Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Shirtfront Shennanigans


Seven years ago today, in the leadup to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, said that he would shirtfront Russian President Vladimir Putin over the murder of 298 people, including several dozen Australians, in the skies over Ukraine. While Australians are quite familiar with the former PM, I will give a brief explanation for overseas readers.

There is nothing moderate about Tony Abbott. Not now, and not when he was in Parliament. An unrepentant, abrasive conservative Catholic, he said what he thought, wore his heart on his sleeve, and made such an effective opposition leaver that he won the election in 2013. Just as abrasive in government as he was on the cross benches, he eventually wore his own party out, and got replaced with a technocrat who could actually govern after a few years in the top job.

However, he was still in power in July 2014, when the Russian shot down the Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner MH17 as it was flying over the Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. As Malaysia was then a popular stopover point for travel between Australia and Europe, there were 27 Australians on board, and it was the worst overseas attach on Australian civilians since the 2002 terrorist bombings in Indonesia killed 88 Australians.

In the leadup to the G20 meeting, Prime Minister Abbott said in a media interview that he intended to “shirtfront” the Russian President Vladimir Putin over the MH17 murders. This raised more than a few eyebrows, not only because of the lack of diplomatic tact, but also for the use of a 1970’s era term for tacking used in AFL football, a sport mostly played in Southern and Western Australia, and not on the East Coast, where both the meeting and Abbott’s home electorate are located. However, following the suspension of Russia from the G8 earlier in the year, it was considered a potential flashpoint.

Seven years on, it is fair to look at where things now stand. Putin is still President of Russia. Tony Abbott is no longer in politics. After being replaced as Prime Minister in 2015, he retreated to the back bench, and eventually lost re-election to independent Zali Steggall in 2019. However, it’s not just about him.

All over the English-speaking world, conservative political parties have moved away from straight-talking ideological politicians like Mr Abbott and towards those more like the truth-bending, ideologically flexible, power abusing Mr Putin.

This is of course most obvious in the USA, where strongman apologist Donald Trump took over the Republican Party when he became President, and has been guiding it in a pro-Russian, anti-democratic direction ever since. To a lesser extent it is true in the UK, where Boris Johnson, the creative-tongued, ideologically nebulous anti-European populist is now Prime Minister.

Even here in Australia, where the technocratic Prime Minister who replaced Abbott was himself replaced, straight talking and ideological coherence seems to be out of fashion. While the current Prime Minister is also conservative, straight talking, above board conduct, and consistency aren’t really hallmarks of the current administration.

So all-in-all, the shirtfront seems to come up short. Not only is Mr Putin still in power, but he has ensured that Mr Abbott’s brand of politics doesn’t even have a place in the English-speaking world anymore.