January 26, 2011http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/blogs/the-bishops-gambit/east-timor-is-no-answer-to-australias-problems-20110125-1a3n8.html
One of the youngest nations on earth, Timor-Leste achieved formal independence in May 2002 after almost 80 per cent of its people voted for independence at a 1999 referendum.
The tiny country was devastated by violence and the destruction of infrastructure during the transition to independence. Despite these difficulties, significant progress has been made by Timor-Leste’s 1 million people.
By comparison, its near neighbour, Australia, was ranked second in 2010, behind only Norway.
In the long term, Timor-Leste will benefit from the visionary decision to establish an investment fund for the money to come from development of its oil and gas reserves. The fund will ensure the nation has a reliable source of revenue for future generations.
Timor-Leste remains one of the poorest regional nations per capita and Australia plays an important role in supporting its ongoing development.
That support is provided through the more than $100 million in overseas development assistance that we will provide in 2010/11 and through increasing bilateral trade links.
Australia’s important role during the transition to independence — with the provision of troops and civilians — helped minimise tensions and manage sporadic outbreaks of violence. Many Australians hold great reserves of goodwill towards the people of Timor-Leste, particularly those who remember their support for Australian troops during World War II.
Timor-Leste may be a new and developing nation. However, it has an elected government and a robust parliament that deserves to be treated with the same respect afforded any sovereign nation.
It was a monumental error of judgment by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to announce early last July that she intended to construct a ‘‘regional processing centre’’ for asylum seekers on East Timor. She failed to properly consult with the government of Timor-Leste before making the announcement, and ignored the advice of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who warned against such an idea.
The days following bordered on farce when Gillard appeared to back away from the proposal in the face of strident criticism, by denying she was referring to East Timor, only to later re-embrace it when confronted with her own words.
It was clear from the outset that the Timor-Leste government did not want the ‘‘regional processing centre’’ foisted upon its country. At the time, Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres made the self-evident point that his country did not have the capacity to bring the plan to fruition.
Asked about the plan at a press conference, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao responded with ‘‘what plan?’’.
This was followed by two Timor-Leste parliamentary votes that unanimously rejected the proposal. Gillard and her ministers were dismissive of the outcome.
Recently Guterres put it more directly: ‘‘Perhaps it would be better to do so in another place instead of Timor-Leste. Why not in Australia itself, which has an immense territory and available resources?’’
Politicians in Timor-Leste have politely suggested that the Gillard government take its proposal to the member countries of the Bali Process for consideration, although no date has been announced for its next meeting.
Guterres did not rule out hosting the centre. However, the level of disagreement, let alone the discomfort, should be obvious to everyone.
The Timor-Leste government has been at pains not to reject out of hand the proposal lest it offend the Australian government. It has shown considerable restraint, yet through careful diplomatic language has expressed its concern about the proposal.
The proposal is fundamentally flawed in concept, in logic, in reality. Gillard should swallow her pride and admit that she made a mistake by announcing her ‘‘solution’’ to the problem of the number of people seeking asylum in Australia.
This would take pressure off the Timor-Leste government, which is already grappling with a huge range of nation-building challenges and scarcely needs the distraction of having to pay heed to Gillard’s clumsy policy announcements.