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FRIDAY 11 MAY 2018

"I’d like to congratulate Ian and Marionne MacRitchie for their extraordinary commitment to our close, and still desperately poor, neighbour Timor-Leste.

When Ian contacted me about talking to you tonight, I was unaware that the ambitious plan former ALF champion Ross Smith pitched to me in Melbourne back around 2010, to send students from the Australian Catholic University to Timor-Leste to do soccer training, is now one of the Emerge Foundation’s three key programs.

I remember Ross telling me about his visit to Baucau, Timor-Leste’s second largest city.

He had taken a group of students and a dozen or so soccer balls.

A passion for soccer in Timor-Leste is a legacy of Portugal’s five centuries of colonialisation.

Ross told me that on the first day, a handful of kids turned up at what passed for a sports ground.

By the end of the week, there were 200.

Today what has become the Emerge Foundation’s “Youth-in-Sport” program now extends to 32 schools with 40 coaches and more than 2000 children participating.

That is a phenomenal achievement.

It is an achievement that in a way parallels the many extraordinary achievements of the Timorese since they voted for independence from Indonesia in August 1999.

I am going to share with you tonight some good news stories out of Timor-Leste. 

Stories that you don’t hear about in the Australian media. 

Then I’m going to take off my rose-coloured glasses and briefly detail the enormous challenges ahead.

And finally, I’ll talk about the magnificent contribution being made by the Emerge Foundation.

To set the scene for the good news, we need to revisit Timor-Leste’s traumatic past.

For 400 hundred years the eastern half of the island of Timor, along with Atauro and Jaco islands and the enclave of Oecussi in West Timor were part of the Portuguese colonial empire and known as Portuguese Timor.

During most of that time, the thousands of islands that make up what is now known as Indonesia were colonised by the Dutch.

The island of Timor that was split down the middle – the western half Dutch and eastern half Portuguese - lies just across the Timor Sea, about 700 kilometres from Darwin.

Timor is closer to Australia than New Zealand, Fiji, Christmas Island and Bali; and Darwin is closer to Timor than to Tennant Creek but despite its relative proximity there was little commercial, or political, engagement across the Timor Sea.

This changed dramatically during World War II.

In December 1941 Australian, Dutch and British troops invaded neutral Portuguese Timor in an attempt to forestall the Japanese. 

Two months later, on 19 February 1942, the same day the Japanese air force pattern-bombed Darwin, 1500 Japanese troops landed in Portuguese Timor. 

Throughout 1942 the 400 strong force of Australian troops led a guerrilla war against the Japanese.

They adopted young Timorese boys as their guides, and many owed their lives to the loyalty and local knowledge of the Timorese.

The Australians were evacuated in early 1943.

Their Timorese guides were left behind on the beach as leaflets dropped from the sky saying “Your friends do not forget you” and urging them to fight on alone.

The Japanese stayed until the end of the war in 1945. 

During the war, 50,000 Timorese died - either killed in battle or from disease or starvation. 

It was a death toll of nearly one in nine.

Many of the Australian soldiers evacuated felt enduring guilt - it just wasn’t Australian to desert your mates.

After World War II, the Portuguese returned and the Timorese lived under colonial rule for another thirty years until there was a revolution in Portugal in 1974.

The new regime announced that Portugal would grant independence to all of its colonies – including Portuguese Timor.

By then Australia was in dispute with Portugal about the right to potentially billions of dollars of oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

It is well documented that Australia covertly supported Indonesia’s plans to integrate Timor that culminated in Indonesia’s invasion in December 1975.

It is also well documented, most recently in Kim McGrath’s book Crossing the Line, Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea, that Australia became the only western nation to formerly acknowledge Indonesia’s sovereignty in East Timor in order to negotiate a maritime boundary in 1979 which was necessary to get on with petroleum exploration and exploitation in the Timor Sea.

This was despite the UN condemning the occupation as illegal, and horrifying  reports reaching the Australian media of a rising death toll from warfare, disease and starvation. 

About 200,000 people, nearly a quarter of the population, died during the 24 years of the Indonesian occupation.

