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Friday, 17 October 2014

Putin-Abbott showdown to derail G20

Putin-Abbott showdown to derail G20

Putin-Abbott showdown to derail G20

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

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.

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