Abbott's spy games


Spy with magnifying glass and enlarged eyeEdward Snowden's revelations of systematic and routinised five-power (US, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ) electronic spying on friendly government leaders and politicians create a new policy environment in which 'neither confirm nor deny' no longer works as a policy response.

President Obama's initially hesitant responses to Angela Merkel's outraged public response to The Guardian's revelations of US eavesdropping on her phone damaged US-German relations, but Obama quickly corrected his error. The sincerity and appropriate language of his subsequent apologies to Merkel safely limited the damage.

Now Australian-Indonesian relations are going through a similarly testing experience.

Tony Abbott's reply in Parliament to Adam Bandt may have seemed a balanced, well-crafted answer but it was way too clever. Indonesian anger against Australia continues to grow. These events will harden already strong views in Jakarta of Australia as a false friend to Indonesia, as a nation whose only true affinities are with its four fellow members of the five-power Anglo-Saxon club.

It is Australia's Indonesian friends in politics who are hurt most politically, and most wounded personally, by the Snowden revelations: SBY, Natalegawa, and their current ambassador in Canberra.

Of course, it is no accident that our spies are keen to spy on persons who are our best political friends. It is the nuances of these persons' ongoing views about day-by-day ups and downs in the bilateral relationship that are of most interest. We know or can predict what our enemies think of us. We are less interested in spying on them.

Spies have the technology to spy, so they do it. They have no self-denying ordinances or protocols except those imposed by their political masters. They cannot be expected to modulate their targeting by considerations of interstate protocols or interpersonal good manners between heads of state. It is not their job to make these judgements. A watchdog's job and instinct is to bark at intruders, a spy's job and instinct is to spy on others.

It falls to the wisdom and discretion of presidents and prime ministers to set limits, to instruct our intelligence agencies that they will not eavesdrop on the private telephone conversations of our best friends except at rare moments when major national interests are decided to be at stake. Those should be political decisions.

Both Obama initially with Merkel, and now Abbott with SBY's family, signally failed to rise to this challenge. Both Washington and Canberra let the dogs loose.

The adverse consequences will only mount for Abbott. Forget about meaningful cooperation now on stopping the boats. Probably more will now come.

There are enough sensitivities and historic faultlines already in Australian-Indonesian relations that this incident will not blow over soon, especially with a new Indonesian president in the offing.

It is no small matter, and cynical jocularities that everybody spies on everybody else and everybody knows this can only make matters worse.

Bob Carr is right. This is now a time when only a prompt, simple and sincere public apology by Abbott to SBY might begin to heal the wounds. There are people in DFAT who can draft the appropriate words. The audience is in Indonesia, not Australia.

Timing is of the essence. I hope by the time this article is published, our Prime Minister in the national interest will have already said the right things. No ifs, no buts, just, 'Sorry, SBY, for our national disrespect to you.'

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin was a career foreign service officer for 30 years and a member of the Senior Executive Service of the Australian Public Service from 1986 to 1998.

Spy image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Edward Snowden, SBY, Indonesia, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

On this occasion, Bob Carr is right. But don't hold your breath waiting for Tony Abbott to see the wisdom in a prompt and comprehensive response.

Ginger Meggs | 19 November 2013  

"everybody spies on everybody else and everybody knows this" almost exactly my words, this is an excuse we would not accept from children. Spying is wrong, it is needed in war, but doing it anywhere, anytime, any way possible is just too much. We should be evolving away from this kind of thing. We have it in our means to live in a better world, but not with the neanderthal mentality of the USA pushing everyones buttons. Let's face it, the USA wants domination over everything, we should not let them get it, they are not trustworthy enough to lead.

Ronny Bryson | 19 November 2013  

I agree, Tony. Do you think the PM has it within him? I think he would choke rather than admit being wrong, unless he can blame somebody else or convince himself it's part of the game to pretend to apologize, it won't happen. His puppet masters can only gain from more paper sales and a deeper racially motivated divide in Oz.

caz | 19 November 2013  

1. If apologies are in order, shouldn't it be Kevin Rudd, the apology expert, who does the honours, since the reported spying (conveniently concealed by the anti- Abbott Fairfax press until now) happened on his watch? 2. And what about the Indonesians apologising for their proven spying on Australia? 3. What the heck, is spying immoral anyway? Exactly what commandment does it break?

