Alexander Downer's Role in the East Timor Bugging Scandal
Alexander Downer is a former-Australian politician and member of the Liberal Party. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1996 to 2007 and Leader of the Liberal Party from 1994 to 1995.
In 2004 the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was directed by Mr. Downer to set up bugging devices in the offices of the East Timorese government. This was actioned in the lead up to negotiations between the Australian and East Timorese governments over mining gas and oil reserves in the Timor Sea.
The eventual agreement, worth $50 billion and resulting in a 50/50 split of the Greater Sunrise fields , was criticised upon its announcement with some saying that "Australia all but bullied the world's newest small independent country into accepting this deal."
Mr. Downer stated to media that the deal would shape the future of the East Timorese economy and described how both Australia and the East Timorese were 'happy' with the outcome:
"We stand to gain a $50 billion project, or projects, because there's more than one. So there'll be $50 billion to be earned from the Timor Sea. Obviously East Timor will get a substantial slice of that. Within the joint development area, they're getting 90 per cent of the government revenues and there'll be other revenues that they'll get on top of that. So it is an enormous deal from East Timor's point of view. This will really underwrite the East Timorese economy for many years to come. Indeed, one of the challenges for East Timor will be how to manage the revenues which will be so substantial....I mean, Australia is on Australia's side and East Timor is on East Timor's side. So, you know, inevitably they have been lively negotiations, bearing in mind the enormous amount of money that's at stake here. But let me say this to you, the unitisation agreement, which has been the last part of the negotiation which was concluded on Sunday night, that is one of the fastest unitisation agreements that has been put together in many a long time. So, yes, they've been lively negotiations. There've been, you know, to-ing and fro-ing of one kind or another but there's been a fantastic outcome. We're very happy with it and so are the East Timorese. It's a good compromise."
The espionage came to light in 2012 and resulted in the prosecution of both Witness K, who led the operation and leaked its details to the public, and Bernard Collaery, his lawyer. In 2015 Mr
. Collaery claimed in a speech that the ASIS bugging operation "largely benefited private commercial interests, most notably Woodside Petroleum, which leads the consortium hoping to develop the lucrative Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields."
Mr. Downer retired from politics in 2008 and went on to work as a petroleum lobbyist. In 2011 Mr. Downer took on a consulting role for Woodside.
Peter Galbraith, a US diplomat and former US ambassador to Croatia, served as East Timor's chief negotiator and commented on the bugging scandal in 2019:
“It was outrageous...I’d taken protective measures against Australian espionage, which I thought would be based on cell phones and internet, but I thought it was pretty crude to be bugging the prime minister’s offices...It was not what you do to a friendly state. And it was not something you do for commercial advantage.”
Mr. Galbraith also commented on the corporate interest of the negotiations and described Mr. Downer's involvement as that of a 'shill' for the corporations standing to profit from the deal:
“The whole experience of the negotiation from 2000 on and through this whole episode was to see a country that – yes, in many ways focuses on the public good – but where corporate greed was a big part of it, because the Howard and Downer government, they were shills for the corporations...That was what was really important to them.
In 2022 court documents revealed that Australia may have been monitoring the phone calls of East-Timorese politicians since 2000. Included within the documents was also an allegation that Mr. Downer had told a Labor staffer that East Timor was an "open book" to Australia.
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