Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the shooting down of flight MH17.
In Europe and the US it is the silly season, rather like our January, with a high proportion of the population, including politicians and public services, on summer holidays or working with reduced staffs. With so many of the usual sources of news out of action, newspapers have an higher than average proportion of meaningless news stories about animals, particularly (in Britain) ones in supposed peril, moral panics and sensationalised crime reports, particularly about real or supposed child abductions, and stories about sport – for Britons, at the moment, particularly about the Commonwealth Games and cricket.
As in Australia, the northern silly season is sometimes distracted by natural disaster – fire, flood or famine – or unnatural disasters – a serious accident with large-scale loss of life, a major terrorism incident, particularly close to home, or by acts of war, such as in Ukraine or in Gaza. In northern Europe and Russia, for example, there has traditionally been a military season beginning in about May; winter, snow and mud tends to bring activity to an end by November or so.
For media organisations struggling for meaty material, such events can provide some substance, but the audience is often taking only casual interest because they are away from work, preoccupied with families and the balmy weather.
Australian politics has also tended to have the mid-winter holiday. Traditionally Parliament gets up in early June, and does not resume until late August. Until a few decades ago, it resumed for the budget, but that now takes place in mid-May, and after about a month or so of budget-related sittings, has taken two months off.
Suddenly scores of politicians, and their partners are off abroad on publicly funded study tours, usually on subjects best studied in northern fleshpots at a time when most experts, officials and leaders are very difficult to find because of the holiday season. Though this year, Treasurer Joe Hockey took a break with his family in Fiji so that he could rest from his wholly unavailing efforts to sell budget austerity to the community, the politicians carried on in Canberra until mid-July, because Prime Minister Tony Abbott was determined to put what he regarded as mandate legislation before new senators beginning their term on July 1. He was less than wholly successful in his efforts, particularly with the abolition of the whole mining tax package. Parliament ultimately rose with a lot of unfinished business, not least supply, a budget strategy, progress towards debt and deficit reduction, and some sort of defining aims and ideals by which the next two years of an Abbott government could be judged.
The shooting down of flight MH17 was a bolt from the blue, but has taken most of the government's energies and media attention over the past fortnight. It was also a shock, because it involved Australian tourists, and, if not of the magnitude of the Bali bombing of 2002, an unpleasant and unsettling reminder of a new and dangerous world, even for complete innocents going about their ordinary business.
Tony Abbott was up to representing Australia's shock and anger, and in demanding investigation and accountability for what occurred. Australia and the Netherlands have led the international reaction, with a clear focus of their anger on Russia, which is said to have been sponsoring and arming, and in a position to control, Ukrainian separatists in the eastern areas of the country. Australia's expensively won position on the UN Security Council has been used to effect, to propose an independent investigation into the event, a local ceasefire in the crash zone, and some unclear form of justice for the perpetrators, whatever that could be.
Right now our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is in Ukraine, attempting, with Dutch help, to organise a ceasefire so that foreigners, including nearly 200 AFP officers, can begin scouring the ground for bodies, baggage and evidence pointing to the cause of the crash. Alas, fighting in the region has intensified – largely because Ukrainian forces sense an advantage – and while it may ultimately prove possible to stop people shooting into a zone of about 30 square kilometres, where most of the bodies and debris are, it seems unlikely that the full 5000 kilometres (roughly a circle of 40 kilometres radius) where there is wreckage will be safe, whether for an armed, or disarmed, forensic emu parade.
Intentionally or not, the sending of our AFP will help Abbott keep the story on the front pages, even internationally. Indeed, his main competition for stories of substance, given the silly season, is the Israeli invasion of Gaza. That tragic conflict has, since the shooting down of flight MH17, consumed about four times as many lives, almost all Palestinean. But it struggles to absorb Western audiences, used to regarding Israeli intransigence, Palestinean resistance, and, generally, the politics of the Middle East as ultimately unknowable, unresolvable and local. Normally, large-scale death south of old Stalingrad would not command attention long either, but for the fact that for Americans, Europeans, South-East Asians and Australians the deaths are of People Like Us.
Likewise Abbott's sudden dedication to the principle that every single Australian body should be repatriated home is guaranteed to supply liturgy and ceremony – and the frequently unwanted intrusion of politicians sharing personal and local grief – for months on end. One can be sure that the media opportunities will not be missed. Naturally, there will be no politics about such events, and, no doubt, leaders of the opposition will stand solemnly, if forlornly, alongside prime ministers. But in such matters – particularly when a governor-general has been shoved aside in the job of representing Australia as a whole, and the prime minister wants to play leader, and choirmaster, of the country – it is all about politics, all about image, all about being seen to provide leadership. John Howard did it to perfection. So, up to a point, did Kevin Rudd. Julia Gillard mostly didn't seem to know how. Abbott is learning fast.
The beauty of it from the point of view of those packaging and presenting Tony Abbott, the most combative and partisan political warrior of his time, is that such occasions are not ones for criticism of our leaders. That is why he is suddenly holding a press conference every day. We fall in behind them, conscious that there are times above partisan dischord. Anyone who cynically remarks how much he is milking the occasion for all that it is worth, or seeking to prolong the solemn events so as to shield him from a more vulgar tumult about things which are more pressing, can be denounced instantly as being inappropriate, disgraceful or shameful.
Likewise, it will be said that there is something cheap and nasty about wondering aloud why AFP officers, neither trained with the language, cultural or logistic skills, nor noticeably good at large-scale evidence gathering, have been sent in as evidence gatherers when they would not even perform such tasks were an aircraft accident to occur in the ACT. Or how the decision came to be made and what it becomes a precedent for. There would have been a good argument for deploying actual AFP identification skills in the Netherlands, but it might not have the publicity dividend.
The emotional appeal of repatriating the victims is obvious, but what precedent does it create? Until about 1967, Australia did not even bring home our fallen war dead. Australia is about to declare the dead victims of terrorism – though they do not appear to be in the ordinary sense of the word – and, it seems, lay on state funerals, wanted or unwanted, with splendid display and opportunity to watch our anguished national politicians. It is all of a one with the way that Australia is spending tens of millions in self-serving publicity events for politicians and officials at Gallipoli next April 25, and hundreds of millions in ''commemorating'' World War I – at just a time that funding to Aboriginal affairs and health and education is being cut.
At some time our leaders will have to return to mere politics and current problems of policy, administration, money and the betterment of the community. The sordid business of government, in short. Nothing is solving itself while our leaders have been on an altogether higher plane, or in one. Nor is there any evidence that uplifting leadership, however able, has raised the stocks of those involved, or made the resolution of fundamental issues more easy. The local ceasefire will be more limited, and less sentimental, if less dangerous.