HH | 19 November 2013  

Spying on Indonesia should be a top priority given their huge population, their nearness to Australia, their aggressiveness in taking over East Timor and now West Papua, their very different culture through their Muslim religion-- and our isolation from Europe.

John Morris | 20 November 2013  

President Obama's apology to the head of the German state Angela Merkel was because Germany is a dominating influence in Europe. So it was an important strategic decision firmly based on the political and economic factors that determine the peace and prosperity of a future that they both share. Indonesia is a country that holds a similar position to Germnay in our part of the world. Similar factors that influenced Obama's decision apply to our position. Abbott ignored them because his blinkered vision of'stopping the boats'. I

Reg Wliding | 20 November 2013  

Neither denying nor confirming intelligence operations is a statement meant to sound mysterious, vitally important and beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals; a well-worn but hackneyed phrase used to confound and confuse. PM Abbott's attempt to hide behind the phrase is just that and an excuse for non action. He is 'deliberately' enigmatic suggesting that somehow Australia's security is at stake when no evidence supporting that is forthcoming. His tough guy tactics may work well for Australian domestic consumption, especially with the western wingers, but his audience has to be the Indonesian people, it is they who are offended because their President is offended and it is they who deserve an apology. To use as an excuse that all countries spy on each other as a reason for not communicating with SBY, shows a lack of judgement, decency and a distinct lack of courage.

Jeff Kevin | 20 November 2013  

HH is the only poster who has so far noted the absolute howler that Tony Kevin made. Abbott let no dogs loose on SBY's family. He was not the prime minister then. Get your facts straight Mr Kevin.

marg | 20 November 2013  

Overall Tony Kevin seems to support a Labor party line. But that is a value of freedom of speech.

David O'Halloran | 20 November 2013  

There are, obviously, internal Indonesian political reasons for their government's recent actions on the specific instance of Australian intelligence eavesdropping there in 2009 under our previous government. It appears that this particular form of eavesdropping on SBY; his wife and close political associates is now off because the perceived reason no longer exists. Edward Snowden's revelations flesh out the clandestine; amoral and sadly necessary world of international intelligence gathering. The fallout from these revelations may well be adverse short term as far as the relationship between our two countries goes. Tony Abbott needs to ride this one out and not apologise nor give any assurances about future intelligence gathering activities, which, of course, will need to be carefully monitored, as I believe the 2009 ones were. Labor also need to tread very carefully on this one. If ever there was a bipartisan issue of national importance this would be it.

Edward F | 20 November 2013  

On this, I recommend Allan Behm's excellent well-informed piece in the Age today "Off we go again on the Indonesian roillercoaster" This is not about party, it is about leadership competence and sensitivity. Abbott now needs to manage this crisis in the national interest. He's in charge now, not Rudd or Gillard..

tony kevin | 20 November 2013  

What you are really saying then, Mr Kevin, is, that now that Tony Abbott is in charge he is responsible for sorting out Rudd's and Gillard's spy games, not 'Abbott's spy games".

john frawley | 20 November 2013  

Hang on! Wasn't Rudd the Prime \minister when spying on Indonesia was instigated---as far as we know ie in 2009?

Bill Barry | 20 November 2013  

This time Tony Kevin has gone too far. Tony Abbott puts National security; First, Second and Third. And he is right Australia had nothing to be sorry for. If any one has to apologise it is Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten. People who criticise Tony Abbott refuse to accept 7/9.

Ron Cini | 20 November 2013  

"This is not about party ..." Well, for Fairfax, the ABC and the Australian Guardian, it's totally about party: which is why the information was kept under wraps and then released exactly when it was, to the detriment of the national interest and the relations between the Australian and Indonesian governments. It's all about Tony Abbott winning the election and the furious left media doing their best to obstruct him.

HH | 20 November 2013  

Yes, Tony Kevin;Tony Abbott now needs to manage this crisis caused by Kevin Rudd. This is why people voted for Tony Abbott, they knew he will repair all the damage created by Rudd and Gillard

Ron Cini | 20 November 2013  

The recent release by the Guardian Australia of this story in concert with the ABC has precipitated a crisis of international proportions in the public arena: one that need never have occurred. I myself think this public release was disastrous and unhelpful to the relationship Tony Abbott was building with SBY and Indonesia. There was no benefit to the release. I see Snowden and the media players involved as totally amoral people deluded by what they did. Given this, I think Abbott is acting with leadership and dignity. He hasn't cracked and hasn't said or done anything stupid. The commentariat, as in this article, are all pressing him with advice. What he really needs to do is stay cool, not give in to the remorseless pressure of the media circuit for a quick fix which won't work and be his own man making sensible, long term decisions.

