2012, after learning that former foreign minister Alexander Downer had become an adviser to Woodside Petroleum, which was benefiting from the treaty, an ASIS agent, now known as 'Witness K', followed the proper internal processes to raise his concerns about the unlawful bugging operation. And now our government is prosecuting Witness K, and—unprecedented—his lawyer Bernard Collaery, for speaking out.
The case of Witness K and Bernard Collaery will likely stand for a long time as a landmark in Australia's democratic history. The question is: what sort of landmark will it be? Will the case of Witness K ultimately demonstrate the power of individual conscience against the abuse of power by the state, or will it be another step towards a future in which government secrecy and the power of secret agencies crowd out democracy and the rule of law? That has yet to be decided, but much will depend on the campaign to support Bernard Collaery and Witness K and, more broadly, on the effects of bringing our intelligence and national security agencies under full and proper scrutiny and control. At the heart of this case is an illegal act. At the heart of this case is a government decision to use the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, our overseas espionage organisation, to spy on our small and impoverished neighbour, East Timor. Our government did not seek to protect our national security but to advance narrow commercial interests for financial gain.
If there was ever a case of shooting the messenger, this has been the case. Collectively, we have worked with many members across the parliament, including former senator Tim Storer, and together we have referred the matter of the 2004 spying case on East Timor to the AFP. We ask the AFP to pursue the matter with diligence and rigour, knowing that no-one should be above the law, especially not our intelligence agencies. This disgraceful case of spying should never have taken place, and this is a very real moment of shame for this nation.
What we have now is the opportunity to right the wrong. I hope that, to right one of the wrongs, our Attorney-General decides to drop the case against Witness K and Bernard Collaery. However, in returning to the bill, this bill does take a positive step in the right direction. I again urge the Attorney-General to drop the case, and in the meantime I commend this bill to the House.