ANALYSIS: An Australian Government bugging operation against our impoverished neighbours East Timor almost 15 years ago is still creating powerful ripples for some of its key players, with a spy-turned-whistleblower and his lawyer facing the real prospect of prison. All the while, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer seems to have escaped proper attention for his role in this spying disaster. True Crime News Weekly’s Tim Kent with the lowdown.
Andrew Wilkie’s renewed push for an AFP investigation into the spying scandal in regards to what is known as the Timor Gap / Sea Treaty is juicy if not profoundly disturbing stuff. It also places former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, smack-bang in the middle of the alleged cesspit of not only his own behaviour but that of the LNP and their alleged misuse and abuse of the powers of the State in order to gain an unfair advantage over an impoverished and vulnerable country.
Since Downer’s influence in, and actually signing off on behalf of the Howard Government, the Timor Gap / Sea Treaty – the title of which later morphed into (CMATS) “Certain Maritime Arrangements In The Timor Sea” – the East Timor Government and Australia had been exchanging protracted legal barbs. Most of which were from the East Timor Government as they progressively gathered evidence to mount a potential legal battle against the Australian Government.
The allegations are serious as they appear to be accurate. In essence, the Australian Government at the time attempted to alter continental shelves, maritime and other boundaries exclusively to serve none other than our own interests, and it posed the overarching question as to whether there was indeed an abuse of power in these negotiations and the evidence thus far appears to support the veracity of the allegations.
This alleged exploitative behaviour was widely acknowledged in Government diplomatic and legal circles and that awareness even extended to international circles.
So much so that in the Guardian (UK) a 2004 report by John Gardener outlined what he described as the outrageous arrogance, strongman rhetoric and disrespect employed by Downer in his bullying style of standover tactics with the East Timor Government.
According to Gardener, Downer’s response to the East Timorese foreign minister went like this:
“Your claims go almost to Alice Springs. You can demand that forever for all I care. We are tough, very tough, we will not care if you give information to the media. Let me give you a tutorial in politics – not a chance.”
In any analysis of the alleged nefarious dealings with the East Timor Government you can rest assured Downer’s name and behaviour are a disturbing and recurrent theme. It appeared to be a direct con-job that sought to exploit the vulnerability of the East Timor Government and its people.
The allegations are clear and concise as Andrew Wilkie has revealed. Putting it simply, Downer is alleged to have used government agencies to spy on East Timor for the direct benefit of not only the Howard Government, but for the Woodside Petroleum corporation.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) had planted bugging devices in exactly the government offices where East Timor Government officials conducted dialogue regarding oil treaty negotiating tactics against Australia. It was deemed as the first of at least two spying, raid, theft operations allegedly targeting East Timor Government officials.
This was in no way a surveillance operation designed to protect Australia’s security. It was undertaken on behalf of and directly for the benefit of the Australian Government and, in particular, Woodside Petroleum’s commercial interests.
It is even more profoundly disturbing the implications of this alleged shameful behaviour, when you consider the fact, that following this Downer was hired by Woodside Petroleum as a consultant.
It was a position that provided substantial financial reward for Downer, thus strengthening the allegation that Downer used his role as Foreign Minister and the power that came with it to authorise the surveillance of this vulnerable socio-economically deprived nation.
Ultimately, in order to gain an unfair advantage in the negotiation process of dividing up the spoils of the massive oil reserves in that region.
Below are some transcripts from a 2014 Four Corners doco, ‘Drawing The Line’, which highlights Downer’s lack of concern and grandiose arrogance.
In the comprehensive Four Corners doco, investigative journalist Marian Wilkinson questioned both Peter Galbraith and Alexander Downer – now a consultant for Woodside – about Australia’s closeness with the oil companies when Downer was Foreign Minister.
Downer is clearly oblivious or doesn’t care about any perceived or factual conflicts of interest in acting to benefit a company or companies while a government minister – and Foreign Minister at that – and later being appointed a consultant to that company or companies.
From the Four Corners transcript:
PETER GALBRAITH: “The Australian Government was shockingly close to the oil companies and this I saw most dramatically at the beginning in, when I went down and I saw Foreign Minister Downer and I presented the East Timor position”.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: “We were close to all stakeholders and we would’ve been derelict in our duty had we not been. Galbraith was working for the United Nations, that’s a different thing; the United Nations doesn’t have an oil company. But of course, when we’re involved in negotiations we maintain contact with Australian companies. The Australian government isn’t against Australian companies, or if it is it’s derelict in its duty. The Australian government supports Australian business and Australian industry. The Australian government unashamedly should be trying to advance the interests of Australian companies”
Peter Gailbraith is the son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith who was also acutely aware of the Australian Government’s attempts to rip off East Timor. He wasn’t going to have a bar of it and negotiated a fairer slice of the spoils for East Timor instead of the then 50 / 50 carve up he negotiated a 90-10% revenue split in favour of the East Timorese – a long way from the 80% claim we once had, needless to say, Woodside and Downer were not impressed in the slightest.
