In the long lead up to the 2013 Federal election the then Shadow Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, declared: “A great deal of damage has been done to our bilateral relations with our neighbours and one of my first tasks as the Foreign Minister would be to repair those relationships.” The Coalition took up this theme of neglect in foreign policy, with Tony Abbott promising a government with a “Jakarta focus to its foreign policy, not a Geneva focus.”
Yet only a few months after winning the Federal election the Abbott government has presided over a swift and dramatic reversal in Indonesian-Australian relations with trade, security, training and efforts to curb people smuggling left in tatters. How this crisis emerged and how it has been mishandled thus far by the Abbott government provides an important lesson for Australian intelligence and political leadership.
When faced with the crisis Abbott chose to wait. The consequences of that decision are now unfolding for all to see.
A key criterion for successful political leadership is a mastery of sound judgement. Partly instinctive and informed by experience, a sound sense of judgement enables leaders to know when to act and when to wait. The actions of the Prime Minister during the crisis in relations with Indonesia demonstrated that his judgemental faculties are either undeveloped or absent altogether.
When faced with the crisis Abbott chose to wait. The consequences of that decision are now unfolding for all to see. In many ways refusing to act may have seemed to most a prudent course of action. It is a longstanding convention of Australian government that intelligence matters are not commented on. Despite deviations from this convention by some of his Cabinet colleagues the Prime Minister was initially steadfast in his refusal to comment directly on the matter. Instead, the Prime Minister made the obvious remark that “all governments gather information.” and in a more inflammatory tone that Australia “should not be expected to apologise” for such activities.
Unsurprisingly, the comments inflamed the crisis.
The allegations themselves were significant. Leaked American intelligence indicated that Australia had conducted an intelligence operation which involved compromising the mobile phones of the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and First Lady Kristiani Herawati. Targets for surveillance also included eight members of SBY’s inner circle, among them current Vice President Boedino and former Vice President Yusuf Kalla. The utility of such an operation in yielding intelligence is questionable. In particular, the targeting of the phone of the President’s wife, regardless of how influential she may be, is problematic. In SBY Australia has had an honest and constructive interlocutor. He was, for example, the first Indonesian president to directly address our Parliament. But now, that special status is at risk.
In the wake of this crisis, Indonesia’s Ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was recalled to Jakarta while the government took steps to, in the words of Foreign Minister, Marty Natalagawa, achieve the “… downgrading in the level of the Indonesian-Australian relationship.”
By refusing to comment and then later expressing regret for any embarrassment caused to the Indonesian President the Prime Minister came across as indecisive.
Bilateral relations in a number of areas have already been affected. In the area of trade the law prohibiting the import of cattle from countries with reported foot and mouth cases may be revised. The outcome of such a revision would allow the import into Indonesia of cattle from countries other than Australia. In other areas joint military exercises have been cancelled. This includes the removal from participation of elements of the Indonesian air force in an exercise near Darwin. The participation of the Indonesian Kopasus Special Forces with the SAS in anti-hijacking exercises in West Java has also been cancelled. Most significantly for the policy priorities of the Abbott government, Indonesia has suspended cooperation on anti-people smuggling operations. The mismanagement of the crisis by the Prime Minister has triggered a wave of consequences, effectively submerging key elements of the government’s agenda.
In any event, the breakdown of bilateral relations to this point is disappointing. The crisis is more than disappointing, given that it was unavoidable both at the point when the intelligence operation was undertaken and at the point when it became public. The response of the Prime Minister could have deescalated the situation. Intelligence gathering is a finely balanced exercise. There is a danger in seeking information just for the sake of it. Perhaps Bob Carr articulated this best as the “cult of intelligence”. In an age where people leave an ever-greater information footprint and technology allows for the mass collection of data, intelligence services need to apply greater scrutiny of the benefits of particular targets and operations.
As for the Prime Minister’s response, his reliance on the convention to make no comment on intelligence matters was misguided. The convention exists to protect security and maintain secrecy. It hardly applies when near irrefutable evidence of a specific operation is made public, particularly when the operation occurred several years ago. If the Prime Minister simply acknowledged, in an appropriate forum such as Parliament, the operation reaffirming the importance of good relations with Indonesia and apologised it is likely that the damage to bilateral relations would have been contained. By refusing to comment and then later expressing regret for any embarrassment caused to the Indonesian President the Prime Minister came across as indecisive. Without early action the crisis developed out of hand.
There are signs that this crisis has passed its peak. Tony Abbott and SBY have exchanged correspondence with some positive results including the potential development of bilateral institutional arrangements on intelligence and security. Such developments are broadly welcome. Australia and Indonesia should pursue deeper relations.
Achieving mature, robust and close relations with Indonesia should be a key goal of Australian foreign policy.
However, the circumstances in which they arise should not place Australia in a weaker position. Far from having taken the initiative to deepen relations the Abbott government is engaging in crisis policy making; acting on issues only when truly forced to. Such a strategy is typically the last refuge of a government bereft of vision and principle. In this instance it is the first refuge.
Indonesia will remain, by virtue of geography, one of the most important countries to Australian prosperity and security. Its importance to Australia goes far beyond concerns about people smuggling. Achieving mature, robust and close relations with Indonesia should be a key goal of Australian foreign policy. Ultimately, government will need to work much harder if it still harbours hopes of fulfilling the preelection commitments and rescuing this important relationship.