Oil Under Troubled Water, by Bernard Collaery, is subtitled Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue. Key protagonists in the plot are the Australian, Indonesian and Portuguese governments, United Nations (U.N.), resource corporations and the resilient people of Timor-Leste determined to get justice. The themes are also wide-reaching: imperialism, oil, betrayal and an epic liberation struggle.
The Timor Sea separates Australia and Timor-Leste, a young nation 400 nautical miles to the northwest. Oil tells the sordid story of how petroleum diplomacy drove every aspect of Australian policy towards its neighbour.
Collaery starts during World War II when Portuguese Timor (the colonial name) was briefly occupied by Dutch and Australian forces. He takes readers on an eventful journey to the present and immerses them in his own fight, as former legal counsel for the Timorese government, against charges of conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act.
For Timor-Leste, it’s been one hell of a trek. Its people finally won independence in 2002, after resisting brutal occupation by Indonesia, and in spite of Australia’s treacherous double-dealings. But this gripping history is just the backdrop to Collaery’s forensic investigation of how Canberra pursued its singular aim of getting unfettered access to the oil beneath the Timor Sea.
Because Oil pieces together many technical and legal issues, it’s not an easy read. But the reader emerges more knowledgeable about the science of petrochemicals, the geology of the ocean floor, the law of the sea and other international treaties, corporations law and the machinations of business takeovers. This is all crucial to understanding how the Timorese, who have the lowest per capita income in Asia, continue to be cheated out of revenue worth billions from resources extracted just off their coast.
In meticulous detail, Collaery reveals the Australian government’s every move. After two-and-a-half decades of fighting ruthless occupation, the Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999. Murder and destruction by Indonesian militia groups then intensified. With the torched capital, Dili, still smouldering and Timorese desperate for food and shelter, Australia’s priority was to secure oil profits.
Top of the list was to fleece Timor-Leste out of sovereignty over its gas reserves — especially helium, considered a “critical commodity” in the defence and nuclear power industries. An interim agreement between Timor-Leste and Australia, signed in July 2001 to share management of and revenue from the Timor Gap, was the first of many complex deals designed by Australia’s federal government in Canberra to tie the hands of the new nation, maintain the status quo and frustrate future reparations claims. Collaery carefully documents the Australian government’s duplicity alongside the U.N.’s abject failure to protect the interests of the Timorese people.
How the proceeds from the profitable petroleum byproduct, helium, ended up in private hands like ConocoPhillips and Woodside Petroleum is instructive. Here, too, Australian negotiators used questionable tactics. In formulating contracts, they tweaked the standard definition of “petroleum” to leave out key words to exclude helium. This blatant trickery released billions in profits, to be made from helium beyond the sharing arrangement between Timor-Leste and Australia, into the hands of corporations.
To pull off the swindle, Canberra manipulated timing that was critical, imposing long delays at certain points of negotiation and rushing to agreement at others. For example, finalising the Baya-Undan gasfield agreement was delayed until terms favourable for the larger, helium-rich Greater Sunrise field were also secured. This hold-up of revenue from the first field denied the Timorese funding to secure the expertise to get a better deal from the second field.
Seeing the inner workings of capitalism is always illuminating. Oil Under Troubled Water opens the lid to expose how, as Collaery says, the Timorese “fell prey to petrol-sniffing corporate vultures and their political mates in Canberra.”
Almost without exception, the ministers and their advisers have transitioned seamlessly into positions as petrol industry lobbyists or board members for resource giants.
Collaery is not a bystander but a player in this unfolding drama. His law firm acted for the Timor-Leste government, fighting on the international stage to expose the Australian government’s failure to bargain in good faith with its tiny neighbour. One of Collaery’s witnesses — an Australian spy turned whistleblower, known only as Witness K — was prepared to testify that Canberra bugged the Timorese cabinet room in Dili. To prevent this, the Australian government had Witness K’s passport seized and Collaery’s law chambers raided. Both were charged with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act. They face prison time if convicted. As of September 2020, Collaery awaits his secret closed-to-the-public trial.
As a lawyer, Collaery believes that solutions to these misdeeds will be found in international law. However, the value of his book is that it presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions. What you see is multinational capital going about its business, working in cahoots with governments, bureaucracy, courts and spy agencies.
Read Oil Under Troubled Water to understand Australia’s dirty deals with Timor-Leste. It’s an education every working person needs.