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quarta-feira, 27 de fevereiro de 2013

New leadership lifts East Timor from colonial tragedy

Opinion & Analysis / Columnists

Opinion & Analysis / Columnists
THERE was a time when CEOs were in effect the DNA of their organisations — their roles shaped and defined by time and knowledge, from mailroom to boardroom to dignified retirement.

But selection criteria have altered significantly. Today’s CEOs are exceptionally good at overpromising and simultaneously explaining underdelivery. Knowing the nature of the business has been undermined by an emphasis on people- and publicity-management skills. Couple this to the construction of a new language in the annoying marketing rhetoric and it is clear that today’s imposters are but shadows of their predecessors.

One such CEO is former Woodside chief Don Voelte. A confrontational Nebraskan with a hysterical hairstyle, Voelte’s relatively consistent leadership of the Australian energy group was mauled by a formidable yet underestimated adversary: the small government of the impoverished Pacific island of East Timor.

The issue is complex: a discovery of a vast oil and gas deposit potentially valued at more than $50bn in the Jurassic strata of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea signalled unimaginable prospects for the islanders whose horrific occupation and suffering under a despicable Indonesian regime 20 years ago was largely ignored.

The deposit sits in waters closer to East Timor than to Australia; the East Timorese government subsequently entered into a joint development agreement with Woodside.

Two options were explored: the first would be the construction of a refinery in Suai on the southern coast of East Timor; the second, a floating refinery. In terms of cost, the former outweighed the latter significantly. In terms of opportunity for the government and people of East Timor, however, the reverse was applicable and this was expressed clearly.

Enter Voelte and his outrageous haircut with all the discretion of Dick Cheney charging feet first into a dove-shooting competition. It is testament to any manner of flawed judgment that Voelte thought that making poorly considered comments about the East Timorese government’s reaction would resolve the issue.

In an age where perspectives are shaped on so much as a singular, isolated allegation of corporate greed and subsequent exploitation of "little people", Woodside threatened to venture into territory previously explored only by the likes of Shell, by tampering with graphs to exaggerate the height consistency of the sea floor — an attempt to support its own unwillingness to pursue the aforementioned first option. Although Voelte’s behaviour may appear to be ammunition for left-wing moral gatekeepers, it is comforting to know that in the case of East Timor, no such useful idiots are required.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the European call to end apartheid owed its stature to the movement in London, driven by the likes of a reptile collector named Ken Livingstone and Ralph Miliband, the Krug-quaffing communist of Primrose Hill who will probably be remembered only for fathering two of the most annoying politicians ever. Coverage of the atrocities in East Timor, lying at the other end of the world, was left to some courageous Australian journalists while the rest of the world obsessed over Nelson Mandela. The irony was that in East Timor, a man equalling Mandela’s stature was emerging.

Unlike King Mswati III of Swaziland, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão doesn’t get caught nearly blowing his country’s education budget on a new private jet. There are no blue-light cavalcades in the capital — and no repugnant statements such as "I didn’t get into politics to remain poor". Instead there is a rare dynamic of role reversal: politicians in East Timor appear as the CEOs of yesteryear — and no clearer is this illustrated than in the assessment of Alfredo Pires, secretary of state for natural resources.

Pires is a formidable academic who was educated at Ballarat University outside Melbourne and returned to help rebuild his country. To the naked eye, East Timor is a colonial tragedy — a product of classic Portuguese occupation, with no effort made to build infrastructure and where lack of interest flourishes to the point of neglect. Yet advances continue under Gusmão, particularly with Pires assuming control over the joint development agreement. On Friday, East Timor declared that it may develop the Greater Sunrise fields alone — the culmination of a series of actions that may have started with Voelte.

This unravelling issue continues to fascinate. Voelte’s participation was an anthem to the style of leadership we’re used to seeing at municipal level in South Africa. Like other modern-day CEOs who are not required to master skills specific to trade, Voelte resigned only to become the CEO of Australian television’s Channel Seven. The real leadership seems to be coming from a new band of enviable, intelligent patriots who seem intent on establishing a model of success without being exploited. Should they succeed, an extraordinary precedent will be set in the energy world.

Reader is the co-founder and chief investment officer of RE:RE Capital. He writes from East Timor this week.

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