'All governments gather information': Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott admits to 'gathering information'



“All governments gather information … and all governments know that every other government gathers information,” Tony Abbott declared in parliament on Monday, effectively confirming reports that Australia had tried to eavesdrop on mobile phone conversations between the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and close confidants including his wife.

Such remarks were unlikely to appease Mr Yudhoyono, who was said to be “devastated” by the revelations. By Monday night, Indonesia had recalled its ambassador to Canberra, summoned the Australian ambassador for a stiff talking-to and announced a review of bilateral cooperation.

Mr Abbott was not even opposition leader in 2009, when, according to documents leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, Australia mounted the intelligence-gathering operation. But his handling of the diplomatic spat has reinforced perceptions of him as a foreign policy lightweight producing gaffe after gaffe on the world stage.

Relations with Australia’s nearest Asian neighbour and key regional ally were already strained, less than three months into Mr Abbott’s prime ministership, thanks to his election pledge – made without consulting Jakarta – that asylum-seeker boats heading to Australia would be intercepted and sent back to Indonesia, where they had begun their voyage.

In recent days, his praise for the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record has horrified many Australians, who contrasted it with David Cameron’s far more robust stance. “We accept that sometimes, in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen,” Mr Abbott pronounced at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, referring to allegations of war crimes by the Sri Lankan military.

Mr Abbott – who once described human-induced climate change as “absolute crap” – has also been widely condemned for failing to send a Cabinet representative to the United Nations climate change conference in Warsaw. The Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, was too busy dealing with legislation to repeal the previous government’s “carbon tax”, he explained. As one commentator wrote: “You seriously can’t make this stuff up.”

As opposition leader, Mr Abbott never showed much interest in foreign affairs. In a book called Battlelines, which contained a personal manifesto, he devoted little space to the subject, beyond extolling the virtues of the “Anglosphere”.

Many wondered about his grasp of complex issues when, during the debate about possible US air strikes against the Syrian regime, he described the civil war there as “baddies versus baddies”.

In office, one of his first acts was to slash A$4.5bn (£2.6bn) from the foreign aid budget and abolish the government’s international development agency – sending “a blunt signal … that Australia is a spoilt and selfish country that’s indifferent to the moral obligations of the richest nations to the poorest”, as Mark Baker, editor-at-large of Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, wrote.

In fairness, Mr Abbott’s predecessors were hardly faultless. Despite Kevin Rudd being a fluent Mandarin speaker and former diplomat, Australia’s relations with China worsened during his prime ministership. Julia Gillard frankly admitted to lacking “a passion for foreign affairs”.

However, as Raoul Heinrichs, a former Rudd adviser, wrote in The Age recently: “Even allowing for inexperience, the Abbott government appears to be setting a new standard for diplomatic ineptitude. The Prime Minister in particular has lurched from one mistake to another, with each episode more ham-fisted than the last.”

The swift, steep deterioration in relations with Indonesia is ironic, given that Mr Abbott had promised a foreign policy that would be “more Jakarta, less Geneva” in focus.

Over the past fortnight, Indonesia has made clear that it will not stomach asylum-seeker boats being sent back to its shores, just to keep Australian redneck voters happy. Australia was forced to transport 63 people to Christmas Island, its Indian Ocean territory, after Jakarta refused – during a 24-hour stand-off on the high seas – to take them back.

It was the second time it had adopted that stance – or perhaps the third, if the Jakarta Post is to be believed. With Mr Abbott shrouding events at sea in a blanket of secrecy, opposition MPs complain that that newspaper is a better source of information than the Australian government.

Monday’s diplomatic rupture follows earlier reports that Australia’s embassy in Jakarta is being used to house electronic surveillance equipment employed to spy on Indonesia and other countries in the region.

The latest Snowden documents, which are from Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate, contain a wishlist of surveillance targets. Along with Mr Yudhoyono and his wife, Kristiani Herawati, the list includes the Vice-President, Boediono, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, and Mr Yudhoyono’s foreign affairs spokesman, Dino Patti Djalal.

Indonesia’s urbane, British-educated Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, was not mincing words on Monday. “This is an unfriendly, unbecoming act between strategic partners,” he told reporters. And, responding to Mr Abbott’s observation that all governments spy on each other, Mr Natalegawa retorted: “I’ve got news for you: we don’t do it.”



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power