Another fuck-up

This is a terrible government. I said that before. It’s worse even than I feared. You hope to be pleasantly surprised, but instead find that the incompetence, intransigence and misjudgment runs deep. We’re stuck with this lot for another 4 years.

Last week we had the appalling situation where Abbott went to Sri Lanka and gave them a couple of our patrol boats to help prevent asylum seekers ever reaching Australia. It’s a ridiculous solution in any case, but what makes this particularly rotten is that the Sri Lankan leader has been legitimately accused of war crimes. We’re giving weapons to a guy who has used weapons against his own people. What does that say about us? What does it say about our government? Instead of looking to represent justice our government instead pursues pragmatic political objectives, and if that means giving guns to the bad guys then so be it. It’s a long time since these guys had a moral compass.

This week the furore is all about claims that Australia spied on Indonesia, and in particular bugged the phones of the Indonesian president and his wife. Naturally this created an uproar. This too has been handled terribly.

You may not like it, but I think most people accept that spying goes on, and in fact is necessary in many cases. I don’t object to Australia carrying out espionage, though I do question the value of bugging these mobile phones. Regardless, that’s not the real issue. The real issue is in how it is handled. This kerfuffle follows on from a near identical controversy weeks ago when the US were exposed to listening in on European conversations, especially those of Angela Merkel. Obama came out and did the right thing. He rang up Merkl directly, he apologised to her and said it wasn’t happening or wouldn’t happen again.

You have to play the game. Indonesia may get it’s knickers in an official knot over this episode – as they must be seen to – and the appropriate response from our government, and from Abbott particularly, is to do exactly what Obama did. The theatre plays out, mea culpa given and accepted, the public sated, and in all likelihood the spying continues.

That’s not what Abbott did. You see the workings of a simple and obvious mind: everyone spies, why do I need to apologise? Well, because you’re a national leader dealing with another, and that of our nearest and most important neighbour. Because that’s what they call diplomacy. Abbott fears, I think, being seen weak. That’s the lack of subtlety in his thought processes. Taking leadership on an issue like this and acting quickly is not weakness. It did Obama no harm.

In failing to act appropriately Abbott has allowed this situation to degenerate rapidly. The Indonesian president is now – quite authentically – offended by the inaction and the comments made since. Indonesia has withdrawn its ambassador, has ceased any joint actions, and is threatening to pull out from diplomatic agreements. In Indonesia itself the people are strongly behind their president and now rabidly anti-Australian. Ratbags on the right here make comments that further inflame the situation. At best this is an impasse; at worst a diplomatic disaster.

Abbott has now made this much harder for himself. I think he must act to apologise as he should have right from the start. If he does that then I think something can be salvaged on the diplomatic front. Unfortunately the damage beyond that is beyond repair I think.

You shake your head at the absolute lack of judgement in this farce, not just by Abbott, but by his advisors. His foreign minister, perhaps fortuitously, is nowhere to be seen.

I’m just a regular dude who lives in the suburbs of Melbourne. I’ve travelled a bit though, and have some idea of cultural sensitivities. It’s no good Abbott trying to be manly and dealing with this on Anglo-Saxon terms – even Obama, dealing with a western culture, knew better than that. If the situations were reversed there would likely be a few rumblings, a couple of headlines, but it would die down. The average guy will chat about it a bit before shrugging his shoulders, shit happens – which has essentially been Abbott’s response. It’s different in Asia.

There’s the very real concept of ‘face’. Australia transgressed in spying, intruded privately, and robbed Indonesia of face in doing so. I understand Yudhoyono being personally aggrieved at having his, and his wife’s, mobile phones tapped. He’ll get over that, and quickly had we acted promptly. Indonesia is a big country, with a culture and religion poles apart from the culture here. We’re a western country, they are not. And so on. The fact of it is that the cultural differences make for cultural sensitivities, none of which we seem to be considered in our response.

The diplomatic fences will be repaired in time, but the cultural damage will linger much longer. In the eyes of the common Indonesian this episode is an example of Australian arrogance.* We’ve disrespected their leader, and their sovereignty, and they have taken fierce exception to that. They believe we think we can do what we like; our failure to express remorse has only confirmed that. It’s ham-fisted diplomacy at the very best; at worst it’s a cultural sore that will take years to heal.

*I’m forever amazed how people are blinded to the fact that so much we do as a western culture is offensive to others. We can’t be apologising for who we are, but some neighbourly sensitivity is only courteous. The fact is that so much of the violence of the last 15 years stems from resentment at what is felt to be western imperialism. That’s a sensitive subject since so much of the world, at one time or another, was subject to western masters. That’s not forgotten. It means sometimes the things we do are misunderstood, and that our cultural blunders are magnified. As westerners we are blithe about what we do, rarely understanding the consequences of our actions, and blind to how pervasive – and sometimes invasive – our culture and conduct is to others.

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