Matthew Knott – Foreign Minister Penny Wong struck an apologetic tone towards Timor-Leste in comments about Australia's use of hardball tactics to stymie the fledgling nation's efforts to secure access to oil and gas riches in the Timor Sea after it won independence from Indonesia.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service – the nation's foreign spy service – allegedly installed listening devices in Timor-Leste's cabinet room in Dili in 2004 to gain an advantage in hotly contested negotiations about where to draw the maritime boundary between the two nations.
The Turnbull government then sought to block an international conciliation commission from settling the maritime boundary dispute.
During a visit to Timor-Leste's capital of Dili on Friday, Wong said it was important to recognise that there "have been past instances in which Australian governments have acted in ways that Timorese people, and many Australians, found disappointing".
Wong said Timor-Leste was right to use the Permanent Court of Arbitration's conciliation commission in The Hague to challenge Australia over the maritime boundary dispute.
"Australia looked at this issue too narrowly and without properly considering the importance of this issue in the context of your path to sovereignty," she said.
While not constituting the formal apology to Timor-Leste some have requested, Wong's comments are believed to be the strongest acknowledgment from an Australian official that the country behaved poorly in negotiations over the maritime boundary.
"The Australian government should not have formally challenged the competence of the conciliation commission, when a broader, more understanding approach was needed that reflected the unique relationship we had with such a close neighbour," she said.
"It was not in the spirit of our friendship, from our struggle together in World War II to our support for your young nation after independence."
East Timorese politicians, including recently elected Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, have been campaigning to convince Australian oil and gas company Woodside to agree to pipe gas from the $70 billion Greater Sunrise field for processing in Timor-Leste rather than the company's preferred option of Darwin.
Leaders in Dili see the long-stalled Sunrise Project as a future economic lifeblood of the underdeveloped young nation, which has been heavily reliant on natural resources since independence but is expected to exhaust its earnings from oil and gas in a decade.
Timor-Leste controls about 57 per cent of the field, which is 450 kilometres north of Darwin, while Woodside controls 33 per cent and Japanese company Osaka Gas 10 per cent.
Describing the gas field as unfinished business, Wong said: "Australia has only one ambition for Greater Sunrise: to see the field developed as soon as feasibly possible to support Timor-Leste's development.
"Prime Minister Gusmao was right to say that Greater Sunrise needs to be a feasible and economically sound solution, that creates a petroleum industry that can yield direct economic dividends for your people."
She continued: "Australia has been listening carefully to understand your ambitions for Greater Sunrise. I can assure you that Timor-Leste's commitment to onshore processing and to the south coast Tasi Mane project is clearly understood."
During her first visit to Timor-Leste last year Wong said the government was working hard to try to "unstick" the stalled project.The government last year appointed former Victorian premier Steve Bracks its special representative for the Greater Sunrise project.
Gusmao recently said Australia had behaved "very, very badly" over the maritime boundary issue in the past and that supporting his plan to process the gas on Timor-Leste's southern coastal area of Suai was a way to make amends. "It is a reparation," he said.