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Apology and appeasement

Tony Abbott will be the latest Australian prime minister to kowtow to Jakarta

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

Who knew that when Tony Abbott promised to focus Australia’s attention away from Geneva and on to Jakarta he actually meant the satellite dishes and microwave antennae of the Australian Signals Directorate? Or that having praised the departing former PM Kevin Rudd for his apology to the Stolen Generation, that Abbott would so soon be digging his heels in, refusing to say sorry with a shell-backed obstinacy that would have done his mentor John Howard proud?

One could almost feel sorry for the new guy, who wasn’t running the shop in 2009 when Australia’s surprisingly large and aggressive intelligence apparatus decided to target the mobile phones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife Ibu Ani Yudhoyono and a small coterie of close friends and advisers including the then Vice President and Finance Minister. If that operation, now revealed by leaks provided to the Guardian and the ABC by former NSA code monkey Edward Snowden, was approved at a political level, it would have been one of Abbott’s ALP foes, either Rudd himself or former Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who signed off.

Lost in Indonesia’s rush to outrage and embarrassment — or Canberra’s slow, foot-dragging shuffle to an inevitable apology and mumbled (and just as inevitably broken) promises never to do it again — is any consideration why Australian spooks may have been so keen to listen in on Ibu Ani reminding Bambang to pick up a bottle of milk on the way home. A few weeks before ASD ‘got
up on the phones’, to borrow from the argot of The Wire, Jemaah Islamiyah suicide bombers had detonated bombs at Jakarta’s Ritz-Carlton and Marriot hotels.

As Professor Greg Barton, a scholar of Indonesia and an expert in terror networks, told the ABC, the July 2009 attacks ‘seemed to come out of the blue when the [JI] problem had been largely solved’.

‘You might trust the government,’ said Barton. ‘You might trust the president, but you mightn’t trust everyone he has to deal with. So they might think this guy’s being put under pressure by someone in the military perhaps, maybe the police aren’t playing with a straight bat, so you need to figure that out. Even if you trust them, you don’t necessarily trust their judgement on interpreting things, you want to get direct to the data yourself so that you can make sense of things.’

Lost too, or conveniently ignored, is the scale of Indonesia’s own intelligence-gathering operations, largely directed at internal threats such as JI, but not exclusively. As the ‘gestural politics’ of the bugging scandal ramped up, links to an older, less… well, successful scandal (where ‘success’ is measured by the attendant hysteria) began to appear online. Appear but not propagate.

Nobody outside the security wonks of the mainstream media had been much interested in 2004 when the retiring intelligence chief General Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono revealed Indonesian attempts to tap into Australian civil and military communications ‘and politicians’ phones’. The Howard government simply responded with the usual po-faced refusal to comment on intelligence matters. Perhaps Abbott and his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop were hoping the Indonesians might do them a solid and return the favour this time.

After all, the 800lb American gorilla has been hogging so much space in the global community’s naughty corner that its tiny marmoset friend, Australia, had mostly gone unnoticed. The revelations of Canberra’s driftnet fishing for strategic gossip seemed to cause little angst in other south-east Asian capitals, with only pro-forma denunciations coming from Beijing which, to be fair, is way too busy with its own vast industrial scale espionage business to bother with Canberra’s.

Perhaps Abbott thought he’d just skip the pre-emptive buckle to Jakarta this time.

He thought wrong.

Relations between the two mismatched neighbours has long been so fraught with fundamental misreadings, poor judgement, suspicion, hurt feelings and a base level antipathy that no mantra chanting about friendship will ever make that a real thing. Almost all of the keynotes are discordant. The invasion of East Timor, the killing of the Balibo Five, the fall-out in the mid-1980s over revelations in the Australian press of the Suharto family’s looted fortune, one massacre after another, the second ‘invasion’ of east Timor, this time led by the Australian military, the annexation and repression of West Papua and the Howard government’s acceptance of refugees from there are the defining clamour of the exchange. Occasional moments of genuine fellow feeling, such as the aid extended in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami, are forever being swept away before they can take root to ground the relationship.

For Australia, a curious but debilitating combination of factors has previously determined that in almost every confrontation short of actual konfrontasi, Canberra has backed down, or at least appeared to. Sometimes the strategic realities demanded it of a small, European enclave in an alien and potentially hostile region. And sometimes, quite counter-intuitively, that small European polity was just more mature and secure than its fractious, underdeveloped neighbour. The response of a serious power to revelations that it had been targeted by a rival or hostile intelligence agency? There’s no better template than 2004’s lack of a response, at least publicly, by Australia to General Hendropriyono’s divulgence of Indonesian spying.

Abbott was in Cabinet in 2004 and would have partaken of any discussions outside the National Security Committee concerning that matter. Perhaps his experience served him ill, then. If he expected the Indonesians to pull on their big boy pants and just wear it as Australia had just worn it a decade ago, he misunderstood the dynamics of the relationship.

There are any number of reasons why Indonesia reacted so poorly to revelations of ASD activities in the Jakarta embassy, compared to say Thailand or Beijing who were also targeted. Foreign Minister Natalegawa may have been testing the mettle of a new PM, or other individuals could have been playing to a domestic audience in the run-up to their elections next year. Abbott may well have slipped through without comment under those circumstances. But listening in to the President and his wife was such a significantly personal violation that it’s almost certain he’ll have no choice but to respond with a golden oldie from the Australian playbook.

Apology and appeasement.

John Birmingham is a novelist in Brisbane. He wrote the Quarterly Essay ‘Appeasing Jakarta: Australia’s Complicity in the East Timor Tragedy’ (June 2001).

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  • Paul Nicholas Boylan

    The marmoset is an important mammal.