Thursday, 31 July 2014
We’ve got a situation where Tony Abbott’s become the strongest leader in the world on this issue.
Right now there could well be remains exposed to the European summer, exposed to the ravages of heat and animals.
As a prime minister of a country, how does a tragedy like this affect you at a personal level?
Context is all.
The last few weeks have reminded that in recent years something rather unpleasant has entered politics, and the commentary that surrounds it. It is not only unpleasant to watch but has caused politicians to fumble on sensitive issues and commentators to completely mis-read the impact on the electorate at home.
There is a reasonable debate that could have been had over the best way to respond to the MH17 crash. For example it could be argued that if getting access to the site was a priority, then calling those whose cooperation was necessary to do so “criminals” from the outset might not have been that useful. Similarly there could have been a debate about the wisdom of passing a UN Resolution to call a ceasefire in a war zone – and appearing to give the Ukrainians a green light to launch an offensive over the crash site area that has left investigators stuck in their hotel.
But no such debate has been had. Instead it was shut down for several reasons. First, because there was an expectation that the electorate would automatically swing behind the government and to question what they were doing would be electoral suicide.
The expectation from some quarters that there would be a poll bounce to the government from its handling of the MH17 plane crash has come from a now entrenched prejudice that disasters and the appearance of doing something about them will pay off electorally. Howard’s handling of the Port Arthur massacre was one example, but this political “insight” became confirmed after 9/11.
Yet it’s been forgotten now, national security was a leading concern from 2001 to as late as 2006. While the War on Terror’s impact has largely been erased from political history, and the 2001 election and the 2004 election have become merely about Tampa and interest rates, rather than framed in the context of national security as they were, the legacy remains. So the smart thinking was, that like for Howard after 9/11 and Bali, the MH17 crash was supposed to be the event that would turn around Abbott’s fortunes.
Of course it wasn’t. Expecting political benefits from disaster was not only crass, but wrong. Some polls have lifted Abbott’s personal rating from being deeply unpopular to really rather unpopular, but other than that, it appears not to have shifted a single vote. The reason was because there was no context to relate it to as there was for Howard after 9/11 and the Bali bombings. Not least the “context” was a US led militarised campaign against terrorism that had reasonably global (if tacit) support.
This time there has been little open US leadership. Indeed the very leading role Abbott has played, so celebrated by conservatives like Henderson, is precisely his political problem. MH17 has not made Abbott the strongest leader in the world even on this issue, simply because he does not lead the strongest country in the world to do anything about it. He leads a middle power with especially little influence on the area where this is happening. That leading power is, of course, the US – and Abbott’s problem is that it is struggling to lead.
Not for want of trying though. Abbott’s characterisation of “goodies and baddies” in foreign policy was widely mocked at the time, but the Abbott Doctrine seems to have become fully adopted in what has been a simplistic one-sided view on what has been happening in the Ukraine. The Australian media, in its half-arsed approach to international news, has seen only Russia’s takeover of the Crimea, but completely forgot the US and European meddling in Ukraine that preceded it.
It has forgotten that before Putin’s interference in the Ukraine, there was the interference from the US and the EU. The US had been prodding the EU to step up pressure on the previous Ukrainian government and we had the German foreign minister going and joining anti-government crowds, with John McCain making an appearance for the US, and finally Merkel welcoming the end result, the overthrow of what had been a democratically elected, if corrupt, government to be replaced by an openly anti-Russian one.
In short, the Ukraine has become a playground of the major powers with the usual chaos as a result. We are going back to a time when there is no major power that can underpin the world order and lead it as has been the case for the last 70 years. For all the pontificating of how the events of exactly 100 years ago could not happen again, we have the perfect example of the political posturing and ineptness that shows how it could. Thank goodness this time the politicians can take no one with them.
But that brings us to the third reason why debate has been shut down, on top of the false reading of the electorate and the search for “goodies and baddies” by the media. This comes from the prevailing emotionalism of the debate based on the view that somehow it is the job of politicians to reflect the anguish and grief of the victim’s relatives.
Why? First of all, such emotionalism is surely a bad ingredient to add to delicate international tensions. But secondly, they can’t do it anyway. As anyone who knows someone who suffered bereavement will be aware, it is almost impossible, even with someone very close, to understand the grief of loss, let alone to presume to express it. It would obviously be extremely hard for a political class that is showing how much trouble it has to relate to even the mundane things of life, let alone something like this. Perhaps that’s why they try.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 31 July 2014.Filed under International relations