CANBERRA OBSERVED: by our national correspondentNews Weekly
Australia's enemies at home and abroad
, December 7, 2013
Those individuals currently gloating over Tony Abbott’s discomfort over the fallout from the Indonesian phone-tapping revelations may come to regret using national security as a political plaything to undermine a new conservative prime minister.
The phone-tapping controversy has been seized upon by Abbott’s political enemies, in part as payback, but mainly and in a totally irresponsible way, because it has the potential to derail a central Abbott election pledge — that of stopping the flow of illegal boat people.
If Abbott fails in this commitment, his re-election chances will be seriously diminished.
Abbott’s opponents are savouring the embarrassment, the discomfort and the unfolding repercussions from a security decision that was ironically made under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
The consequences of the Edward Snowden betrayal and subsequent airing of the leaked material on the ABC and the UK’s Guardian online newspaper go beyond political discomfort. They will potentially hit Australia’s live meat exports, will do irreparable harm to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, and may in the long-term assist the activities of would-be terrorists.
Prime Minister Abbott has so far correctly chosen not to discuss whether the order to tap the phones of high-level people in Indonesia after the 2009 bombings of the J.W. Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton hotels was warranted or was an instance of overreach by the then Rudd Labor government.
It would have been easy but enormously dangerous for Abbott to politicise the issue.
Yet his opponents have done just that, with contradictory suggestions of assistance and co-operation, including enlisting Mr Rudd to assist, all laden with the message that Labor would have handled the whole affair so much better.
In truth there is probably nothing Mr Abbott could have done to stop the fall-out from the episode, including offering a public apology to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or making a promise that it would never happen again.
The Indonesian ruling elite are justifiably angry about the revelations of phone-tapping private personal phone calls of the President, but are also adept at using such an incident for their own internal political issues — a bit of anti-Australian indignation does no harm to a politician’s standing in Jakarta.
Nevertheless, the security phone-tapping spat between Australia and Indonesia has one potential unintended upside for Tony Abbott and his political opponents — it is helping to fast-track his prime ministerial skill set.
The episode will also reveal whether Mr Abbott has the capacity to grow into a job in which he has never had any actual previous experience.
Abbott’s skills as an “oppositionist” and his single-minded determination and discipline are now widely acknowledged, even by his opponents in the Labor Party; but they are an entirely different set of political skills from that of being prime minister.
No amount of experience as a minister or opposition leader can prepare someone for the loneliness of responsibilities and decision-making as a leader of a nation.
The phone-tapping fallout shows that things do not go to a planned script; there are always unexpected crises and events that derail political strategies.
Mistakes and unintended consequences are always sheeted home to the person at the top.
In the early period of the Hawke Labor government, Bob Hawke, who was a good prime minister, was revealed to have hidden from the Australian public a decision to allow the United States to test MX missiles in the Tasman Sea, off the coast of Tasmania.
As with the current fracas with Indonesia, the original decision to permit the missile tests had been made by the previous Fraser Coalition government, but had been honoured in secret by Prime Minister Hawke and his Cabinet.
And again, when the MX missile story broke, the Left (then largely focused on all things nuclear) savaged the Hawke government.
The anti-nuclear movement was then huge — protests in the streets against the American nuclear tests pulled in more than 250,000 people, according to reports at the time.
And, at the 1984 election, the movement had enough momentum to secure Senate seats before the hardline Trotskyite Socialist Left took over and the entire anti-nuclear movement began to implode.
In the end, Hawke folded and successfully convinced the United States (which was already worried by New Zealand’s ban on nuclear ships) to abandon the tests.
Today, the same radical left mentality of the early 1980s, that despises the West and its values, has turned mainstream and been institutionalised inside organisations such as the ABC, the universities, the Greens and sections of the ALP.
It is most likely that Abbott will recover from the first real test of his leadership, and possibly emerge stronger for the crash course he is currently undergoing in being a prime minister.
But when he does, he will have a much clearer idea about where Australia’s enemies lie.