‘Oil Under Troubled Water’ by Bernard Collaery


466 p. 2020

This blog post is actually an amalgam of two blog posts. The first one explained why I didn’t finish reading this book. This second post is written after I gritted my teeth and did finish it after all.

I’ve become more interested in international politics over the last twenty years. This interest was spurred by my outrage at the oleaginous Alexander Downer’s airy dismissal of concerns about Australia’s behaviour over East Timorese oil resources, waving off the whole question as a merely a matter for foreign aid, rather than principled policy. I decided then that I needed to know more about the world around me.

I still feel that way, particularly about East Timor and West Papua. I watched a Readings ZOOM session where former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks launched this book and decided that I should read it. Bracks describes it in a blurb on the front cover as “Essential, if difficult, reading for all Australians”. I assumed that it was difficult from a moral/political point of view (which it is), but for me it is difficult because of the way it is written. It is very detailed : nearly 400 pages of very dense foreign policy with different departments and diplomats and acronyms. It’s a lawyer writing, not a historian, and fact after fact is rammed through, lest nothing be left out. This is a real insider’s book, for someone who already knows the lie of the land and the big picture. That reader is not me.

Bernard Collaery is a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and worked for many years as legal counsel to the government of East Timor. He makes no secret of his admiration for and allegiance to Xanana Gusmao, the first President and fourth Prime Minister of the newly-independent East Timor. The black and white photographs sprinkled through the book, often including the author, show that he is not just a commentator but a participant in the events. In May 2018 he was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act of 2001, introduced in the wake of September 11. He, and Witness K, a former senior ASIS agent, have been effectively gagged over a claim that ASIS had bugged the offices of the East Timorese team during negotiations over Timor Sea oil.

This, then, is a history of Australia’s dealings with East Timor and Indonesia over the oil resources- and more importantly, the helium reserves- in the Timor Sea. It moves chronologically, but it is a lawyer’s argument rather than a historian’s. However, as a historian, I learned much: about the way that England’s treaty with Portugal affected how England wanted to hide behind Australia in taking action in Timor during WW2; the strategic importance of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic for British defence and hence its concerns about getting Portugal offside over Timor; about the Whitlam and later Fraser government assumptions that Indonesia would take over East Timor, in preference to independence. In Collaery’s telling, Australia’s foreign policy reached its high point with H.V. Evatt, and from then on has been underhand and coercive, and largely and inexplicably beholden to the petroleum industry (although, as he points out, Alexander Downer’s almost immediate employment by Woodside Petroleum is telling).

Australia does not come well out of this. The Australian government was quick to act when the new nation of Timor Leste was just finding its feet; it has played hard ball with questionable geological and cartographic ‘facts’ , and yet ineptly managed to lose the benefits of the ‘inert’ helium commodity not only for Timor Leste but for Australia itself.

I did manage to finish this book, but I found it very hard to read. Inexplicably, there is no map until page 362 and in a book that bristles with acronyms, there is no glossary.  It is meticulous, with every fact noted, but it groans under the weight of so much detail. My gut feeling all those years ago was that Australia was acting like a bully, and this book only confirmed it further.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


2 responses to “‘Oil Under Troubled Water’ by Bernard Collaery

  1. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: From Our Wives Under the Sea to…. | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: ‘The Crime of Not Knowing Your Crime’ by Karen Throssell | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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