Australia-Indonesia relations worsen over spying scandal
Australian PM Tony Abbot hopes attention is turning to cricket, Christmas and the beach
Protesters burn pictures of Australian prime minister Tony Abbott during an anti-spying protest outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Recent evidence that the Australian government has used phone tapping mechanisms to spy on the Indonesian president and first lady, has caused a rift between the two countries. Photograph: Oscar Siagian/Getty Images
Tony Abbott will be very happy to get to Christmas after a testing first three months as Australia’s prime minister – happy that Australians are about to turn their minds to beaches, barbecues and the Ashes cricket.
Although it has had domestic troubles – not least of which has been a backflip on billions of dollars in promised education funding – the Liberal-National coalition’s main problem has been over revelations of spying on the phone calls of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife Ani, and his closest advisers.
Indonesia is Australia’s closest neighbour. Its population of 248 million makes it the world’s fourth most populous nation and largest Muslim country.
The Abbott government had been refusing to confirm or deny the spying, which was revealed by public broadcaster ABC and the Guardian newspaper’s Australian website. However trade minister Andrew Robb then inadvertently breached protocol by saying it happened under the previous Labor government.
“It’s unfortunate that this taping that took place several years ago has been made public, but it’s there, it’s a fact of life, we’ve got to deal with it,” Robb told ABC. “The prime minister is seeking to deal with it effectively.”
The Indonesian president has been using Twitter to vent his disapproval. After recalling his country’s ambassador to Australia, Yudhoyono tweeted to his four million followers that Abbott (260,000 Twitter followers) had “belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse” and that the spying had “certainly damaged” the relationship between the two nations.
Adding fuel to a raging fire, a senior Liberal Party adviser compared an Indonesian government minister to a “Filipino porn star” (he later apologised) while protesters in Jakarta burned the Australian flag.
Some commentators in the Murdoch press claim the spying information – which came from leaks by American whistleblower Edward Snowden – has been around for months but was purposely held over to discredit Abbott after he won power in September.
However Alan Sunderland, head of policy at ABC news, said: “The ABC believes it is not in the public interest to suppress or ignore important and difficult issues on the grounds that they may have repercussions.”
With Indonesia withdrawing military co-operation and assistance in preventing asylum- seeker boats departing its shores for Australia, and a threat to beef and wheat exports, Abbott sent a hand-delivered letter to Yudhoyono.
The president said the letter was “the commitment of the prime minister of Australia that Australia will never do anything in the future that will bring disadvantage and disturb Indonesia”.
Indonesia’s industry minister Mohamad Suleman Hidayat told the Koran Tempo newspaper that Abbott’s letter expressed regret over media reports of phone tapping, rather than an apology. “I can confirm the president is not embarrassed, he’s angry,” Hidayat said.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s post- election honeymoon with voters appears to have been very brief. A Sydney Morning Herald poll this week had Labor leading the Liberal-National coalition by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
This is an extraordinary result, given that Labor’s internal conflict, which in June saw Kevin Rudd depose Julia Gillard as prime minister, three years after she had done the same to him, preceded its landslide election loss in September.
Having had one Liberal and two Labor prime ministers this year, the Australian public, in common with Abbott, will be looking forward to forgetting about politics over the summer.