Edward F | 21 November 2013  

Look we all know what the issue is - it's not about the spying per se - all governments do it - it's the 'attitude' problem and the arrogant Tommy Tough Nuts approach to everything. Nothing has changed since the bully boy uni days punching the wall.

AURELIUS | 21 November 2013  

Emphasising that the Indonesian President and First Lady were spied on under the Labour government misses the point that most offense was caused by Prime Minister Abbott's dismissive attitude to SBY's justified complaint. PM Abbott's response to the Australian Parliament, totally ignoring SBY, has made the task of repairing the relationship more difficult for himself. The Labour governments, under Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard, were at fault for not ensuring that friendly foreign leaders and especially their spouses are off limits for Australian spies.

Ian Fraser | 21 November 2013  

BTW - it's irrelevant which political party headed up the spying - it was done on behalf of Australia as a nation, not the Labor Party or the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott was elected PM of Australia, not just the leader of Coalition. If he's not mature and broadminded and statesmanly enough to let go of the ego games, then step aside and stop damaging our country's reputation.

AURELIUS | 21 November 2013  

What's ludicrous is that we pay the head of the ABC twice the salary of the PM to release stories even he concedes are not in the national interest and carefully timed to stab said PM in the back. Forget about potential hostilities with Indonesia, Mr P.M. : you won't get anywhere on that front till you understand there are enemies of you and our nation on your payroll. Sack 'em now and scrap the ABC.

HH | 21 November 2013  

Living at the doorstep of Asia, along with Mr Abbott, we all need to imagine how our neighbours feel about a loss of face. If we understood that, life mat be easier for our neighbours and us. It is a matter of record, that Indonesian government officals have made clear on a number of occasions, that the public square is not where they wish to conduct delicate conversations. What can be said privately should not be said publicly. It seems our Prime Minister is more at ease using a megaphone over the back fence rather than engaging respectfully with neighbours outraged that he had been opening and reading their mail.

Kim Chen | 21 November 2013  

"It seems our Prime Minister is more at ease using a megaphone over the back fence rather than engaging respectfully with neighbours outraged that he had been opening and reading their mail." Gosh, Kim, it's had to kill a myth once it's out there eh? Thanks, Fairfax and ABC. For the umpteenth time: Tony Abbott wasn't reading their mail. If any PM was doing so, it was Kevin Rudd.

HH | 21 November 2013  

"PM Abbott's response... has made the task of repairing the relationship more difficult ..." Sorry to bang on about this Ian F, but regardless of what we might agree or disagree about Abbott's response: there was no " task" AT ALL until the Fairfax/Guardian/ABC AbbottAbbottAbbott brigade deliberately MADE it a task for PM Abbott - and not Labor-governed perpetrators - by releasing the information as they did. In "the public interest" - which they mysteriously seem to view as close to their own interest, notwithstanding the election result they so manifestly struggle to accept. We live in a weird world.

HH | 21 November 2013  

There is no possible acceptable reaction to the news that the phone of SBY's wife was tapped beyond an apology. If Abbott bothered tothink how he'd react if Margie Abbott's phone conversations were relayed to all of Asia (let alone the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand) he'd realise this. He owes her a personal apology.

Juliet Flesch | 22 November 2013  

IN this situation, it would have been better for Abbott to deny Australia had been spying - at least that shows recognition that it's wrong to spy (especially tapping personal mobile phones) and worthy of an apology if the allegation did prove correct. Let's not drag this down to the usual leftie ABC/Labor vs Coalition schoolyard politics - it's getting boorish.

AURELIUS | 22 November 2013  

I agree with Ian Fraser when he says 'Abbott's response to the Australian Parliament, totally ignoring SBY, has made the task of repairing the relationship more difficult for himself'. There is a parallel here with the Church's response to child abuse. The most appropriate response in both cases would have been a 'mea culpa', 'Yes we stuffed up, it shouldn't have happened, we apologise, and it won't happen again'. But as Aurelius says, that sort of approach is an anathema to 'Tommy Tough Nuts', just as it has been to the Church's hierarchy.

Ginger Megs | 22 November 2013  

HH, I agree with you - but if what you are saying is correct - that this is all just a left-wing conspiracy against Tony Abbott, why didn't he just deny there was any spying going on? At least he would be left wit the benefit of the doubt - after all, spying is meant to be a secret.

