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The emperor with clothes

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 28 July 2014


The general consensus appears to be that Tony Abbott has handled the MH17 crisis with pluck and maturity. On this issue he has shown greater leadership skills than Barack Obama and other leaders whose nationals were affected by the criminal tragedy.

Julie Bishop has also performed well above earlier indicators.

The single minded decisiveness displayed by Abbott suits all the elements at play in this crisis for the west in its future dealings with Russia.

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There is nothing manufactured for electoral advantage in Abbott's response to MH17 and attendant issues as there has been with the so called financial crisis and asylum seeker crisis. The Australian electorate has seen through both and until a week ago Abbott's ratings in the polls reflected that.

Abbott has been perceived by the Australian public as genuine in his anger and grief. He has shown admirable humanitarian concern for the victims and their families, he has demonstrated empathy and compassion and has instinctively tapped the outrage, horror and disgust of the Australian people.

Could the handling of this crisis become Abbott's conversion on the road to Damascus. It seems to be the way of conservative leaders. Malcolm Fraser became seized of the evils of Apartheid when African and Caribbean delegates threatened to walk out of the 1981 CHOGM in Melbourne which he was hosting.

The issue was support for Commonwealth sporting sanctions against South Africa which were opposed by Maggie Thatcher and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, 'Piggy' Muldoon. Fraser and his diplomats had to work hard to prevent a walk out and to get the two recalcitrant Prime Ministers to not vote against the proposal. In the ensuing frenzied negotiations Fraser learnt a lot about Apartheid and more importantly became a strong public opponent.

The 1996 massacre at Port Arthur had a significant initial impact on John Howard and left a lasting impression, but not sufficient to translate into compassionate policies toward asylum seekers and Aboriginals. His asylum seeker moment came with eventual acceptance of the evidence of harm to women and children held in detention.

The conservative mind takes a while, sometimes a long time, to accept change and in turn to change.

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It would be a shame if Abbott does not translate his compassion for the families of Australian victims of MH17 into equivalent compassion for Australian families of asylum seekers. It would be heartening to believe that he could see the motivation for their children and relatives to leave their countries of birth because of equivalent military bastardry displayed by Soviet advisers, rebels and militia in the Ukraine.

Abbott's budget targeted the dispossessed and weak. A logical extension of the asylum seeker policies pursued over the past two decades. It was a cruel budget designed to show how irresponsible and profligate the Labor Party had been in office; it was a partisan and political budget and the Australian people know it

Having opened a dialogue with the Australian people over MH17, Abbott might extend it to other issues of social and national importance rather than relying on the results of polls with all of their flaws and biases. He might be surprised at what he finds. The Labor Party might try opening a national dialogue, they too might be surprised at the response.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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