Disaster politics

Thursday, 31 July 2014 


We’ve got a situation where Tony Abbott’s become the strongest leader in the world on this issue.

Gerard Henderson

Right now there could well be remains exposed to the European summer, exposed to the ravages of heat and animals.

Tony Abbott

As a prime minister of a country, how does a tragedy like this affect you at a personal level?

Fran Kelly


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

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15 responses to “Disaster politics”

  1. F on 31st July 2014 8:52 am

    The last paragraph was beautiful. I’ve never thought about the distance of anothers loss that way before, and it now seems so obvious.

    Its all been really quite disgusting over the last few weeks. The media has used this as just another bit of Abbott boosterism and/or political kicking ball over their “rights” to publish what they feel like. Its always about them. So, completely, vain.

  2. KF on 31st July 2014 3:35 pm

    What I find so depressing is the simplicity and fickleness of the criteria for invoking a PM’s intervention in a disaster. If it affects Australians directly, we’re in there 100% with our muscular, straight-talking language.

    But once we’re asked to consider a broader, more nuanced issue such as whether Russia should be subjected to sanctions for its behaviour in Ukraine…’not our problem, mate.’ And we accuse Americans of insularity.

  3. m0nty on 31st July 2014 6:20 pm

    One possible reason why Abbott’s numbers might have bounced is that he might have showed some emotion, some empathy with the common people. Instead, he’s doing what he always does: deliver wooden platitudes to the “goodies” and stiff-necked threats to the “baddies”. No wonder he’s depicted as Pinocchio in the funny papers. He is the very model of a modern major general, applying military rigmarole to what is supposed to be a nuanced, organic role. It’s still not working.

  4. Tony kevin on 31st July 2014 9:16 pm

    Real insights here, thank you.

  5. Warren Ross on 31st July 2014 9:27 pm

    A wonderful summary of events in the Ukraine and the best piece of writing I have come across in a considerable period of time. Thank you.

  6. grandbay on 1st August 2014 9:40 am

    Thank you, Shrike! Interesting analysis, as usual.

  7. Jane on 1st August 2014 10:01 am

    The lack of actual empathy (rather than a cynical performance) with others’ grief and loss makes any statements or performances ineffective in the long term.
    Relatives and friends of those injured or killed in those “old emergencies” are STILL dealing with the consequences while the rest of us have moved on… some of us to the next photo/empathy/political opportunity.
    When will they ever learn?

  8. Riccardo on 1st August 2014 3:55 pm

    I think people have missed several points:

    1. The plane was destroyed in a war zone, and the remains fell to Earth in that zone. The plane is inaccessible because of that. This is tragic for families but reality.

    If it was WW2, say somewhere in Northern France during late 1944, people would understand that you can’t get to the remains without the cooperation of both parties in a firm ceasefire.

    2. Using proxies in war is not new, and the media do contortions over how to describe the Donetsk people. In WW2, again, the Axis powers were made up of all colours and flavours, from the Nazis as the chief antagonists, Italian fascists etc through to all manner of Hungarian or Ukranian (surprise surprise) factions. The media need to accept that the faction is Russia aligned, not necessarily Russia-directed, definitely working in the Russian interest with Russian support.

    3. Describing Australia as even a ‘middle power’ is very generous indeed. This ties in with the crisis of the political class here.

    If other countries that weren’t so significant on the world stage in the past, like China or India, have risen, and if a whole new middle like Indonesia or Brazil has appeared, and if some countries like the Europeans have formed blocs to enhance their power…and it is all relative…then I suspect we have moved further down the line.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 2nd August 2014 6:49 am

    Thanks for the comments.

    On Abbott feeling empathy, I agree he didn’t really. Probably for the best as he would admit himself to not being a “people person”. Besides it conflicted with his need to up the ante and politicise it – e.g. his talk of bodies being “savaged” by animals in the European summer – hardly sensitive to the feelings of the victim’s families.

    The stifling emotionalism more came from the media, including even the more serious journalists – shown by the mawkish Insiders program straight after the crash, when Coorey, Kelly and Taylor convinced us how affected they were by it, but had little of actual value to add.

    Only Gerard kept his head, as his cool rational eye fixed firmly on the coming poll bounce that never arrived.

  10. Riccardo on 2nd August 2014 7:48 am

    I like how Abbott is talking about reversing the burden of proof in ‘terrorism’ cases.

    Does this mean that those who commune with factions or activists who want to blow up buildings for religious reasons, or shoot government officials, can be arrested?

    I will be there at the airport performing the citizens arrest myself, when Cory Bernadi gets off the plane from his ‘seminars’.

  11. No Crap App: w/b 28 Jul 2014 | No Crap App on 2nd August 2014 2:14 pm

    […] Piping Shrike: Disaster politics […]

  12. The Piping Shrike on 2nd August 2014 9:17 pm

    Useful piece in the AFR how Australia’s UN Resolution spectacularly backfired giving the Ukrainians the opportunity to launch a military offensive around the crash site.


  13. Riccardo on 6th August 2014 7:32 pm

    Any theories on 18C?

  14. The Piping Shrike on 11th August 2014 9:06 am

    See post. But will come back to it.

  15. Ukraine, the sanctions war & 21st century imperialism - Left Flank on 12th August 2014 7:45 am

    […] As The Piping Shrike has argued, the response of the Abbott Government to the MH17 crash was a transparent attempt to buoy its failing domestic authority, through the device of reviving Howard-era rhetoric about terrorism and moral imperatives overseas. Yet things have moved on since 9/11, and the combination of lack of an enabling context (the war on terror has become rather passé), together with the government’s already weak authority, meant that Abbott was always unlikely to carry it off. […]

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