AURELIUS | 22 November 2013  

Aurelius and Ginger Meggs, why do you apply the moniker "Tommy tough nuts" to Abbott alone? Shorten is backing Abbott's approach. And Aurelius, as you said, it's not a Labor versus Coalition issue. So as to avoid being boorish, I assume your future postings will refer to Billy big b#lls unless the leader of the opposition changes his position and calls on Abbott to apologize.

marg | 22 November 2013  

Are you serious? For a start it wasn't Abbott who had anything to do with this in the first place and secondly it was very justified due to the fact that at the time a number of Australians were killed by a Muslim bombing in Indonesia. Really you cannot be in the real world..

Michael | 22 November 2013  

Michael wote "... and secondly it was very justified due to the fact that at the time a number of Australians were killed by a Muslim bombing in Indonesia. ..." So, do you think that SBY & his wife were involved? I can just imagine the converstaion: "Darling, did you remember to drop the bomb off? Which bomb? The Muslim one. Oh that bomb..."

Simon Crase | 23 November 2013  

Simon Crase your response to Michael is incredibly naïve. Intelligence gathering in Indonesia is necessary because for starters the Bali terrorists who killed dozens of Australians not long ago are Indonesian and reside in Indonesia. As do the criminal Indonesian people smugglers. Comprehensive intelligence gathering should never exclude anybody residing in Indonesia regardless of their position or whether they outwardly seem as pure as the driven snow. It's interesting that the current Indonesian response is a virtual approval of the people smuggling trade which we know has led to over 1000 deaths. Think of this - the left were responsible for the spying incidents which are the source of the problem Abbott now has to solve. The left were responsible for the leaked intelligence, sourced from files stolen by a left wing American traitor who now lives under the protection of a former left wing KGB operative one Vlad Putin! And somehow the left think Tony Abbott should take their advice on this matter or he is the bad guy! Hypocrisy and two faced chicanery rule the day on the left

deric davidson | 23 November 2013  

Marg, Shorten is as bad as Abbott in this matter, but he's not the PM, he doesn't speak for the nation, nor does he have the responsibility of fixing the problem. Abbott's pugilist style is completely inappropriate and he knows no other. What's more, he has surrounded himself with similar people.

Ginger Meggs | 23 November 2013  

Abbott's Spy Games?!
Try Rudd's Spy Games.

This is spin of the worse kind.

deric davidson | 23 November 2013  

Interesting response, deric davidson, with small "d"s. I'm trying to disentangle three threads here: the argument that this is somehow the fault of the "left wing", because they initiated the spying (thanks for the correction, BTW; I had thought it was Kevin Rudd); the second, that spying on the SBY household was the right thing to do because of called "Muslim bombs". (In which case, why not spy on the Indonesian President after the Bali bombings, or weren't they “Muslim bombs"? Why was it left to the "left wing" to initiate the “justified spying”?) The third is to condemn the Indonesians for ending cooperation with Australia. What did we expect? (“Yes, I know you spy on me, but you’re still my friend? Of course I’ll help you solve your problems with unwanted refugees.”)
As to the information being leaked by the "left wing", they must either be very sloppy conspirators, or very sophisticated. How did they know that the PM wouldn't have simply said: "I'm dreadfully sorry about what my predecessor did; you never know what the left wing will do. But the adults are in change now, and you have my word, as PM, that it won't happen again." Problem solved, and "left wing" humiliated. But that didn't happen. Why? Sloppy conspiracy but lucky? Or sophisticated? They predicted the PM's response & the tweets? Now that would be frightening. Or maybe the ABC's explanation is true.
BTW, if "left wing American traitor" means who I think it does, I suggest you look at Article 3, Section 3 of the US Constitution, which was written at a time when it was fashionable for Governments to label anyone a "traitor" if they disapproved of them.

Simon Crase | 24 November 2013  

Bit of a mountain out of a mole hill really. Spying happens and unless it uncovers something important politicians would normally not know about it. It doesn’t matter on whose “watch” it happened; it was done by Australian representatives so it is something for the Government to deal with. Government continues when parties change so the chat about whether Rudd or Abbott is responsible is just a red herring. An apology should not be necessary and after the past week would hardly be sincere. Of course Abbott’s comments have not really helped calm the situation; nor have some from Indonesia. A deep breath and a bit of maturity on both sides would help.

Brett | 24 November 2013  

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