Relations between Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and Australia just to the south are among the most important in the Asia-Pacific region. The revelation that Australia tapped the mobile phones of Indonesia's president and his wife has plunged them to their lowest level since Australia led support for East Timor independence from Indonesia in 1999. Canberra's refusal to apologise or give a full account has led to demonstrations and flag-burning outside its embassy in Jakarta.
A typical response from intelligence veterans has been, what's new? A former Indonesian espionage chief is among those who said attempts to spy on national leaders were normal. And news of Australian eavesdropping on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - in 2009 - followed the disclosure that the Americans have listened in to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone conversations. The difference is that President Barack Obama has apologised to allies following whistle-blower Edward Snowden's spying revelations. Not only has Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott not done so, but he has resisted calls to sack a political strategist who compounded the perceived insult by tweeting references likening Indonesia's foreign minister to a "1970s Pilipino [sic] porn star" and disparaging Yudhoyono. At least the party insider apologised for what Abbott conceded were "tacky" remarks.
Abbott pledged to safeguard the relationship with Indonesia - but did not stand on diplomacy in putting Australia's interests first. "Every government gathers information … Australia should not be expected to apologise for the steps we take to protect our country," he said. True, more than 100 Australians have died in Indonesian terrorist bombings. But Abbott's expression of regret for embarrassment he tried to blame on media reports is not contrite enough to save face for the Indonesians. Yudhoyono has suspended co-operation in military and security matters. This includes people-smuggling into Australia, in which Canberra depends on Jakarta's full co-operation to "stop the boats". In return for bipartisan support from the opposition Labor Party, which was in government when Yudhoyono's phone was tapped, Abbott should heed the advice of opposition leader Bill Shorten to apologise and reset the relationship in terms that recognise the need for compromise between security and privacy, for the sake of regional harmony and stability and Australia's border security.