November 21, 2013
The person in Parliament who has best expressed the gravity of the dispute with Indonesia is perhaps its most eccentric member, the independent Bob Katter. On Tuesday, during question time, he compressed into his question every reason the Indonesians are now burning with an intention to knock Australia, once and for all, out of its perceived patronising attitude towards Indonesia.
''Prime Minister,'' Katter asked, ''would you agree that every Australian would be appalled if you and your wife's phones were tapped and worried why Indonesia would do this? … How would you describe families fishing for food having their boats burnt, last week's territorial naval intrusion, sovereignties assailed, food supply cut and phones tapped? Surely an apology, a condemnation of the Gillard actions and assurances about foreign policy in the future are imperatives?''
Again, Abbott chose the path of insult: ''I am certainly not going to be critical of the former government's conduct in respect of intelligence. I do not believe that Australia should be expected to apologise for reasonable intelligence-gathering operations …''
Indonesia is now reviewing, and downgrading, every aspect of its co-operation with Australia.
What elevates this diplomatic firestorm is the element of personal affront. Indonesia's president has made his displeasure known in the most explicit, direct and public terms. He believes he has been affronted twice. First, by the cowboys in the Defence Signals Directorate, then by Abbott refusing to apologise, explain or even mollify.
If Abbott digs in over an outdated, outflanked matter of principle, his relationship with Indonesia will be in tatters, and his credibility in foreign affairs compromised. It's his choice.
I'd love to know who was the defence minister who signed off on this cowboy operation, and who owns the risk-benefit analysis which weighed the advantages of tapping the Indonesian president's phone, and his wife's phone, against the fierce blowback if this was ever exposed.
To put the present blowback in perspective, during the mid-1960s Australian troops were killing Indonesian soldiers during the low-level, undeclared war between Malaysia and Indonesia known as the Konfrontasi. Yet the Indonesian ambassador was not recalled from Canberra. As far as I can ascertain, Indonesia has only recalled its ambassador to Canberra twice, in 2006 and 2013. Both times it was by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the man with the rapidly evaporating reputation as Australia's greatest friend in Indonesia. The first recall was in response to John Howard granting political asylum to 42 West Irians. The second was in response to Abbott's refusal to apologise for the phone-tapping.
All this would have been anticipated by the people who lit this conflagration, the ABC and the English import The Guardian Australia. The Guardian had possession of the security leak for months. Nothing happened while Labor was in power.
ABC managing director Mark Scott had a clear choice. It was self-evident that revealing these phone taps would poison the relationship with Indonesia, damage Australia's intelligence-gathering, humiliate President Yudhoyono, compromise Australian security arrangements, and ripple out to Australia's education market in Indonesia.
He decided to go all-in with The Guardian. His decision was consistent with, on his watch, the ABC's institutional hostility to Coalition policies on asylum-seekers, and its decisions such as appointing Russell Skelton as chief fact-checker despite his public record of anti-Coalition partisanship. The ABC has got what it wanted. It will now pursue the story with zeal.