WHAT SHOULD have been a storm in a diplomatic teacup has blown up into a major international typhoon whose only target is Prime Minister Tony Abbott; the Indonesians, the Fairfax Media, the ABC and the ALP are fanning the fury of forces that may well spiral out of control. They should get a grip.
Whichever way you cut it, the unseemly brawl that has erupted over the Rudd government’s decision to eavesdrop on a number of key Indonesian figures in 2009 centres on activities that are far from unique, and is one from which nobody will emerge with the upper hand in any moral sense.
At least, that’s how it should be.
The outrage in Indonesia over revelations that the mobile phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife were being tapped in 2009 — after three Australians were killed in a jihadist atrocity in Jakarta — would be laughable were it not for the fact the Indonesians are taking it (and themselves) so seriously.
At first blush, it’s easy to view the reaction as rather convenient; SBY has long attracted criticism in the Indonesian press over perceptions he’s too close to Australia; a topical example of this is the clemency appeal made by convicted drug trafficker Schapelle Corby, which SBY responded to by granting a five-year cut from her 20-year sentence.
So at the outset, let’s be clear: the harder Yudhoyono rails against and hits Australia now, on a very convenient pretext, the better it will play for him to a domestic audience.
It brings up the rather uncomfortable truth — always in evidence but rarely spoken of — that all countries spy on each other; whether you call it espionage or intelligence gathering, everyone does it.
And so everyone should, especially in a western country accountable to democratically elected leaders; just look at the uproar that was directed at US President George W. Bush in the wake of the atrocities of 11 September 2001, when it was revealed that US intelligence had failed to identify — and circumvent — those attacks.
Imagine the stink if it happened in Australia; the same pack now hunting Tony Abbott — the Greens, the ABC, the Fairfax press, other troglodytes of the Left — would be baying for blood, and the loudest of their criticisms would be the failure of Australian intelligence.
You can’t have it both ways.
Former Indonesian intelligence chief General Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono admitted in 2004 that his country intercepted and monitored political, military and civilian communications in Australia.
He has resurfaced in the past week to urge restraint on his President, saying such surveillance is “normal” and “a technical thing.”
And despite the vehement denials by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa in recent days that Indonesia conducts surveillance on Australia, it is well-known — if unspoken — that both countries gather intelligence on each other.
Yet like sharks to a bleeding corpse, the frenzy of the Left and its media mouthpieces has been crazed; the ABC seems more concerned that the remunerative arrangements of its staff were published than it was at the leakage of Australian intelligence activities, whereas the Fairfax press seems to have got it into its collective head that this is its big chance to destroy the Abbott Prime Ministership less than three months after it began.
Andrew Bolt had it about right in his assessment of the Left and the media on these issues; an excellent column that appeared in the Murdoch press yesterday can be found here.
Indonesia — in a move calculated to hit Abbott and his government hard, and on the most politically sensitive issue on foot in Australia — has declared an end to all co-operation on the issue of people smuggling and stopping boats leaving Indonesia for our shores.
Its military personnel, in Australia for joint military exercises, simply downed tools and walked away.
Further measures will apparently follow if the Indonesians are dissatisfied with the Australian response to their mostly unreasonable demands.
For there are calls for Tony Abbott to apologise to Indonesia, after the fashion of US President Barack Obama’s apology to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the wake of almost identical revelations between those countries, and to guarantee intelligence surveillance of this kind is never again conducted on Indonesian figures.
Emulating Barack Obama and his idiosyncratic politics is foolhardy at the best of times; were it not for Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lavishing Obama with praise for his handling of the Hurricane Sandy disaster in the dying days of last year’s presidential campaign, Obama probably wouldn’t even be President now.
The Australian government — and Abbott especially — has nothing to apologise for when it comes to conducting intelligence gathering and other security measures, in the national interest, among members of the international community.
To go a step further than that and to rule out ever doing so in the future — as some in Indonesia expect Abbott to do — is, in short, to put Australia over a barrel and instruct it to drop its trousers.
Such abject capitulation would be a surrender of legitimate prerogative, at best. At worst, it could lead anywhere. Appeasement, as history shows, invariably and horrifically does.
Yet Abbott and Australia are not without options of their own; for now, SBY is playing to the Indonesian press and the Indonesian public. The measures he has announced to date in retaliation for what his own generals have admitted his own country also does are regrettable.
But should they continue, the Commonwealth could consider abandoning the $600 million or so it gifts Indonesia in foreign aid payments every year.
I would further observe that the $5 billion or so that Indonesia spends with Australian produce farmers each year is money we can ill afford to forego. But Indonesia needs the food more than Australia needs the money; a trade embargo would return fire, like for like.
I don’t seriously advocate such measures and I don’t think it will come to that.
But virtually all of the commentary emanating from non-Murdoch sources, condensed to a single statement, is that Australia — and Abbott in particular — must appease Indonesia and Yudhoyono, who holds the power in the relationship and the upper moral hand.
Such pap is patent nonsense, and should be seen as such.
It is true that Yudhoyono feels angry and aggrieved and in many ways those sentiments are understandable.
Abbott and his government do not escape unencumbered; they have a responsibility to mollify without appeasing, and to respond without a sellout. And they need to remember that as much as we need Jakarta, Jakarta needs us.
I think that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been a very good friend to Australia; on his watch neither Australia nor Indonesia have got everything they asked of each other, but neither has been left empty-handed either.
That fact is common to Australian governments of both political persuasions, and it would be a tragedy and a shame to jeopardise it.
Even so, there are limits, and Abbott’s first responsibility — as he has correctly stated — is to ensure Australian security.
Ultimately, it is also to govern in Australia’s best interests — not Indonesia’s.
Those on the Left braying for Abbott’s blood — and effectively using Indonesia as the instrument with which to extract it — should remember that not so long ago, the atmospherics of the Canberra-Jakarta relationship were ominous, and comparatively icy. There are some in Indonesia who wish to see that situation return. The Left, in its senseless bollocking of Abbott, is doing its part to ensure that it happens.
I’m not even going to talk about Labor “leader” Bill Shorten and his conflicting, opportunistic prescriptions over these events. Even some of his frontbenchers are openly refusing to disclose what Shorten has instructed them to say. Enough said.
Frankly, everyone involved — Australia and Indonesia, both governments, the two leaders, and not least the ranting hordes of the Australian Left — need to take a collective step back, a deep breath, and get a grip.
There is far too much at stake, on both sides, to squander a blossoming international relationship of this kind over what should really be no more than a diplomatic spat.
But for those who really want to crucify a culprit — and to ensure their slings and arrows hit the right target — the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden should be cut off and left to rot in whatever bolt-hole they find themselves in.
These treacherous dogs are not defenders of “freedom” nor champions of “openness.” They are not “whistleblowers.” They are not “defenders of liberty.” They tip buckets of stolen state secrets over governments they take an arbitrary political dislike to. There is a reason these matters did not come to light sooner and that was, very simply, because Snowden did not wish to damage Kevin Rudd.
Once upon a time, the Assanges and Snowdens of the world and their ilk were executed for treason. The situation playing out between Australia and Indonesia is a stark illustration as to why. Both are said to be in fear of their lives. Yet it is almost certain they retain tomes of additional ill-gotten official secrets and will continue to use them at will.
It’s almost laughable to say this, but the situation between Indonesia and Australia that Snowden’s leaks have triggered is mild indeed compared to what something more serious might have engineered elsewhere, and between more potent potential combatants.
Next time the Left wants to bark about the crisis being Abbott’s fault, they might like to reflect upon that singular fact.