Jul 21, 2014

MH17: now not the time for diplomatic nuance — and G20 decisions can wait

Tony Abbott's strong response on the issue of culpability for MH17 was justified and appropriate.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

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29 thoughts on “MH17: now not the time for diplomatic nuance — and G20 decisions can wait

  1. Venise Alstergren

    BERNARD KEANE: You have my sympathy for some of the negative comments being circulated about you. Hang in there.

  2. Peter Watson

    Hello Bernard, Abbott is certainly doing the right thing taking the hard line.
    Only a wimp would get on the phone to Putin, to try and arrange access to the rebel held area were the plane has come down.
    Only a wimp would ask the Ukraine forces to halt their offensive for a few days to allow access across the front line of the fighting.
    WMD Mk2 spiced, baked and ready to be served?

  3. Robert Barwick

    This argument is rubbish. Abbott’s responsibility is to get justice for the victims, by getting the truth. To rush to a judgement that depends not on evidence, but on the assumption that Russia and Putin are all bad, will achieve as much justice as a lynch mob. Abbott and Shorten are US lap dogs, and right know they are acting as proxies for the US, using the fact that there were 37 Australian victims compared to one American to take the lead on pushing the US propaganda line against Russia. If the argument is: Russia is responsible for the conflict in Ukraine, therefore Russia is responsible for the disaster, then the opposite is true: the US is responsible for the conflict in Ukraine, because it was the US which arranged the coup that overthrew Ukraine’s indisputably democratically-elected government, using some of the nastiest, most sinister neo-Nazi elements in Europe, which then imposed a regime that included bans on speaking Russian, which regime the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine have refused to accept.

    I think Keane should duke it out with Rundle on this one.

  4. Catherine Scott

    I suppose someone else has already posted the bleeding obvious, which is after such a violent and appalling death it will be quite some time before bodies – or body parts – can be identified for return to loved ones. This will cause grief, anger and frustration but due process has to be followed. It isn’t going to be easy to figure out who is who after they fell 10kms in a burning plane. And just think for a moment of the fate of those sitting near where the missile hit.

    I watched an acquaintance suffer terribly over the prolonged wait for the return of remains of family members killed in an overseas air accident during which the plane caught fire. And closer to home it was a while before bodies of those killed in the Black Saturday bush fires were returned to loved ones, even where the person died in his own home and there was little realistic doubt whose body it was.

    Carrying on in an ill-informed way will only make things worse for those who are suffering.

    And then let’s move on to the behaviour of other members of the hounds of the press. Looting? That’s the one that journalists always cut straight to whenever any thing goes wrong. They probably have a key board short just so they can get that one in asap. Here’s something intelligent written on the media’s obsession with ‘looting’. http://governingthroughcrime.blogspot.com.au/search?q=looting

    But how about the bloke from Sky News who arguably performed a type of looting by rifling through a dead passenger’s belongings on camera. What a filthy piece of ratings boosting voyeurism and exploitation.

  5. Mendoza

    immediately accusing Russia of culpability is one of the more reckless acts committed by a no steering wheel government

  6. Lydia Gibala

    For once I’m proud of Tony Abbott. And referring to it as ‘the’ Ukraine suggests that it’s a region not a country and I think we’ve established that it is in fact a country. Review your style guide Crikey.

  7. Roger Clifton

    Really, Lydia? Does that mean that “the” United States is still a colony?

  8. MsCharli

    Abbott’s reaction is justified IF initial ideas about Russian supplied arms being used by separatists is true. But, we don’t know the facts and evidence yet. All Abbott has done by rushing to condemn Russia without all the facts is risk looking silly if that scenario turns out not to be true, and pissed off Putin.

  9. MarilynJS


    Personally I think Ron Paul is more correct, Abbott the moron has 153 hostages on the high seas who have no access to the outside world and are hidden from view in the name of disgusting politics.

    And Gazans are being slaughtered while he says nothing.

    I heard the stupid Michael Usher on 60 minutes last night virtually declare war on Russia for us without a trace of proof it was anything more than a hideous accident.

  10. MarilynJS

    I feel very sure Putin didn’t order the downing of the plane and I am certain without doubt that Howard, Bush and Blair ordered the invasion of Iraq and are responsible to this day for the massacres, rapes, tortures and 5 million orphans, 2 million widows, 8 million refugees and total destruction of the country. I am absolutely sure Bibi ordered the slaughter of Gazans but Putin has zero to gain by having one plane fall out of the sky.

    Let us not forget the whinging speculation that 2 Iranian refugees were demonised for just because they were Iranians on Flight 370

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