Slugcatcher says no cake, let them eat humble pie

EVERY cloud may, as the saying goes, have a silver lining, and even in the turmoil and tragedy which is the Indian Ocean rim following the Christmas tsunami there is a faint possibility that such a silver lining will emerge for East Timor.
Slugcatcher says no cake, let them eat humble pie Slugcatcher says no cake, let them eat humble pie Slugcatcher says no cake, let them eat humble pie Slugcatcher says no cake, let them eat humble pie Slugcatcher says no cake, let them eat humble pie

But, for such an event to occur some people, particularly East Timor’s outspoken Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, will be required to dine on a plate of humble pie, probably dished up cold.

At this point more than a few readers are wondering where Slugcatcher is going, or what he’s been puffing on. To aid those dear souls, a brief explanation.

Late last year Alkatiri, and his stupid advisers, played hardball with the Australian Government and Woodside Petroleum over the Sunrise LNG project.

Extreme demands were made, including a back-payment of a cool $3 billion in alleged unpaid royalties, a higher share of future royalties, and the siting of the Sunrise processing plant in East Timor. At the heart of the claims was a dispute over a seabed boundary agreed between Australia and Indonesia, the former occupying power in East Timor.

As Slugcatcher warned at the time this was over-playing a hand in the extreme and there was a real danger that Australia and Woodside would walk away saying that Alkatiri was impossible to deal with.

At that time Alkatiri believed he had a trump in his back pocket which was Australia’s collective conscience, and an unlikely turn of events which would see Australia and Indonesia kiss and make up after the embarrassing skirmish which followed East Timor winning independence.

Oh, how times change. Indonesia’s tsunami misery, and Australia’s rush to assist, has changed the way the world works.

Far from being bickering neighbours trying to maintain a civil dialogue Australia and Indonesia are suddenly the best of friends. It remains to be seen how long this friendship lasts, but there is a deep history at work here.

Oldtimers, (that is anyone alive in the 1950s) remember that it was Australia which played a leading role in the creation of the modern Indonesia via the United Nations. There was a time when Australians were feted in Jakarta as saviours from the Dutch.

Time marched on. Sukarno took power, a brief war was fought in the jungle of Malaya. Suharto came and stayed too long, only to be followed by a line of incompetents who probably did one decent thing in their time, agreed to the liberation of East Timor – a move whole-heartedly supported by Australia.

It is this history which led Alkatiri and his advisers to believe that the game had changed forever. That Australia could, because of its deeply-embedded social conscience, never abandon East Timor – hence the over-played hand on Sunrise.

Christmas comes, and the world changes. Australia’s rush to help has been noted. A commitment stretching out to $1 billion will take years to deliver, and it will do more than anything else to restore the once bright Australia/Indonesia relationship.

Where, oh where, does that leave Alkatiri and his impoverished little nation which tried to play an emotional blackmail card with Australia?

Answer: Up the creek, without a paddle, and wondering what the hell does it do to get out of its dead-end predicament.

That, with a very long stretch of the bow, is why a silver lining may emerge.

Alkatiri, unlike his advisers, is not stupid. He will be watching the embrace of Australia’s John Howard and Indonesia’s SBY with alarm. He knows that he cannot pick a fight with both of his big neighbours at the same time, and that his only way out is to side with Australia because his history with Indonesia is so much worse.

Does all this mean that Sunrise is back on the gas development agenda? Perhaps, but it’s up to Alkatiri to make the first ‘phone call – and if Slugcatcher was a betting man he reckons that call will be made sooner rather than later before everyone forgets that East Timor even exists.