Labor is indeed balancing attempts to be supportive with some criticism of the government. It is right to do so, in fact, in my view, they are being tame and lenient.
There is an imprecise view that parties should join hands in matters broadly related to security and foreign affairs. This is drawn on a kind of weak ‘Godwin’ analogy; that certainly in times of existential threat the country needs to pull together. The implied analogy is false and the view is flawed and inherently biased towards the Liberal Party.
The reason is, the Liberals are consistently viewed, within the polity, voters and media, as ‘stronger’ on security and foreign policy. They own this ground and there is no reason that they should. Abbott’s missteps and self-inflicted assaults on Australia’s security - which is, if you missed it, what has happened here in the name of a bit of chest beating - sit flush with a long line of poor decisions that not only affront an intelligent internationalist, (true) liberal, or critical view of Australia’s international relations, they make no sense even within ‘realist’ thinking. Many hawks (aggressive foreign policy proponents) claim to be realists, many are not.
In Australia’s recent history, there is no evidence at all that our security within the world was advanced by any of the excursions into the Middle East, or, before that Vietnam or Korea. With the exception of the Second Gulf War (in response to the invasion of Kuwait) these have all been ventures of Liberal Party led governments. Conscription, arguably the most vicious and morally unjustifiable thing an Australian government has done to the liberty of individual Australians for the better part of a century, was a Liberal Party led government initiative.
John Howard’s government ended up bringing a respectable amount of behind-the-scenes stability to relations in Asia, but not before some early aggression and chest-beating that damaged, in particular, our relationship with Indonesia. It is as if something about that country, it’s proximity, large population of mostly-muslims, something, simply aggravates a great swathe of the Liberal Party voting base. In fairness, Labor has only done modestly better - there is a bipartisan inability to conceive of Indonesia as anything deeper than simple issues - boats, cattle, terrorists or particular human rights grievances such as East Timor or West Papua.
All of those are validly and responsibly pressed, but - and this is the *but* that has planted itself in the middle of relations today - if that is all we offer to Indonesia, endless criticism within a lense of oversimplification, then there is no good reason for them to help or listen to us.
In this context, the Liberal Party own a piece of policy ground they are not entitled to. It is not reasonable for them to continue to dumb down foreign policy and beat up, nay trash, our important relationships, and at the same time snivel behind an intellectually-vacuous ‘convention’ shielding their mishaps from criticism.
This dispute is not primarily about spying, although spying on the Indonesian President’s wife was a bridge too far. An apology is probably excessive, and we need to retain some intelligence discretion (and secrecy) while providing some sort of assurances around reasonable conduct to our neighbours. What it is about is a large piece of straw placed on top of a huge bale that has built up, including under Labor, as our now-democratised neighbour is lectured endlessly on boats (watching us in disbelief from their tiny islands populated by over 230 million), cattle, drug smuggling bogans, and everything else that concerns us, while receiving no mainstream recognition for their amazing advances as a nation or the complicated social fabric they try to hold together while feeding and educating their far less well-off populace.
It is about a plain, and largely justified, view of us as a sort of post-colonial overhang, unable to settle down and talk to our neighbours as equals. And it is about aggression - ours - and the genuine anxieties of a new and still unstable nation.
Labor should slam the Liberals for the way they have built this up. Labor should also cop some splashback in reply, for doing at best a moderately better job and likewise tending to see Indonesia (and our other neighbours) as most useful for bite-sized and simplistic policy brainsnaps.
It is ironic that Australians frequently joke about how thick Americans are on international affairs. We have a poor grasp as a nation of the complexities of our fascinating region. At least Americans are able to come up with their own foreign policy.