One mess that no one expected Tony Abbott to inherit when he became Prime Minister was the legacy of the then-Defence Signals Directorate’s attempt to tap the phone of the Indonesian President, his wife and other senior figures under the Rudd government.
This revelation, provided by Edward Snowden via media outlets, is entirely in the public interest: it yet again demonstrates the mentality of security agencies that place a “just because we can” approach to surveillance above protecting the national interests of their country.
The attempt to monitor the President’s phone has plainly infuriated the Indonesian political elite. As Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said, this is not “business as usual”. The suspension of co-operation with Australia across intelligence-gathering and disrupting people-smuggling networks is being considered.
The relationship with Indonesia, as all sides of politics now acknowledge, is our most important. Abbott has spoken at length about his intention to improve it. He is now faced with trying to minimise damage to that relationship, rather than improve it. His statement to Parliament yesterday certainly doesn’t fit that bill: he seemed to suggest that it was President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s decision to be “embarrassed by media reports” that was the real problem.
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A more considered approach would be simply to accept that, for the good of our relationship with Indonesia, we should apologise and get on with rebuilding. There’s an old Labor adage about having to eat a shit sandwich. And that’s what the then-DSD, under a Labor government, has bequeathed to Abbott. The least worst option is to consume it and move on as quickly as possible.