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. Dr Clinton Fernandes
Stealing Timor's Oil

Re-establishing the context of the matter
18th of April, 2005
During the traditional Australia Day long weekend, many television viewers were watching Alicia Molik play Venus Williams in the fourth round of the Australian Open Tennis Championships. They were taken by surprise during the commercial breaks when one of the advertisements accused the Australian government of stealing $2 billion in oil revenue from the East Timorese. According to subsequent press reports, the ad was paid for by a businessman named Ian Melrose, who owns a chain of optometrists. Melrose agrees with the goals of the Timor Sea Justice Campaign, which is a network of individuals and groups trying to achieve a fair division of the natural resources under the Timor Sea. His advertisements are an important auxiliary to the Timor Sea Justice Campaign. Melrose has said that he intends to target every high-profile event at which Prime Minister John Howard and his government would ordinarily try to gain publicity:

Say, for example, ANZAC Day, Australia Day, all those sorts of events where the Government tries to gain glory, we will be advertising the poor conduct of the Australian Government in relation to East Timor. [1]

The unapologetic tone of the ads indicates that the campaigners are confident of public support across conventional political divisions. It signals their assessment that the Australian government finds it difficult to play the nationalist card on this issue. The government.s response therefore had a defensive ring to it; it suggested that Ian Melrose should be spending his money on projects in East Timor, not on advertisements in Australia. Anonymous officials also claimed that Melrose.s figure of $2 billion was deceptive and misleading because Australia had received no more than $15 million from the Joint Petroleum Development Area. In these circumstances, maps are highly informative but - unfortunately - not widely available.

I therefore include the above map with the permission of petroleum engineering specialist Geoff McKee, who has three decades of experience in the field. McKee, who lectures occasionally at the University of New South Wales's School of Petroleum Engineering, points out that the largest resources lie outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area. While the Australian government agreed to take only 10% of East Timor's resources inside the JPDA, it profits from all the resources outside the JPDA. For example, the large Greater Sunrise field and the smaller Laminaria-Corallina and Buffalo fields are much closer to East Timor than to Australia, but are mostly outside the JPDA. Australia therefore receives 100% of these royalties, even though the Greater Sunrise reserve is just 80 km from the south coast of East Timor but 450 km from Darwin.

When Australian officials, anonymous or otherwise, claim that Melrose's figure of $2 billion in stolen revenues is deceptive because Australia only receives $15 million from the JPDA, they are evading the central point of the advertisements! The JPDA, in any case, is based on the now-discredited Timor Gap Treaty of 1989, which saw Australia receiving the largest share in return for its recognition of Indonesia.s illegal annexation of East Timor. In March 2002, just two months before East Timor became independent, Australia withdrew unilaterally from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Its withdrawal was based on the optional clause of the Statute of the ICJ and Article 298 (1) of the United National Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and reflected its assessment of the weakness of its own legal position [2]

A Newspoll commissioned by Ian Melrose found that 77% of Australians believed that Australia should allow an independent body (such as the International Court of Justice) to determine its maritime boundary with East Timor. 10% were opposed and 13% were undecided. [3] With these indicators, the task facing activists and other concerned citizens is clear . more education of the Australian public, and more pressure on the Australian government. Until a final resolution of the permanent maritime boundaries, all Australian revenues from the disputed areas should be placed into escrow.


[1] Lee, J., Businessman wins ace in campaign for Timor , Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 2005.

[2] Bugalski, N., Beneath the sea: Determining a maritime boundary between Australia and East Timor , Alternative Law Journal Vol 29, No 6, 2004.

[3] Michelmore, K., Most Australian support ICJ determining Timor boundary: poll, AAP Newsfeed, 7 October 2004.



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