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Phelps, Greg --- "President's page: Montara, the ALA, and beyond" [2016] PrecedentAULA 27; (2016) 134 Precedent 3


By Greg Phelps

As July 1st will see a change of chairs in the national board of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, this is my last president’s page in Precedent. With your indulgence, I wish to reflect on the importance of the ALA in the Australian community and the pivotal role it has played in a matter close to my heart: the Montara oil spill.

When ALA’s former Northern Territory director left the NT in 2012, I happened into the position. The plaintiff work that is ALA’s core business was not central to my practice; my litigation matters were leftfield: Indonesian fishermen, ‘people smuggling’ crews, criminal property forfeiture and the Montara oil spill. The other ALA national committee members embraced these issues, as the ALA’s charter squarely extends to fighting all forms of bad laws and injustice.

In 2013, the ALA presented its Civil Justice Award to Ferdi Tanoni, my friend and champion of Montara victims in the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT). The ALA got behind the Montara cause, culminating in the publication of the sterling report on our website, After the Spill, tirelessly compiled by Emily Mitchell, ALA’s former Legal and Policy Officer. The ALA’s support helped Ferdi and me to maintain momentum. Now in partnership with other ALA stalwarts, Professor Cashman and Maurice Blackburn, the legal playing field for Montara victims is somewhat level for the first time since the disaster.

In August 2009, the Montara wellhead exploded (in a similar event to the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010); for 74 days, Montara oil spewed into the Timor Sea. Because the Commonwealth monitored Australian waters around Montara, we know that no oil reached the mainland. So where did the millions upon millions of litres of oil end up? It crossed our northern maritime border, and our impoverished neighbours reported horrendous impacts to their health and livelihood in NTT. The stark difference between BP and Montara is the action taken by the governments responsible. President Obama immediately ordered BP to spend $100 million on monitoring the impact; BP has since paid tens of billions in damages. BP was forced to face its responsibility.

After the Spill catalogues the reported impacts in NTT: the ocean died; vital fishing and seaweed industries were gutted; people in remote locations, subsistent to the ocean, starved; fatalities were attributed to poisoned seafood; and, worsened poverty saw thousands of children taken out of school. Eyewitness accounts and mounting expert evidence overwhelmingly back up the reports.

Since 2011, I have written to four successive Australian prime ministers raising the plight of our poor neighbours in NTT. PM Rudd took no action at all to investigate the impact on NTT communities. His successors have made excuses as to why it is not Australia’s responsibility. Montara oil was Australian oil – taken under licence by the Thai corporate juggernaut, PTTEPAA. Sadly, a company will evade responsibility if its regulator turns a blind eye. The Australian government remains content to allow PTTEPAA to exploit NTT’s poverty and voicelessness. The polluter has evaded even the cost of a scientific study to investigate Montara’s impacts. Of course, it fears what such an investigation would reveal.

How is it that a modern, compassionate Australia can say: this is not our problem? What of the friendship that exists between our communities (in particular, for the unheralded, stoic support of the Timorese for Australian forces in the face of Japanese brutality in WWII)?

The ALA has taken a stand to say Montara is Australia’s problem.

In closing, ALA is the best-credentialled organisation in Australia to be a strong voice on all matters of justice. As a national collective of lawyers, we will speak out even when the cause is inconvenient or unpopular. ALA responds to issues, such as Montara, without fear or favour and supports its members to fight the good fight. The two cornerstones of ALA’s continuing strength are our membership numbers and member engagement. The benefits of members’ active participation are mutually boundless.

I thank Andrew Stone and other directors for supporting me over the last 12 months when I spent so much time in Indonesia. Our GM, Richard Trim, holds a true course with the support of the fabulous ALA team. I wish Tony Kenyon well as the incoming National President. The ALA is in safe hands.

Greg Phelps is a Partner with Ward Keller in Darwin. EMAIL

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