Abbott and Shorten must unite on Indonesia
November 21, 2013
Chief political correspondent
Outwardly, Tony Abbott's demeanour was calm, if uncommonly determined. Inside, however, it was a different story: he was seething.
The start of question time on Tuesday had been delayed momentarily to allow for a prime ministerial statement on the gathering Indonesian diplomatic imbroglio. Now, as he sat down, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was on his feet.
Abbott's message had been unmistakable. The Australian government would not offer an apology to Indonesia for spying.
While he expressed regret for any ''embarrassment'' caused to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arising from media reports of Australian phone tapping of the president's phone, that of his wife and several others in the top echelon, that's where it ended. Australia would never apologise for the national security actions of current or past governments.
More forcefully still, Abbott gently leaned into what he gauged as a degree of faux indignation in Jakarta over the revelations, arguing that every nation spies on others, and not only that, but every nation knows it.
To his credit, Abbott had resisted a course urged by some to blame a previous Labor government for a 2009 operation. He had already strained a related convention in his first days in the job when he tagged Labor for the debilitating live cattle ban in 2011. He'd got away with it that time causing only a few raised eyebrows. But that was trade and it was a one-off.
Now Abbott was confronted with a problem set firmly in the national security space, where a bipartisan no-confirm-or-deny policy prevails and where the political establishment speaks with one unified voice.
In his statement, Abbott stopped short of expressly acknowledging the phone tapping, or even of disapproving of it. Shorten's response was a surprise to Abbott and not in a pleasant way. The new Labor leader had been fore-warned that the PM would be making the statement. When he arose, he immediately diverged from Abbott's clear and conventional line. There was little doubt in Abbott's mind what it amounted to. Shorten was playing the angles on national security.
Abbott's jaw tightened as Shorten gave weight to the Indonesian insult and undermined the Australian position. Australia, he ventured, should consider Barack Obama's response to a similar case involving the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama had personally assured a furious Merkel that her phone would not be tapped (in future) and that a review of such intelligence gathering operations was under way.
That Shorten's office knew it was walking a fine line was evident as it went into damage limitation mode. And Abbott had already ruled out going Obama's way.
Unless Shorten was prepared to proffer a completely different approach on principle, and to then stand by it, his response should have been to fall in behind the government.
With the danger of more revelations to come from Edward Snowden, Shorten's presumption must be that the PM was acting on the best assessment of risk by security and diplomatic officials.Mark Kenny is The Age's chief political correspondent.