And all this happened on our doorstep, on our watch, in our lifetimes – an hour by plane from Darwin.

Violence around the historic vote for independence in August 1999, led to the death of another 1400 people at the hands of the retreating Indonesian backed local militia who also destroyed nearly 80 per cent of the nation’s physical infrastructure – including most hospitals, schools, bridges and power plants.

The situation was still fraught when I made my first visit as Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s special adviser in September 2007.

At that time Xanana Gusmao’s Government was only a month old.

  • there were around 150,000 people living in “internally displaced persons” or IDP camps in and around Dili.

  • violent conflicts between sections of the army and the police in 2006 meant that Australian soldiers roamed the streets as leaders of a UN backed International Stabilisation Force

  • there was a group of armed rebel soldiers in the mountains

  • a second UN mission had been established in response to the violence of 2006 and at times the only cars on the road were UN four wheel drives

  • I got around in one of those UN four wheel drives accompanied by an officer from Victoria Police travelling behind a UN police escort

  • every third building in Dili was an empty burnt out shell and there was still a massive need to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in 1999 when retreating Indonesian militia destroyed schools, hospitals, road, bridges, power and other infrastructure

  • despite no traffic lights, and potholes as big as cars in the main street, the lack of traffic meant it generally took about 10 minutes to get anywhere in Dili

  • there were daily power failures in Dili, and no power in most regional areas

  • the streets and waterfront were deserted at night

  • there was a palpable sense of anxiety and reports of vehicles being stoned and other acts of violence.

So now for the good news!

In 2008 the armed rebels all surrendered peacefully.

This made it safe for the people living in IDP camps to return to their homes.  Dili ceased being a tent city.

The UN said it would take 10 years – the Gusmao Government had everyone resettled in two.

In 2012, following successful and peaceful elections that saw Prime Minister Gusmao’s Government reelected, both the UN Mission and the International Stabilisation Force packed up and left.

There is now a power grid and optical cable around the whole nation that is opening up access to refrigeration, electric stoves, light for reading and learning after dark, and the digital age.

It now takes 30 minutes or longer to get anywhere in Dili - traffic congestion is a major problem – there is a thriving taxi industry competing with overcrowded mini buses, scooters and increasingly new four wheel drives with Timorese at the helm. 

The streets of Dili are alive at night and all along the waterfront families gather to eat at beachfront food stalls.

There is a building boom in Dili. 

There is an air-conditioned shopping mall, two cinemas, many new café and bars, and tourist resorts are springing up along the coast.

Smoking has been banned in the Hotel Timor – those of you who have stayed there will appreciate the significance of that!

In February 2015 Gusmao voluntarily gave up the Prime Ministership to Dr Rui Araujo from the next generation of leaders and became Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment.

Gusmao also took on the role of Timor-Leste’s chief negotiator in the UN Compulsory Conciliation with Australia that resulted in an historic treaty signed in New York in March this year settling a maritime boundary based on the median line in the Timor Sea.

Given Australia’s refusal to accept Timor-Leste’s rights under the international law of the sea to a median line based boundary since independence in 2002, this a truly remarkable achievement.

The revenue Timor-Leste has received from oil and gas in the Timor Sea has been conservatively invested in a Petroleum Fund, so much so, that it became one of the best performing sovereign wealth funds in the world following the global financial crisis – the Steven Bradbury fund!

There is other good news, evidenced in a variety of economic and social indicators, from budget transparency to infant mortality, that I don’t have time to go through tonight.

And while it is important to acknowledge the incredible progress over the last decade, it is still a confronting reality that of the 188 nations assessed in the latest UN Human Development index, Australia sits at no 2 and Timor-Leste at no 133.

41% of people live on less than 60 cents a day.

So many things we take for granted; being able to drink water from the tap, 24 hour power, flush toilets in every house, hospitals with qualified staff and medicines to meet the population’s minimum needs, schools with trained teachers, schools with class rooms with floors and toilet blocks, a culturally appropriate school curriculum - I could go on – these are all still ambitious goals for most Timorese.

