All pain. Some gain.

Prime minister Tony Abbott in Bali before attending the 2013 APEC meeting. Photo by AFP.
20 November 2013
Prime minister Tony Abbott in Bali before attending the 2013 APEC meeting. Photo by AFP.

The spying news isn't all bad for Tony Abbott and the Coalition, writes ANDREW CARR.

Tony Abbott is a man used to the pain of exercise ending in the reward of health and strength.

He should be thankful that the same principles apply, albeit much slower, to international politics.

The revelations that Australia has been spying on the Indonesian President, his wife and senior hierarchy is a painful moment for the new Government.

But, handled right, it could be the making of both Abbott's image as a leader, as well as a chance to prove his commitment to a "Jakarta first" foreign policy.

A quick look at his three immediate predecessors shows why.

In 1996 John Howard came to office promising to pull back on his predecessor's focus on Asia.

Yet the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis let him prove his regional commitments and bought goodwill he later used to manage the intervention in East Timor and fight against terrorism.

Kevin Rudd likewise came to office downplaying economic issues, but the Global Financial Crisis forced him to dive into the treasury books.

Rudd's response to the crisis, especially his push for a global response, was the making of him, and the backbone to his sky high polling.

Julia Gillard by contrast was unlucky enough to never face a major international crisis.

The worst foreign policy challenges she faced were self-inflicted (most notably the live cattle trade ban).

Consequently, she was never able to prove that she could protect the nation or earn regional trust.

Gillard certainly had enough problems at home to worry about, but in retrospect an overseas crisis early on in her term might have been the making of her, at least in the public's eyes.

Which brings us back to Abbott.

The new Government is already in a good position. It was not responsible for the spying, it has regularly visited Jakarta and it has said all the right things about the importance of our nearest and biggest neighbour.

It would have been better if the tension over the Coalition's asylum seeker policies was not also present, but that does give Abbott some domestic credibility to those on his right who view Indonesia with suspicion.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the current scandal and whatever fixes do emerge are unlikely to be things that can be announced to the media.

Australia's security depends upon retaining our unparalleled access to US intelligence. And we're not going to give up trying to learn as much as we can about such a significant country.

Yet, there may be some options.

If Australia is to find security "in Asia not from Asia", then we will need to do more to share, communicate and co-operate with Indonesia on a whole range of threats and emerging issues.

The Indonesians have already seen the domestic benefits of co-operating with Australian intelligence services when it comes to addressing terrorism.

If Australia pledges similar levels of support for other key challenges they face, such as illegal fishing, piracy, or drug smuggling, it will go a long way to prevent future leaks from causing similar harm.

If that works, in time other countries in the region can also be brought in. Southeast Asian countries already accept the benefits Australia and the US provide in security protection.

To accept US and Australian intelligence provision, the region will also need to feel they too are getting some of the benefits.

Abbott can also work domestically to show the Indonesians and Australian people that he recognises their concerns.

There is a growing sentiment that as the War on Terror draws to a close, the powers of Australia's intelligence and police services are in need of review. It's time for the nation to have a conversation about privacy, about online rights and about just how much surveillance, from airport screening and CCTV to online data-tracking, we are prepared to accept.

It is one thing to say the Government does not comment on foreign intelligence matters, but that will be unlikely to satisfy the masses should the next revealed target of snooping be ordinary members of the Australian public.

Abbott didn't get to choose the crisis his Government faces.

But it is one that gives him the chance to prove he wants to put "Jakarta first".

It also lets him reveal more of himself, by speaking on some of the most important (but least partisan) issues of our day around privacy, surveillance and rights in a digital world.

Just like a tough hill on his early-morning ride, Abbott should welcome this challenge.

Handled well, it will let him prove he's fit for the job and ready for the challenges ahead.

Dr Andrew Carr is a security and foreign policy expert based at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, School of International, Political and Strategic Stiudies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. 

This article was also published in The Daily Telegraph.


Updated:  16 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator