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Tony Abbott's pitch for UN support over MH17 a smart move

Date

Daniel Flitton

The Prime Minister has shown leadership and helped shape a global response.

For all Prime Minister Tony Abbott's bold we-warn-the-tsarstyle of rhetoric he has aimed at Vladimir Putin, there remains a simple truth. Acting alone, Australia can do nothing to adequately punish the culprits who shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17.

This is not to suggest Abbott has been wrong to chastise the Russian ruler for supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Abbott's tone in the past few days has been sharp - rightly capturing outrage at the attack that has cost 298 people their lives.

But there is no small irony that the Coalition, who in 2010 wanted to junk Labor's bid for the UN Security Council, chose to turn to that very same council for help. Tough talk quickly proves hollow without friends standing alongside.

It is impossible to separate diplomacy from domestic politics in a crisis like the attack on MH17. Abbott has needed to balance the shock and anger of the Australian community at the sheer randomness of this atrocity, while  being seen to take firm action in a part of the world where Australia has very little real influence.

This is a very different experience to John Howard, who early in his prime ministership was confronted by the brutal killing of 35 people at Port Arthur. Howard could be assured of a quick reaction by local police and then act decisively himself by banning semi-automatic guns. He won near universal acclaim for his stand.

Even after the 2002 Bali bombings, Australia's close proximity to the attack meant victims could be quickly evacuated and a deal struck with Indonesia to send federal police investigators.

In the badlands of eastern Ukraine, Abbott can only help shape a response, not direct it. His challenge appears a closer parallel to the fateful experience of US president Jimmy Carter, when Iranian revolutionaries seized American diplomats as hostages.

Almost everything Carter attempted to free the hostages backfired. He had no control of the situation on the ground and needed to rely on the good will of others. Carter's presidency collapsed as the crisis dragged on and he was decried as weak-willed.

Abbott has done a far better job than the hapless Carter. He kept emphasising - as if to himself as much as the Australian people - the need to stop anger overwhelming good judgment.

But he has not contained himself so much as to appear timid. He recognised that righteous anger was a powerful tool, especially in the face of Russian prevarication. As he put it in what seemed a telling remark after a telephone call to Putin; "I'm not going to have this conversation and say, 'Well that's nice, President Putin said everything will work out fine', and just accept that."

Australians are too often wary about raising their voice in the world, and clashing with Russia is certainly a big deal. The one constant of the 21st century has been Putin's quest to keep a stranglehold on power and recapture Russia's influence over its neighours.

But having lost 28 citizens and nine permanent residents in this attack, Australia had every right to question Russia over its supply of weapons to the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Abbott showed leadership.

Yet standing up to Putin alone would have been overreach and Abbott would have been exposed as all talk. A pitch for support in the UN was the smart option.

There was no point dispatching Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to Kiev - Australia doesn't even have an embassy there. And while the US is willing to pressure Moscow, the Americans are not as invested in this tragedy as Australia, the Netherlands, Malaysia and other countries with dozens of nationals aboard the plane.

That US Secretary of State John Kerry needs to talk about the attack on MH17 in almost the same breath as conflict in Gaza and Syria, also shows the other areas Russian and US interests overlap. Australia plainly does not have the same complication.

The Security Council resolution passed unanimously on Monday in New York shows Australia has plenty of support. Australia's position on the council meant Bishop was in a position to sponsor the resolution.

The diplomats fiddled with words - as they always do - and changed Australia's preference for "shooting down" the plane to Russia's "downing" so as not to prejudge the outcome of the investigation.

But the crucial phrase in the resolution is the demand for "those responsible for this incident to be held to account" - and for "all states [to] cooperate fully".

None of this will bring immediate solace to the victims' families. The crash scene has already been compromised. Conspiracies have well and truly taken hold.

But Australia has done the best in a bad situation to help bring a measure of justice. The onus is now very much on Russia to show a genuine commitment to what it has also just signed.

Daniel Flitton is a senior correspondent.

17 comments so far

  • If Putin said "boo'" Abbott would need to change his trousers.

    Commenter
    Cayce
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    July 23, 2014, 5:47AM
    • Daniel, be prepared for the waves of indignation from commentators at your temerity of complementing anything that Abbott has done.

