Australia's Abbott brushes off Indonesia protocol breach

Australia's Abbott brushes off Indonesia protocol breach
The conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday said it would press ahead with the sale of Australia's largest health insurer Medibank Private

SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday brushed off an apparent Indonesian protocol breach in which reporters listened to a phone call between the two nations' leaders intended to repair strained relations.

Mr Abbott will meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Wednesday on Batam island as he tries to restore ties that have been hurt by spying allegations and turnbacks of boatpeople headed for Australia. But it has now emerged that Jakarta allowed Indonesian journalists to listen in on the call Mr Abbott made to Mr Yudhoyono last month to arrange this week's talks, the ABC reported.

The national broadcaster cited a top-level Indonesian source as saying allowing journalists to listen was "a mistake", with the call recorded and a transcript posted online. Mr Abbott was reluctant to criticise Jakarta on Tuesday, dodging questions about the breach of protocol when pressed by the ABC, and assuring Indonesia he will always treat it with respect.

"Look, I was having a very genial conversation with the president, and I could tell that the president was very keen to have a warm conversation with me," he said. "And the important thing is the quality of the conversation; that's the important thing. "And I've always emerged from my discussions with President Yudhoyono feeling uplifted and encouraged and that's a very good thing."

Relations between the neighbours soured to the point that Indonesia's ambassador to Australia was recalled to Jakarta in November and only returned last month.

The meeting on Wednesday follows the Australian leader abruptly cancelling a trip to the resort island of Bali in May, reportedly over fears an asylum boat turnback could inflame tensions.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Monday said this week's meeting would "give the leaders a chance to study the current state of the relationship between their countries".

"I think the ball is in Australia's court, (Abbott) will be able to explain his position regarding wiretapping and the handling of asylum seekers," Mr Marty said.

Mr Abbott said he was expecting "a good meeting, a warm meeting".

"He's been a great friend to Australia; he's been a fine president of Indonesia and I'm very much looking forward to ensuring that the relationship is on a very sound footing before he leaves office later in the year," he said of Mr Yodhoyono. "I will let the Indonesians know that I will always treat them with respect," he added.

"That we will never do anything that would be harmful to their interests, that we are determined to cooperate as much as we humanly can in areas of mutual interest."

Indonesia's ambassador was recalled following reports that Australian spies were monitoring the phones of Yudhoyono and his inner circle. Jakarta has also expressed frustration with Canberra's tough immigration policy, which has seen the turnback of some boats carrying asylum-seekers from Indonesia towards Australia.

Tensions were further inflamed after the Australian navy admitted entering Indonesia's territorial waters during some of the turnback operations.

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