Tony Abbott’s strong response on the issue of culpability for MH17 was justified and appropriate.
The Abbott government’s foreign policy so far has not been characterised by subtlety. It has managed to offend Indonesia through its handling of the asylum seeker issue, exacerbated by revelations of Labor-era surveillance. Its tilt toward a closer relationship with Japan, reinforced by a close relationship between Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has infuriated the (perenially infuriated) Chinese. The Prime Minister’s effort to transform a climate denialist agreement with his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper into a weird kind of Anglophone front against climate action was rapidly derailed by the Obama administration, the Cameron government and even the New Zealanders.
The lack of subtlety was on display again in response to the downing of the Malaysian aircraft over the Ukraine, with Abbott going hard early in attributing responsibility to Russian-backed rebels. This time, it was entirely justified: 37 Australians had been murdered, along with over 260 others, with little doubt as to who was responsible. There’s a time for diplomatic nuance, and this wasn’t it. Abbott was right to give vent to the widely shared fury and grief felt by Australians, and was justified as more evidence emerged pointing to the capacity of Russian-backed rebels to carry out the attack. Whether it was an accident — as the United States claimed the shooting down by the USS Vincennes of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988, killing 290 people, was — or deliberate, of course remains unclear, while the culpability of Malaysia Airlines in using a route over a conflict zone is also to be determined. But Abbott’s tone was correct.
Today, the Prime Minister lowered the temperature somewhat after a phone call — the details of which remain unclear — with the Russian president overnight, saying Putin had “said all the right things” but must now be as good as his word. Abbott gave a (very good) press conference at 11.30 to stress his priority to obtain “justice for the dead and closure, as far as humanly possible, for the living”. The issue of responsibility for the moment has been pushed to the background by the issues of independent access to the crash site — where, unverified reports claim, bodies have been looted, credit cards stolen and evidence removed — and repatriation of the bodies of our fellow citizens. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pursues the diplomatic track of using our UN Security Council seat (that’s the seat the Coalition derided as a waste of money, but never mind) to put forward a resolution for an independent investigation.
With the site of the crash being trashed, if not deliberately then by the recovery process undertaken by locals, compared to a “garden clean-up” by Abbott — a description justified by footage from the scene — the priority must be to secure the repatriation of Australian bodies so their families and friends can begin the process of farewelling them.
A longer-term problem for Abbott, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the Brisbane G20 summit in mid-November. It’s not unreasonable to suggest most Australians now only want to see Putin on Australian soil if he’s being walked into a police station for questioning over the murder of 37 people. Abbott has so far tried to downplay the issue. There’ll be plenty of other tyrants and monsters attending — Barack Obama, for example, has killed hundreds of civilians, including many children, in drone strikes, despite knowing the grisly toll they inflict both in terms of civilian casualties and their counterproductive impact on targeted communities. But Putin now comes with the label of being the funder, supplier and supporter of the people who killed Australians. It’s a vexing issue for Abbott, but one that can wait.