Paul Bongiorno
Putin-Abbott showdown to derail G20

There’s no doubt our former journalist prime minister knows how to craft a tabloid headline. He operates always with an eye to maximising his domestic political advantage. And in recent months he’s been scoring points. But this week he became the headline rather than writing it.

The government’s recovery in the opinion polls can be directly linked to its handling of the July MH17 airline atrocity in Ukraine. Tony Abbott was first out of the blocks internationally to blame Russia and accuse it of complicity in murder. But when Labor’s Bill Shorten painted him as a wimp, all talk and no action for failing to prevent president Vladimir Putin from coming to the Brisbane G20 summit, the prime minister played haplessly into the politics: “Look, I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin – you bet I am.”

As a headline, it was solid gold. And for good measure he ran his “murdered” accusation again. The outburst drew yet more lurid tabloid headlines, this time from the old Soviet mouthpiece Pravda.

The elegantly monikered Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, a veteran columnist for with impeccable Kremlin connections, let fly. Not once, but two days in a row. “It was the most blatant example of shit-faced ignorance and pig-headed arrogance the world has seen,” he thundered, “since the likes of Hitler or Pol Pot.”

Cutting through the hyperbole from Moscow, Australia’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union and first envoy to the Russian Federation, Cavan Hogue, said: “It’s pretty clear that he’s [Putin] not really interested very much in what our prime minister says.” He told the ABC’s RN Breakfast that the cut-through message was Australia is “ignorant and Russia has already offered co-operation”.

That co-operation came with Moscow fully supporting, not vetoing, Australia’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the downing of a civilian aircraft and calling for an unfettered investigation and access to the crash site.

Before he tried to out-macho Shorten, as the colourful senator Jacqui Lambie put it, Abbott was much more measured: “I don’t believe for a moment that President Putin wanted that plane brought down. But obviously Russian policy has brought about a situation that caused this atrocity to take place.”

So far, the Dutch investigators have not reached that conclusion and a senior Russian parliamentarian, Vyacheslav Nikonov, is sticking by the claim that the missile was a Buk-M1, not used by the Russians but modified by the Ukrainians. 

Meanwhile, relatives of the 38 Australian citizens and residents who died in the crash are, like the rest of the world, still waiting for credible answers. Hogue and other diplomats say the Abbott approach is counterproductive and embarrassing. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the ABC the president was still to officially confirm his participation in Brisbane. But there would definitely be an opportunity to exchange views at the meeting, preferably he said, “in a more diplomatic way”.

The prime minister seems to acknowledge his play for domestic plaudits in this instance was at best inelegant, at worst demeaning. He refused to repeat the “shirtfront” line when prompted by journalists. But it is too late to prevent the Putin–Abbott showdown derailing one of the most important summits to be held in this country. 

Ironically, the leading role Australia played in the Security Council on MH17 came from the grace and favour of the Rudd government’s push to gain a seat on the powerful body. A major component of that campaign was hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to African countries to garner their votes. The Abbott opposition, with a firm eye to the domestic audience, slammed the bid as a waste of money. Australia’s national interest was, in its view, closer to home. 

But West Africans haven’t forgotten Australia’s commitments to them. The unfolding catastrophe wrought by the horrible Ebola virus has claimed more than 4000 victims this year. Canberra has directed $18 million to the World Health Organisation’s efforts to contain the disease. The United Nations is grateful but the president of Sierra Leone, a front-line state bearing the brunt of the epidemic, says what’s needed are “boots on the ground”.

President Ernest Bai Koroma has written to Abbott telling him further support is needed to scale up his national response with education efforts as well as infection control measures. Experts say that while Ebola has a 70 per cent death rate, it can be relatively easily controlled if properly quarantined.

“Having watched the response of the Australian military to similar humanitarian emergencies, most recently Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I know that it is uniquely placed to help us in the fight against Ebola,” he wrote. “We are counting on Australia to send us the military personnel we so desperately need to fight back against the virus and prevent the positive developments of the last 10 years from being undone.”

Labor’s shadow health minister, Catherine King, says it’s time for Australia to do more. She backs the Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) call for urgent action. “As the AMA notes, the government has well-trained Australian Medical Assistance Teams … that can rapidly respond to crises like the Ebola crisis,” she said.

But this time, playing on the world stage is not so appealing to the prime minister: “We aren’t going to send Australian doctors and nurses into harm’s way without being absolutely confident that all of the risks are being properly managed.”

Evacuation of affected Australian health workers is a major stumbling block. The Public Health Association and the doctors find this reason for rejecting more concrete assistance incredible. Britain and Germany already have arrangements in place; if Canberra had the will it could use them.

Maybe there are more votes in fighting Islamic extremists in countries remote from Australia than there are in fighting disease. But the AMA says the same logic applies. We are in the Middle East to contain a terrorist threat. It argues we should be in West Africa to contain a threat to world health. It points out that 750 people travel from West Africa to Australia every year. Among them, heroes such as Cairns volunteer Red Cross nurse Sue Ellen Kovack. She is still under quarantine as a precaution for suspected Ebola.

The Abbott government, so keen to be in lockstep with Washington in Iraq, is reluctant to follow its American ally into West Africa. The Obama administration sees Ebola in international economic and security terms. It has a similar view about climate change. Again there’s a parting of the ways. 

For the first time in five years of G20 summits, climate change is not on the core agenda. Labor’s former treasurer Wayne Swan attended every one of those events. He told the Lowy Institute this week there is anger and alarm within the international community at Australia’s stance as the first nation to go backwards.

“In the corridors of Washington, Berlin and elsewhere, there is genuine dismay about the lack of attention to climate change in the G20 agenda,” he said. 

Abbott thumbs his nose at such sentiments. “Coal is essential for the prosperity of Australia,” he said at the opening of the Caval Ridge mine in Queensland. “Energy is what sustains prosperity and coal is the world’s principal energy source and it will be for many decades to come.”

Never mind that the mine’s joint partners, BHP and Mitsubishi, are busy diversifying into alternative energy sources with a firm eye to a less carbon intensive future.

This prime minister is busy running lines prepared by the coal industry and hardly, if ever, mentions the worth or potential of Australia’s other natural riches, wind and solar. His scarcely concealed agenda is to dismantle the renewable energy industry. So far only the senate is standing in his way.

Swan says that “at best, Australia has gone from leader to laggard on climate change. At worst it’s gone from lifter to leaner. And this at a time when significant players such as the US and China are more willing than ever to address climate change.”

Abbott is preparing to vanquish an old foe on a fading battleground. He warns that Shorten’s Labor will bring back the “carbon tax”, threaten jobs and hike electricity prices. He clearly believes by keeping his head in the sand on climate change a majority of Australian voters will join him with their buckets and spades on the beach. 

Shorten’s mettle will be tested but he won’t be gifting Abbott a divided Labor Party and a leadership merry-go-round. Nor will he be doing deals with doctrinaire Greens. 

He will need to convert into convincing arguments the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that the extreme weather we are experiencing is tied to our unfettered use of fossil fuels.

It would be folly to underestimate this opposition leader. He has Labor ahead in the polls. He goaded the prime minister into his foolish Putin bravado and his exploitation of the government’s unsaleable budget shows he can seize a political opportunity. 

Tony Abbott can ill afford too many more own goals.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Tucking in a shirtfront".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription