Hasty clarification: Trade Minister Andrew Robb Photo: Domino Postiglione
Trade Minister Andrew Robb has been forced to issue a statement to deny that he breached the government's strict rules of not commenting on intelligence matters.
Since the revelations first emerged that in 2009 Australian spies allegedly monitored the phones of senior figures in the Indonesian government, including Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, nobody from either side of politics has confirmed the phone tapping took place.
Asked about the details of the alleged spying, which were leaked by US whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repeatedly refused to confirm or deny the incident ever happened.
But in a television interview on Wednesday Mr Robb deviated from his leader's script and became the first member of Mr Abbott's cabinet to publicly acknowledge the phone tapping.
“It is unfortunate that this taping that took place several years ago has been made public," Mr Robb said. "But it's there, it's a fact of life, we've got to deal with it."
Soon after he made the comments, Mr Robb issued a statement saying he was "not privy to any specific details of intelligence matters".
"In the comments reported, I was referring in a general sense to the matters that have been broadly reported in the media," he said.
The Trade Minister indicated it will be some time before he again ventures outside his portfolio.
“I do not intend to comment further on intelligence matters, consistent with the longstanding position of governments of both persuasions,” Mr Robb said.
Asked later on Wednesday about his comments, Mr Robb said: “I think there’s enough damage been done by speculation and exposure of speculation by others”.
“I’m not privy to those sorts of security issues and so I’m not in any place to make any comment.”