Which is why there is an almost bottomless list of ‘top’ priority demands on the Timor-Leste government to help address extreme levels of poverty and unemployment and at times overwhelming challenges in the health and educations sectors.

Which brings me to the incredible work of the Emerge Foundation.

Education is the key to economic development.

And as many studies have shown, the education of girls is central to transformative success.

Which is why Emerge Foundation’s major fund raising goal to provide scholarships for young men and women to attend the Catholic Teachers College in Baucau is so important.

The College provides degrees in teaching that are accredited by ACU giving the students an Australian degree. 

In a country where 60 per cent of the population is under 25 the need for properly qualified teachers cannot be overestimated.

The Emerge Foundation is also supporting students study a Diploma of Nursing so they can work in the Maternal Childcare Program that this year will provide 90 villages with access to healthcare.

I’ve already talked about the success of the Youth-in-Sport program which seeks to help children realise their sporting dreams by providing coaching, equipment, and facilities.

These three initiatives of the Emerge Foundation are practical and targeted.

They are backing the goals set out in Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan.

And I want to thank you all for backing them by your presence here tonight.

Tomorrow the people of Timor-Leste go to the polls again.

I can’t predict the result – there are no reliable polls!

But I am confident that the Timorese will continue to look to the future and the relationship between the Timorese and the Australian people will continue to thrive.

The most dramatic change I have witnessed in the decade I have been visiting Timor-Leste, is written on people’s faces.

Despite all the trauma of the past, and the challenges of the future, there is a vibrant sense of optimism in the air in Timor-Leste.

And there are smiles on people’s faces.

That, I believe, is Timor-Leste’s greatest achievement.

Thank you."


The flight from Darwin is so early that you can barely see the island on approach. What you can see looks like the essential paradise. Densely forested mountains, a narrow coastal plain, beautiful sweeping bays framed by the occasional mountainous island. On the northern side where Dili is, the sea is calm. No breakers hammer the beaches. A series of coral reefs lie off shore and scuba diving is an attraction. Exactly who it attracts is a mystery as this is not a tourist destination and we are not tourists. We have arrived for a long weekend to witness the graduation of 55 students who have completed the Education Degree at Baucau Teacher’s College. Entering the country from the same flight is a statuesque young nun wearing the habit of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order. We have plenty of time to get to know her while she waits to be picked up and we wait for our ride to the hotel to arrive. She is from Kenya and works and lives in a village high above Dili, two hours drive up into the mountains. Her job is to help the locals look after their health by getting them attended to either on site or in the city. Villagers who don’t have this sort of help are left to survive as best they can. TB is common and cancer is widespread and goes mainly untreated.

After leaving our bags at the hotel, a charming survivor of  Portuguese colonial days, we go to the Timor Hotel to meet Jose Ramos Horta past president and Nobel Peace Laureate. This is the same hotel the five Australian journalists left from for their fateful assignment at Balibo in 1973.  Horta gives us two hours of his time and when we leave him he has given us the impression that Timor has a future. Under the leadership of a young Prime Minister things are looking optimistic. Help from outside is still urgently needed. The sort of help that the Emerge Foundation has been giving for 10 years now.

That evening we sat by the murmuring sea for dinner at a restaurant newly built by a hotel called Novo Turismo. Perhaps tourists do or will come. It is a warm, still evening and the food is good.

Next day we travelled for 3 and a half hours along the coast road to Baucau. The road is in the throws of being rebuilt by Chinese and Japanese contractors and it is rough and in some places dangerous. But the views from the treacherous cliff face high above the ocean take the breath away. We pass many villages on the way and most are simple round thatched huts where there is no electricity and the people have to line up for water twice a day at the one tap. These villages are where many of the students at the college come from, where they will return to teach if they don’t spread their wings and go to Dili or even further afield. In the larger villages with masonry houses there is always a school. The schools are painted and in good condition.

