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Labor says fix Indon sooner not later

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Labor is calling for direct discussion and negotiation to resolve the diplomatic row with Indonesia, as it enters its second week with no sign of easing.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the exchange of letters between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a good start but the stand-off over spying allegations needs to be fixed.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says the government is dealing with it in an Australian way, not how US President Barack Obama handled similar allegations of US phone taps on German chancellor Angela Merkel.

This is only Australia’s most recent argument with Indonesia and former coalition foreign minister Alexander Downer says it’s nothing like the freeze following the 1999 East Timor crisis.

With careful diplomacy, he says, it could be resolved in a few weeks.

Mr Abbott confirmed on Saturday that he had replied to a letter from President Yudhoyono demanding an official apology and full explanation as to why Australian spies targeted his mobile phone and those of his inner circle in 2009.

But the prime minister is refusing to disclose the contents of his letter.

Mr Shorten says the row has to be resolved sooner rather than later.

“I do think it requires direct discussion and negotiation. We have seen that through letter to letter. That’s a start. We just want the government to get this right,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

Mr Shorten and Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said all now depended on whether Mr Abbott’s letter was sufficient to ease tensions.

“We have our fingers crossed that the coalition government is able to fix up this problem,” Mr Shorten said.

Ms Plibersek said the proof would be in the pudding.

“If co-operation is restored to its normal settings, then we will know that the letter has been successful,” she told ABC television.

Senator Cormann said it was one of the more challenging periods of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.

“The prime minister has handled this in the absolutely appropriate way, completely focused on our national interests,” he told Network Ten.

The saga started last Monday when the Guardian Australia and the ABC reported that documents from US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden showed Australian spies monitored the phones of President Yudhoyono, his wife and other top Indonesian officials.

Indonesia took immediate offence and, as the row escalated, cancelled joint defence activities, with other joint activities against terrorism and people smuggling in jeopardy.

The phone monitoring occurred in 2009 and Ms Plibersek suggested Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister at the time and later foreign minister, could use his personal contacts to help ease tensions.

In one area at least, the crisis has reached new depths, with an Indonesian newspaper cartoon depicting a heavy-breathing Mr Abbott peering though a door marked Indonesia and masturbating.

In 2006 the same cartoonist in the same newspaper depicted two dingoes copulating – one John Howard and the other Mr Downer. That related to Australia’s granting of protection visas to 43 West Papuan activists.

Mr Downer said there was no doubt President Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s elite and its people were not pleased with Australia but they too needed to be careful.

He said he sensed growing negativity towards Indonesia in the Australian community.

“The reaction from Indonesia has ramped up day by day and a lot of the rhetoric has been very fiery,” he said.

“That has made Australians recoil a little bit. Now this concerns me because I, like Tony Abbott, think this relationship is hugely important but it’s not very popular with the Australian public.”