Spat With Jakarta: Sorry seems hardest word for Abbott

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gestures as he speaks to the press after laying a wreath at the memorial of the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people during his visit at the site in Bali, Indonesia on October 9. -- FILE PHOTO: AP
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gestures as he speaks to the press after laying a wreath at the memorial of the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people during his visit at the site in Bali, Indonesia on October 9. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

Refusal to apologise increases tension in Indonesia crisis

THE S-word, it seems, is the one that Australia's Liberal prime ministers find hardest to pronounce. That word is “sorry”. 

Former PM John Howard, who led the country from 1996 to 2007, steadfastly refused to apologise to indigenous Australians. Likewise, it appears that Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who once served as a minister in the Howard government, learnt the politics of avoidance from his Liberal Party predecessor.

Should Mr Abbott steadfastly refuse to apologise over the monitoring of mobile phones belonging to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as well as the first lady, his intransigence will create an increasingly difficult path to reconciliation.

Apart from the invaluable political, trade and defence ties that exist between Indonesia and Australia, there is also intelligence-sharing that is crucial in ensuring stability in the region.

An apology from Mr Abbott - a significant step forward from the “deep and sincere regret” he expressed in Parliament today - would not harm Australia’s security environment in any way, but it would certainly slow the current political haemorrhage.

While this is one of the most testing phases in the often fraught relationship between both countries, Mr Abbott must bear in mind that he has a personal stake in the outcome.

He openly founded his leadership on seeking to strengthen ties between the two nations. Indeed, after his coalition wrested power from Labor less than three months ago, he said the new guiding principle on Australia’s foreign policy would be “less Geneva, more Jakarta”.

The importance of Indonesia on the Abbott agenda was quickly apparent after he was sworn into office on Sept 18 Less than two weeks later, he arrived in Jakarta on his first overseas trip.

Even then, there were rumblings between the two nations. Australia’s new Prime Minister had earlier made no secret of his desire to strengthen maritime borders by turning back Indonesian boatloads of asylum seekers.

This was a tough, controversial policy imposed under Mr Howard’s leadership in 2001 but dismantled immediately after the Rudd Labor government came to power in 2007.

Even before the Australian election in September this year, Indonesia was already bristling over the proposed return to the hardline Liberal policy and the two countries failed to reach an effective long-term solution during Mr Abbott’s visit.

Admittedly, the specific allegation made by fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden over Australia’s monitoring of Dr Yudhoyono, his wife and members of his inner circle actually relates to 2009.

The timing is interesting, especially if the phone-monitoring by the Australian Defence Signals Directorate did indeed take place in August that year, as alleged.

The Australian prime minister at the time was Labor’s Kevin Rudd, while the Liberal Party was led by Mr Malcolm Turnbull. It was not until Dec 1, 2009 that Mr Abbott defeated Mr Turnbull by a solitary vote to become federal opposition leader.

Nonetheless, as the country’s present leader, he must now deal with the crisis.

Mr Abbott has four clear choices. First, he can offer Dr Yudhoyono an apology.

Second, he can emulate US President Barack Obama, who offered his own private explanation to German Chancellor Angela Merkel after revelations last month that her phone had been tapped.

Third, he can continue to avoid the issue.

Fourth, he can find the diplomatic middle ground by remaining tight-lipped while instructing his intelligence officials to engage their Indonesian counterparts in serious discussion and assure them that the presidential surveillance will not be repeated.

Certainly, there is nothing to be gained by offending Asian neighbours. If Mr Abbott has any doubt on this score, he should ring former prime minister Paul Keating, who alienated Malaysia in 1993 after he used the epithet “recalcitrant” to describe Dr Mahathir Mohamad.dmcmahon@sph.com.sg