As we approach Baucau the terrain becomes more interesting. We turn inland from the sea into a hilly area heavily covered in rain forest. One of the first things we see is the newly rebuilt college on the side of a hill overlooking the town. It is an imposing three story building. Later we will be taken on a tour of it by the Director, Brother Peter Corrs. We will see bright clean well-appointed class rooms and study rooms with views over the town to the sea and the horizon. The building contrasts emphatically with the rest of the town which is still slowly coming back from years of neglect and destruction. Nevertheless it is a pretty place and many of the old colonial buildings still stand.  On the outskirts of the town is a vast web of markets selling mostly fresh vegetables and fruit. Testament to the productive nature of the hinterland. But the poverty of the brightly clad vendors is obvious too. The people of the market are not used to tourists and they smile and laugh with us. We buy a bunch of bananas and give them to the children who are everywhere giggling at us and wanting to be photographed.

Graduation day arrives and we are in the church by 8 am for mass. The graduates are gathered on one side of the church and do most of the singing. They sing perfect harmonies and we are all enchanted. The service lasts for two hours and is spoken in Tetum. The bishop gives a long homily and not a sound is heard apart from his deeply resonant voice for forty minutes. He is a charming man who entertains his congregation and makes them laugh. Outside in the seering sun people gather for photographs. Many come up to us and say thank you. These are students who are still involved in the course and are on scholarships from Emerge.

We walk around the corner to a hall which is decorated in the national flag and colourful streamers and bunting ready for the graduation ceremony. The families and supporters of the graduates fill the hall quickly. Many of the men are in suits and the women have gone to a lot of trouble with their dress. Most of the graduates are women. Out of the fifty five, only 10 are men. Probably the same proportion in primary teaching in Australia. Emerge has as a policy to favour women in the giving of scholarships. Half the students at the college are on scholarships from Emerge. Most are from small villages. If they were not at college they would be married and having babies. Most women in East Timor have at least 5 children. Many of the graduates are already married and have had to take a year or more off during their course to have a baby. The women of East Timor have a very high mortality rate in childbirth. For the last few years Emerge has been funding a program for the training of nurses who go out into the villages and provide basic first aid and midwifery. Emerge sees this as an extremely important part of its operation.

Four of the graduates receive Masters Degrees. The Masters in Education is provided directly by the Australian Catholic University as distance education. To do the course the student must learn English. Instructors are sent from the university to help with this. These Masters graduates will become the teachers at the teachers college. At present, about half the staff are these successful post graduate recipients. The degrees offered at the Baucau College are the only ones in East Timor with international recognition. Two young women from this year’s bachelor graduates, have been offered jobs with the World Bank to work in their education program.

While in East Timor we had little time to have a proper look around. Some parts are lush and moist and others quite dry. There are spectacular views and wonderful mountains. In a small town on the way back from Baucau we stopped to look at on old Portuguese church. The day was hot and dry and inside in the cool, sweet voices sang while the congregation filed forward for communion. No one noticed us come and stand at the back. We could have been in Portugal. It was Sunday. The congregation wasn’t large but there was no one about on the streets or in the paddy fields. A day of rest.

Going to East Timor was a wonderful experience. If you want to put your life in some sort of perspective I would highly recommend going. It is chastening to see how little these people live on and how well they live their lives in spite of it. We know from statistics that there are a lot of things needed to make life comfortable and optimistic there. There is a lot of domestic violence, mal-nourishment in children and untreated illness. Education is the linchpin of a better life. That is what Ian and Marionne with Emerge are working so hard to help fund. That is what you are doing by being here tonight. Thank you for supporting Emerge and these wonderful Timorese people.


Two of our 2017 graduates have accepted job offers from the World Bank in Dili, testimony to their hard work and the quality of the faculty at ICFP in Baucau.
Ambrosia Lopez Ximines and Ana Jacqueline da Silva (pictured) will help with syllabus design.

Ambrosia was the recipient of the Richmond Family Scholarship in 2014 with Ana Jacqueline winning the QANTAS Scholarship the same year.

Gradu Ana Jacqueline da Silva receives h
ANCHE CABRAL carries the flag.JPG


Anche received her Master's degree from major General Peter Cosgrove in 2012.

Here she is carrying the flag at the Rio Olympics. she represented East Timor in cross country cycling. We salute the dedication, talent and intelligence of this beautiful young lady.

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