Australia has a problem. Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison have taken Australia down a path from which there are only two outcomes: further aggression and confrontation with Indonesia or retreat.

Retreat would amount to a domestic political defeat for Abbott and Morrison but lead to an improvement in relations with Indonesia. Further aggression would continue to undermine the relationship with Indonesia and might spread into the region.

Abbott has displayed and deployed characteristics at odds with his image as a conservative intellectual, and he appears not to care about nurturing the delicate relationship with Indonesia. The diplomatic subtleties and nuances required to maintain and build that relationship have been sacrificed to his flawed domestic agenda of turning back the boats.

Morrison has proven a willing attack dog. His anger and downright nastiness were on public display on Wednesday, in his defence of Australian navy personnel alleged to have burnt the hands of asylum seekers.

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His failure to address the media on issues of national concern is an affront to Australian democracy. Operational requirements are said to be the basis for this, but that requirement has been allowed to slide when faced with allegations that test his veracity.

Morrison and the head of the taskforce overseeing so-called border security, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, took us for fools when they sold the line that Australian navy vessels had inadvertently crossed into Indonesia waters, and the Indonesians are right to question the honesty of that claim. It was also a slur against the navy and naval personnel, backed by Campbell.

The navy is in possession of some very sophisticated equipment to make sure vessels know exactly where they are at any moment in time, and the training of sea-going personnel, particularly navigators, is rigorous. Australian sailors are unlikely to be impressed with Morrison’s clumsy defence.

Morrison appears to be running the show,with Campbell put in the position to give Defence Force legitimacy to a crass political undertaking. It is Morrison’s head that pops up in the media to defend the less salubrious aspects of the illegal operation being run against asylum seekers when they become public knowledge in Australia from Indonesian sources.

“In defending the navy from charges of torture, Morrison sought, in the crudest of terms, to demonise asylum seekers.”

In defending the navy from charges of torture, Morrison sought, in the crudest of terms, to demonise asylum seekers. It reminded me of when I listened to white South African politicians demonise black South Africans in order to deflect criticism from what apartheid was imposing.

Yesterday, Julie Bishop said the Australian government would co-operate with the Indonesian investigation into allegations that Australian navy personnel had engaged in acts of torture against asylum seekers under their protection. Until then Australia was in danger of tacitly accusing the Indonesian government of lying in terms of the information and allegations that have come out thus far. And in light of the public statements made so far in defence of naval personnel by Abbott, Morrison, Bishop and navy chief Ray Griggs prior to any findings of fact, how will they react to adverse findings?

Abbott recently said in Sri Lanka that under certain circumstances torture was justified. He has also said that he would accept the word of an Australian sailor over that of a person who sought to enter Australia illegally (he was referring to asylum seekers).

But sailors and soldiers under pressure can behave badly, particularly if leadership is weak or lacking. Griggs will not have forgotten the unedifying farce of the inquiries into the sinking of HMAS Voyager by HMAS Melbourne. He will be aware of issues of sexual harassment in the navy dating back 50 years and covered up until recent times, and he will be aware of conduct unbecoming on HMAS Ballarat last year.

Griggs hasn’t long to go in the job, so surely he should consider retiring with pride. He needs to find some moral courage. A starting point might be to assert himself over the operational use of his vessels before the Indonesians start firing at them.

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, needs to place distance between himself and Abbott. Together with opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs Tanya Plibersek, he should visit Indonesia and seek to repair the damage being wrought by Morrison and Abbott. They might begin by addressing the issue of the joint processing of refugees.

Indonesia would genuinely welcome good relations with Australia, but despite their inane statements that all is well with the relationship, Abbott and Morison are doing everything to wreck it.