In 2013 Australia’s spy agencies were alleged to have been at it again, this time the AFP was involved and included another corrupt and unethical attack on the tiny, impoverished nation. In this instance, raids were conducted on the Canberra offices of Lawyer Bernard Collaery – the lawyer acting on behalf of East Timor against Australia.
His offices were raided in a SAS counter-terrorism style operation whereby a raft of electronic and hard copy evidence and instruction based documents relating directly to that very case was seized. This was a clear example of the lack of separation of the state and law enforcement powers. The ultimate outcome of these raids was that the defendant had in their possession the entire cache of evidence regarding the plaintiff’s case against them including privileged information, legal strategies and so forth.
Collaery and colleagues were also denied the right to view the details and rationale behind the warrant and the seizing of documents, with the old chestnut of threats to national security pathetically wheeled out to justify these actions. In June of this year, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions filed criminal charges against Collaery and his client, a former ASIS spy known only as “Witness K”. Collaery’s client led an operation to bug a meeting held by senior members of East Timor’s government in 2004 during negotiations with Australia about an oil and gas treaty.
In another interview with Tony Jones on the ABC’s Lateline program two years ago, Peter Galbraith, refreshingly, again pulled no punches. No spin.
TONY JONES: “Now do you have a view as to whether the Australian operation to spy on your negotiating team was a crime”?
PETER GALBRAITH: “Well clearly it was a crime under East Timor law. Obviously, it’s a crime to break into the offices of the Prime Minister and the cabinet and to place bugging devices. It’s a crime to commit espionage. So a crime under East Timor law. I can’t say whether it would have been a crime under Australian law, but clearly a crime under East Timor law”.
TONY JONES: “Well you’ve just heard a prominent Australian lawyer, Nicholas Cowdery QC, say there’s a prima facie criminal case under Australian law of conspiracy to defraud the East Timorese Government. Do you think that case should be tested”?
PETER GALBRAITH: “Well, I certainly think it should be tested. There are really two issues here. First, under Australian law, can Australians send agents into the cabinet offices of a friendly country? That may or may not be the case. But there’s really a separate issue, which is: do you use your intelligence services for the purposes of spying on what were essentially commercial negotiations, basically serving the interests of the Australian Treasury, but also of the oil companies, as part of a complex negotiation. I was the lead negotiator on all of this and what’s critical in these negotiations – I get my instructions from the Prime Minister – I get to know what East Timor’s bottom line is. What is the minimum that they will agree to settle for? And if the other side knows that, it has incredibly valuable information. It knows that it doesn’t need in its negotiations to go beyond that bottom line”.
TONY JONES: “Any potential criminal prosecution in Australia would hinge on whether ASIS, the spy agency, acted improperly. Their key defence would be that their action was in the national interest. Is it conceivable, given the huge amounts of revenue that were involved there, that this could be construed as being in a nation’s national interest”?
PETER GALBRAITH: “Again, I don’t know Australian law. I don’t know what Australia defines as national interest. But I spent much of my career as an American diplomat and I can tell you that, of course, we engage in a lot of espionage, but I have never seen the United States do this for a commercial advantage. It’s always been for things that fall within what I think almost everybody would agree was national security, combating terrorism, understanding what the Soviets are doing. So, you know, I would say that this might well be illegal, but again, I don’t know – I’m not an expert on Australian law, but what is clear is Australia was not doing this for national security reasons, it was doing it for its commercial interests, to help the oil companies and to secure additional revenue for the Treasury. As always, it is the enemy within to be most feared. Sometimes, that enemy is our own government.”
Disturbingly the actions of Downer and the LNP Government drew into question not only the nature of the role the AFP plays but also other government agencies as well. Arguably the most important question that needs to be asked is how these agencies were utilised in the context of the negotiation process and was it a flagrant abuse of power? Andrew Wilkie is correct in calling for renewed pressure on the AFP to launch an investigation into this disturbing episode in our political history.
Having said that it is difficult to conceive that the AFP would pursue the investigation with the vigour and attention to the detail required for such serious allegations. And will transparency be afforded in this instance, or will the old chestnut that in the interests of national security the details of the investigation are kept confidential? Seeing that these allegations place the AFP squarely in the mix, it is hard to be confident at all.
Note these are allegations at this stage and this matter is now under investigation.