When one is caught red-handed, a prompt and unequivocal apology is usually the best response. The face of the slighted party is saved sufficiently for the urge for retaliation to diminish. How Tony Abbott must now regret not saying sorry to Indonesia as soon as it was revealed that Australia had tapped the phones of that country's president, his wife, and senior Indonesian politicians. His failure to do so means matters have now escalated to the extent that Indonesia is demanding not only an apology but a full explanation of Australia's spying and a signed agreement regulating intelligence gathering.

It is possible to feel some sympathy for the Australian prime minister. The spying did not, after all, occur on his watch but in 2009 under the Labor government of Kevin Rudd. Equally, all countries, including Indonesia, collect intelligence, even on their allies. The revelations of United States National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, of which this is one, mean only the naive would believe this does not happen.

The phone-tapping must also be placed in context. While relations between Australia and Indonesia may have been improving up to this point, it remains a fact that more than 100 Australians have been killed in terrorist bombings in Bali and Jakarta.

Even so, Mr Abbott should have recognised the depth of the insult to Indonesia and responded swiftly and effectively. Instead, he refused initially to acknowledge even that spying had taken place. Then he aggravated the situation by refusing to apologise and saying that "the first duty of every government is to protect the country and to advance its national interests".


There could be little demur when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Mr Abbott had belittled the phone tapping and shown no remorse. The extent of the Australian Prime Minister's bungling is illustrated by what happened after it was disclosed that the United States had monitored calls on the cellphone of Germany's Angela Merkel. The chancellor confronted President Barack Obama and demanded an explanation. She received an apology and an assurance that the US "is not and will not in future" monitor her phone. Washington was duly embarrassed, forestalling any retaliation that Dr Merkel may have contemplated.

Mr Abbott may, similarly, have sought to build a bridge with Dr Yudhoyono. His response, instead, created an even bigger headache. He termed Australia's populous northern neighbour "our most important relationship", but acted as though oblivious to the degree of its importance, not least in trade and stopping boat people reaching Australian waters. He seemed unaware, also, of how this might play out in Indonesia, especially if Dr Yudhoyono used it for his own domestic purposes. Most deplorably, a Twitter posting by one of his party's advisers, Mark Textor, compared the Indonesian foreign minister to "a 1970s Filipino porn star [with] ethics to match".

Given all this, the Indonesian response has been milder than it might have been. Dr Yudhoyono has withdrawn Indonesia's ambassador to Canberra, suspended co-operation on intelligence, people smugglers and asylum seekers' boats, and cancelled military training exercises. He knows he has plenty of bargaining chips and can up the ante if he wants. This has left Australia working assiduously to soothe Jakarta through carefully worded letters.

But it will not want to compromise its intelligence operations. Australia's national security concerns will continue to be the paramount consideration. If Mr Abbott had responded quickly and appropriately to the spying revelations, this would have been taken as read. As it is, he has dug Australia deeper into a hole. Only a far more respectful response will extract it.