Federal Politics

Tony Abbott v Vladimir Putin: shirt-front talk switches to robust conversation

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has wound back his threat to "shirt-front" Vladimir Putin, instead predicting a "very robust conversation" with the Russian President at next month's G20 summit in Brisbane.

Mr Abbott said his program of bilateral meetings with world leaders was still being finalised, "but I certainly expect that while he's a guest of Australia, he will undertake to have a conversation with the Australian Prime Minister".

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Abbott buttons up on 'shirt-front'

The Prime Minister is now promising to have a "very robust conversation" with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the downing of flight MH17.

The comments came after Russia's second secretary at the embassy in Canberra, Alexander Odoevsky, said no formal bilateral meeting had been scheduled for the summit.

The Australian government appears to be holding out hope that Mr Putin will not attend the summit. Mr Abbott promised tough talk with the Russian leader "should he be here for the G20", in what appeared to be a diplomatic climb-down from his suggestion on Monday that "I'm going to shirt-front Mr Putin".

Australia has held Russia responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, which killed all 298 people on board in July, including 38 Australian citizens and residents. Mr Abbott led international condemnation and squarely blamed Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels.

His talk of confronting Mr Putin had prompted mockery from a Russian diplomat in Canberra, and on Tuesday, the Prime Minister said: "Well we're going to have a very robust conversation, a very, very robust conversation, because plainly 38 innocent Australians were murdered."


"We've all seen the impact of Russian policy in Eastern Europe. We've all seen the impact of Russian policy on the innocent people on board flight MH17. I think the very least I can do, speaking for Australia's dead and speaking for the families of Australia's dead and indeed speaking for the world's victims, is to have a very robust conversation with President Putin," Mr Abbott told reporters in Canberra.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said on Sunday his Russian counterpart had told him of Mr Putin's intent to attend the G20 meeting.

Change of tone: Tony Abbott speaks to the media in Canberra.
Change of tone: Tony Abbott speaks to the media in Canberra. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Odoevsky mocked Mr Abbott's tough talk on Tuesday and pointed out that "shirt-fronting" was now illegal in Australian rules football.

"As I understand, this is quite an old-fashioned term, which is not widely used in the modern-day game," he said. "Also, it is illegal.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg
Illustration: Ron Tandberg 

"There has not been a request for a bilateral at the Brisbane summit from either side. So we are not sure when the Prime Minister would like to shirt-front the Russian President.

"I know Prime Minister Abbott is a very keen bicyclist. The Russian President does a lot of judo, which is a type of wrestling," he said.

Tony Abbott Vladimir Putin shirtfront gifAnimation: Rocco Fazzari

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Mr Abbott should not meet Mr Putin, and criticised the Prime Minister's aggressive talk.

"Talk of shirt-fronting isn't going to resolve this matter," he said.

Palmer United senator Jacqui Lambie urged Mr Abbott to show Mr Putin "respect", and said she was "grateful" to the Russian leader for his attempts at "trying to find world peace".

Senator Lambie said she "admired" Mr Putin and Russia was "innocent until proven guilty" over its actions in Ukraine.

Australia, the US and the European Union have announced sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and for backing separatists in Ukraine, undermining Kiev's sovereignty.

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