JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Chilly reception for Tony Abbott's stand-up routine at Davos

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has attacked Labor's stimulus spending during the GFC in his speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has attacked Labor's stimulus spending during the GFC in his speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Tony Abbott packed his beanie and his uggs this week and flew off to Davos to meet his world colleagues, economic forum style.

There were many eyes on Abbott in Switzerland. Not only was this his first big international meet-up, Australia has just taken over the G20 presidency, boosting our middle power status to middle power plus. That, and somehow it's always funny seeing Australian prime ministers girt by snow.

When Abbott arrived in Davos, he duly presented himself in the form of a press conference, where he was duly asked about bilateral meetings with the Japanese and the World Economic Forum. And with the Syrian peace talks happening elsewhere in Switzerland this week, he was quizzed on the Australian government's position on the issue.

Here Abbott took the opportunity to recycle one of his most quotable quotes on foreign policy. "The difficulty in Syria is that, as I famously - perhaps infamously - said during the election campaign, it often seems like a struggle that involves baddies versus baddies,'' he said. ''I guess the best way for all of them to demonstrate that at least some of them are goodies is to lay down their arms."

When Abbott first used the baddies-goodies line in the campaign, Kevin "I used to be a diplomat" Rudd slammed the analysis as being from the "John Wayne school'' of international relations. "The last time I used the term goodies or baddies I think was when I was playing cowboys and indians in the backyard," Rudd said in September.

This time around, the Huffington Post's British edition led (for a while) with this headline: "GOODIES AND BADDIES: Australian PM reveals his incredibly complex take on the Syrian civil war.''

But Abbott was unmoved and unapologetic. At his next press conference, asked if he stood by that "simplification of the conflict", he opined on the importance of Australia doing what it could in a difficult situation and being "hopeful" without being "too expectant" (aka we're dealing with baddies and baddies here).

Amid Abbott's Davos stand-ups, questions also came on asylum-seeker boats, with reports (and footage) of asylum seekers claiming they had suffered burns at the hands of Australian navy personnel.

On this one, Abbott would barely entertain the thought.

"There is absolutely no evidence … These are just claims without any apparent facts to back them up," he said. "I have complete confidence in the decency, the humanity and the professionalism of Australia's navy and customs personnel."

When pushed on whether there should be an investigation, the PM replied: "Well, as I said, who do you believe? Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who are attempting to break Australian law?"

His comments reinforced the generous dollop of outrage that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had already mixed into the debate back home.

People smugglers have strong motivations for seeking to discredit Australia's border protection operations, Morrison argued. Declaring his "total confidence" in the navy, he said an investigation into the allegations was unnecessary.

"There's no need to clear up unsubstantiated claims," Morrison said.

The Indonesian police, however, are taking a different view - and as of Friday, they wanted the UN refugee agency to investigate.

Blame it on the time of year, but the coverage and debate about boat-taking asylum seekers can bear a striking resemblance to tennis played in the dark. A claim is made and reported by one side before it is batted back by another. And when all the players are hitting hard and from different directions, it's difficult to work out who has won the rally.

Things get even trickier when you have two governments appealing to their domestic audiences as much as (if not more than) they are to each other. And two of the main groups - asylum seekers and naval personnel - are barely visible to the public.

Of course the media tries to sit in the middle and umpire, but no one has a high enough chair to see all there is to see all the time.

Which is why statements of the blanket variety should be approached with caution.

Eyebrows went north when Abbott recycled his "baddies and baddies" line on Syria, but they barely wavered when he used a similar logic to dismiss the burns claims: "Who do you believe?" - the goodies from the navy or the baddies on the boats?

As has been pointed out many times by weary human rights lawyers, people are not criminals for trying to seek asylum. And ADF members are not automatically angels because they do such a difficult and dangerous job (do we have to list the recent scandals?).

This is not to make any judgment on the burns claims and counter-claims. But if goodies and baddies don't belong in Syria, why should they belong here?

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.

Featured advertisers