      To read these forums over the past few days, and the wider social media, one would think that Abbott has not set a single foot right on this or any other matter. The one eyed bias is thee for all to see, and those participants are unwilling (or indeed unable) to set it aside for five seconds to even grudgingly acknowledge a job well done.

      Even yesterday, following the successful UN Security Council motion, the one-eyed lot were spewing forth their anti-Abbott tirades.

      For all his faults (and their are many) Abbott has yet to "stuff up" on the international stage. With MH17 the situation has been handled well, despite the comments by the Russian apologists to the contrary, and the UN Resolution is something to be applauded.

      Commenter
      rob1966
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 23, 2014, 7:18AM
      • Abbott has 'yet to stuff up on the international stage'? You have to be kidding. Abbott is in general a 'stuff up on the international stage'. He has done more damage to Australia's reputation in approximately a year, than any leader before him did in their entire term. He and his office have very little respect internationally due to their collective incompetence, his inability to articulate himself, his attitude toward a global push for action on climate change etc etc etc. You should read more. Abbott's government may have been influential in setting in motion correct procedures relating to the investigation this disaster but his blunt finger pointing (without any conclusive evidence) may well prove to be erroneous. Abbott has a lot to learn still about foreign policy and diplomacy. I wouldn't be surprised if his response to this issue is entirely contrived and is purely driven by a desire to win back the Australian voter with a desperate act of 'aggressive leadership'.

        Commenter
        Milo
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 2:18PM
      • Perhaps you can name one. The commentariat has bent over backwards saying how wonderful Abbott has been. It is been wall to wall adulation that even "Dear Leader" would be ashamed of. The reality is that it has been the Dutch PM, Mark Rutte, who has made all the real running on this and not Abbott. Everything that Abbott has done has been for domestic consumption.

        Commenter
        Paul
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 2:22PM
      • @Milo .. I suggest you take your biased spectacles off for a moment, and review what has been stated around the world on this matter; and the plaudits that have been made about Australia's actions and words by the various countries involved (in particular by the Dutch).

        Your allegations about Abbott damaging our international reputation are not borne out by the realities on the ground - but your comments do reflect the unsubstantiated opinions of the anti-Abbott brigades.

        You suggest that I should read widely; yet it would appear that it is you who should take heed of that advice.

        Commenter
        rob1966
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 3:29PM
      • I do not at all mind to give some credit to Abbott and Bishop. They have done what every country in the same situation would expect from their own government. The issue with Abbott and Bishop is that they never give any credit to somebody else. Bishop today accused the Labor party of 'buying' the seat at UN. She gave no credit to Rudd's previous work of securing the seat at the UN. Abbott was recently on his world wide crusade giving Obama the finger salute for his initiative in regards to global warming.

        We can only hope that the pair learn some valuable lessons from this event and become a bit more humble in the future.

        Commenter
        Viking
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 6:29PM
      • Well said Dave1966. As most newspapers today cheered for J Bishop and T Abbott, The Age's printed edition could only muster something vague about "Australia" doing well in the UN. Really? Couldn't bring yourselves to print a positive headline about the government or anyone leading it?

        Commenter
        Dave
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 10:09PM
    • Confirmed by more than 60% of the Australian Electorate, 'Abbott leadership' is an oxymoron.

      Commenter
      Geronimo
      Location
      Yippee Yi Yo
      Date and time
      July 23, 2014, 8:10AM
      • Geronimo it's a pleasure to read your snarky vitriol. Prime minister Abbott was on the front foot from day one and sent his highly effective Foreign minister to the UN straight away. To get a resolution through the UN Security Council with unanimous endorsement is a sensational outcome. And now the recovery and investigation can get underway. Not a misstep in sight. Well done Team Abbott.

        Commenter
        Peter
        Location
        Eaglemont
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 9:17AM
      • @peter, Actually, unanimous is not the best. A Russian abstention on a far broader resolution would have been a better outcome. If you really want to put the screws on a permanent member then you force them to Abstain. You still get it through and leave the abstainer in the headlights

        Commenter
        colin
        Location
        melbourne
        Date and time
        July 23, 2014, 3:04PM

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