Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Gareth Evans & Ali Alatas
One was a career diplomat, the very model of discretion, patience and good manners. The other was a famously volcanic politician, a thrower of tantrums and ashtrays, witheringly intolerant of others’ imperfections. It was 1988 and each had just been appointed his respective country’s foreign minister. For Gareth Evans, the world stage suddenly beckoned. With a friend like Ali Alatas, a newcomer might go far.
But Australia’s relationship with Indonesia lacked ‘ballast’. The Suharto regime’s occupation of East Timor continued to turn Australian stomachs, Indonesian fishing boats were trespassing in our sacred territorial waters and our pesky media wouldn’t shut up about corruption. Our main trade was insults and the path between Jakarta and Canberra was littered with diplomatic eggshells.
That October, in Jakarta, the freshman foreign ministers had their first official meeting. Senator Evans made a good impression on our neighbour’s former ambassador to the UN. “We clicked,” said Alatas. Evans proposed they find something on which they could co-operate.
Exploitation of the $100-billion treasure trove of oil and gas beneath the Timor Gap was a good place to start. Negotiations on a deal to share the bonanza had been limping along for nearly a decade. New fields were being discovered and the big resource companies were getting impatient. Evans applied his furious energies to an expeditious resolution of the issue.
In little more than a year, his efforts were crowned with a “leap in mutual understanding”. On 11 December 1989, he and Alatas boarded an RAAF VIP jet, circled the 61,000 square kilometre “zone of co-operation” and exchanged letters of agreement confirming the 120-page Timor Gap Treaty. The split was 50/50 for 40 years, with options for another 20.
Goodwill was thick in the air. Glasses of champagne were raised. Alatas smiled his toothy smile for the camera. Evans, a former university lecturer, was described as “looking both exhilarated and inebriated”. Raising his glass, he toasted the deal as “uniquely unique”. At dinner in Darwin later that evening, he gushed his “bilateral affections”. Alatas was more reserved. “Slow down, mate,” he said.
Moderate and popular, Alatas might have become UN Secretary-General if not for his country’s illegal occupation of East Timor. He died in 2008, aged 76. Gareth Evans chased protestors off lawns, said ‘fuck’ in the Senate, decoupled Cheryl Kernot and described Indonesia’s eventual offer of independence to East Timor as “a fit of pique”. He remains a very eminent person. He has received an award from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. His important work continues.