Responses to the Indonesian phone-tapping scandal; what Abbott could learn from mediation

Parties to a mediation tend to come in to the process with deeply entrenched positions. In the context of mediation, ‘positions’ means things the party wants, demands, insists upon doing or refuses to do. Positions are usually concrete and absolute. By focusing on positions, the party starts with a solution rather than an exploration of the issues, and then defends that position or makes compromises in response to the other party’s offers.

25 cents vs 10 million

image via Negotiation Law Blog

Positional or ‘distributive’ negotiation assumes that the parties each have the same goals and values; that each party want the same items, which must therefore be divided to resolve the dispute. The more each party ‘gives up’ through compromise and concession, the more they cling to their positions.

As a mediator, I encourage parties to focus on their interests instead of their positions. Our interests encompass our needs and concerns, fears and aspirations, and our underlying motivations.

position and interests iceberg

image via Client Management magazine

Interest-based or ‘integrative’ negotiation assumes that the parties’ goals, values and wants are not mutually exclusive; in other words, it is possible to reach a win-win solution. The story of the ‘last orange’ helps to illustrate this concept. Two people working in the same kitchen want to use an orange in their recipe; however, there is only one orange left. Each held the same position – they needed that orange to make their dish. Starting from these positions, either one person gets the orange and the other misses out, or they each get one half of the orange, which is insufficient for the recipe.

If, however, the two cooks explore their interests, the underlying reason why they need the orange, they may find a win-win solution:

the last orange

illustration from Zen Workplaces

The phone tapping scandal unfolding in the media this week also illustrates the two approaches. Both the Australian and Indonesian governments have adopted positions: Indonesia is demanding explanations and undertakings Australia will not continue intelligence gathering operations on Indonesian officials; Australia refuses to apologise for or comment on Indonesia’s allegations. The relationship has become further strained following Prime Minister Abbott’s decision to address the issue  in parliament and not via any official diplomatic channels. From Indonesia’s perspective this move shows that the PM is more concerned with his government’s domestic position than in the relationship between the two nations.

The Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has accused Tony Abbott of “belittling” Australia’s attempts to tap his phone and those of other senior Indonesian politicians.

Tweeting in Bahasa on his official account, Yudhoyono said: “I regret the Australian PM statement belittling the phone-tapping in Indonesia without feeling guilty. We are reviewing a number of co-operation agendas because of the damaging Australian behaviour … The action by the US and Australia is damaging the strategic partnership with Indonesia, a democratic nation.” – Lenore Taylor writing for The Guardian Australia

This tweet provides some insight into the president’s underlying interests and motivations: he is seeking an acknowledgement from the Australian government that phone tapping is wrong and that Australia is ‘guilty’; further, Indonesia has been ‘belittled’, and wants Australia to take steps to publicly restore Indonesia’s importance and good standing on the global stage.

If Prime Minister Abbott and his government could shift focus away from the Australia’s and Indonesia’s respective positions and instead turn their minds to each nation’s interests, they might begin an integrative negotiation with our neighbours, and ultimately find a win-win resolution.


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