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16 August 2021

Independent Senator Rex Patrick has commenced action in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to overturn the Australian Government’s decision to block the release of Howard Government Cabinet papers concerning the Timor Sea boundary negotiations. 

“Prime Minister John Howard’s approach to the Timor Sea negotiations remains an ugly secret," Senator Patrick said.

"It's so embarrassing that in an extraordinary legal case lawyer and former ACT Attorney-General Bernard Collaery is currently defending criminal charges for allegedly revealing the discreditable truth of Australian espionage operations against Timor-Leste.” 

“Dirty secrets shouldn’t be left to moulder in the dark vaults of our National Archives.”

“To this end I’ve initiated action in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to get the inside story of the Howard Government’s Timor policy; specifically to secure the release of the original Cabinet submission that set Australia’s negotiating strategy at the beginning of the Timor Sea negotiations and what were disgraceful efforts to steal gas and petroleum reserves from East Timor.” 

“After decades of controversy, revelations of Australian spying and highly secret criminal trials, it’s high time that the whole story is revealed so that Australian-Timorese relations can move forward on a new basis of trust and transparency.”

On 1 January this year, the National Archives of Australia released a range of Cabinet papers from Prime Minister John Howard’s Government. One file that was not released was that containing Cabinet submission JH00/0293, dated 29 August 2000, and a related Cabinet minute dated 4 September 2000 dealing with the Timor Gap negotiations. 

The long-secret file was withheld in its entirety from public access on the claimed grounds that it contains information that “could affect Commonwealth relations with the current government of a foreign country”. 

Senator Patrick sought a review of the National Archives’ decision that has now resulted in a very limited disclosure of information, merely the fact that the Howard Cabinet made a decision on the matter on 4 September 2000. However, the content of the Cabinet’s decision, and 27 other pages, the entirety of Cabinet submission JH00/0293, remain redacted. 

Significantly, the reasons given for National Archive’s decision have now changed. 

The Cabinet submission and content of the Cabinet decision are now being withheld, not for reasons of foreign relations sensitivity, but because it is claimed that disclosure could “damage to the security, defence or international relations of the Commonwealth.”  

Specifically it is asserted that “the public disclosure of this information and other relevant details could be used by organisations or individuals of national security interest to take counter measures against security operations.”

The National Archives’ decision results from a direction from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

Senator Patrick said: “It is very curious that the Australian Government should now claim that release of a twenty-year old Cabinet submission on the Timor Gap negotiations would damage national security and specifically harm current security operations.” 

“That submission, considered by the Howard Cabinet just one year after East Timor’s 1999 independence vote, marked the beginning of Australia’s substantive negotiations with the United Nations Transition Authority in East Timor – UNTAET – and Timorese leaders on the future of the gas and petroleum reserves of the Timor Sea. The Cabinet submission was finalised by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer a day before he paid a visit to Dili on 30 August 2000 and was considered by Cabinet in the week after his return.” 

“It is a matter of public record that the Howard Government took a very hard line, strongly asserting Australian territorial claims and the interests of Australian energy companies at the expense of East Timor’s rights and economic needs as they emerged as a newly independent but desperately impoverished nation.” 

“At the time East Timor’s leaders and senior United Nations officials expressed strong concerns that Australia was using its access to East Timor’s telecommunications network, then provided by Telstra, to spy on the UN and Timorese negotiators.”

“The security related reasons given for redacting the entirety of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s August 2000 Cabinet submission suggest that spying on Australia’s new neighbour was part and parcel of the Howard Government’s approach to the Timor Sea maritime boundary negotiations.”

“It appears likely that from the very beginning of negotiations the Howard Government engaged in underhand tactics to steal energy resources from a new and impoverished nation. The redacted Cabinet submission may well include inside information about UNAET and Timorese negotiating positions.”  

“The 2004 bugging of the Timorese Government’s Cabinet room referred to in the affidavit of the Australian intelligence officer known as Witness K was most likely not the beginning, but a continuation of espionage operations against East Timor’s leaders and the United Nations from the moment that Timor-Leste was freed from Indonesian rule.”

“The redacted Cabinet submission and Cabinet decision are a key part of the history of a shameful episode in Australia’s diplomacy, a story that continues to this day with the unjust prosecution of Bernard Collaery.” 

“These Cabinet papers should not be left in the Government’s black hole of embarrassing secrets,” Senator Patrick said. 

The National Archive’s decision and the two heavily redacted pages that have been released from the secret Cabinet file can be found here.