Lisa: New Zealand has committed peacekeepers to Timor Leste for 13 years and lost five soldiers there.
We still give the country $14 million a year in aid. But the oil’s running out. Petroleum revenues have halved in a year and some are concerned the country could be broke inside a decade.
Jose Ramos-Horta is a UN Special Representative and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
He used to be Timor Leste’s Prime Minister and President.
Newshub’s Pacific Correspondent Michael Morrah spoke to him in Wellington this week and asked if, after all his years of war and work, how much the dwindling oil supplies threaten his homeland?
Jose Ramos-Horta: The fact that there is a possibility of serious financial economic difficulties, let’s say five years from now, doesn’t say that the last 15 years nothing was done. No. We built a country from nothing 15 years ago. We have achieved a lot. Much more remains to be done, great challenges ahead partly because of the dwindling revenues from oil and gas.
Michael: But there have been a lot of concerns that the current government has been overspending.
Would you agree that some money’s been wasted on, say, infrastructure projects, et cetera?
I would have done it differently.
How would you have done things differently?
I would have, for instance, in the 2016 budget; I would have reduced it drastically by at least 30 percent, cutting where I think would be superfluous, like international travels. I would have it closed down and I recommended in writing closing down six embassies. I would have cut down in ministers, members of parliament, privileges. If we completely cut down on the excessive international travels by governments, civil servants, by MPs.
Has that travel been wasteful, in your view?
Mostly wasteful, yes. Mostly wasteful.
Why is that? Are these MPs being frivolous with money, irresponsible with money?
Well, I wouldn’t say irresponsible. When I was president of my country, as head of state I travel with two or three people. When I go to New York, even the US Secret Services who accompanied me, they were surprised. I stay in a simple single room that you pay $250 a night. They never heard of a head of state staying in such simple rooms, never heard of a head of state travelling with two, three people. Now they travel with 20, 30 people entourage.
So it’s unnecessary?
Do you have any concerns about corruption in the current government?
We do have corruption, but the whole thing is the courts are asserting themselves.
And you have confidence in them?
I have confidence in them, and they have handed out verdicts that have sent some ministers to jail. A previous minister of justice spent about five years’ sentence. The mayor of Dili got two years in prison.
So your message to the current Timor-Leste government is to cut out wasteful spending?
Yes, absolutely. They didn’t do it in 2016. I hope it is done in 2017 to reflect the reality of our dwindling revenues from oil and gas.
If these reforms are not carried out, the predictions are that Timor-Leste could become a failed state. Is that possible, in your view, if reforms are not carried out?
[It's] always possible if your reforms are not carried out. The reality is life expectancy 10 years ago was below 50 -- Now it’s 67. Infant mortality, child mortality -- it's down by half. Malaria, dengue -- almost gone.
Timor-Leste that I know today, day to day, is different, better than it was 15 years ago. Maybe one great failure on our part and the facts are there to show that it’s a failure is in agriculture. We didn’t invest wisely in making Timor-Leste absolutely self-sufficient in food security.
So how confident are you that the country can get through these tough times and become a prosperous nation? Or do you have serious concerns about its ability to do that?
Oh, I’m seriously concerned about the next five, 10 years. Maybe the next five years we still can get by because we have enough revenues in oil and gas as long as we control expenditure. We have to lower expectations. We have to ask our people to tighten the belt the next five, 10 years. But to do that, government officials, politicians have to show example to tighten the belt, less consumption and less expenditure with credible political leadership because people respond; people are prepared to sacrifice themselves.
Do you think there needs to be a change in political leadership? An election’s coming up.
We'll see in the next election, 2017, the leaders that will emerge. I do not have a political party. She [Helen Clark] was a great prime minister of New Zealand, successful woman. She has managed a very difficult UN body, the United Nations Development Programme. She's smart and brilliant. If she were to be a candidate, being particularly a woman now, because there’s a lot of pressure on the UN to have the next Secretary General a woman, so she stands a good chance. But she, Helen Clark, like Kevin Rudd and few others I know, not being from Eastern Europe -- that is their handicap unless they convince the Russians. That Helen Clark’s from New Zealand, small country, far away from the rest of the world.
So you think she’d make a good head of the UN, but at this stage chances are slim?
Chances are very slim for anyone from outside Eastern Europe.
Dr Ramos-Horta, thanks so much for talking to The Nation. A pleasure to meet you.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz