Ukraine crash a vexed issue for Abbott

Tony Abbott is no stranger to Ukraine, having travelled there during his Oxford days in the 1980s.


Three decades on, the prime minister has found himself squarely focused on the eastern European nation where up to 39 Australians are among the 298 dead in the MH17 disaster.

His initial response to the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing-777 has been widely praised both in Australia and internationally.

Politically, it is being seen as something of a watershed in terms of the former opposition headkicker growing into the prime ministerial role almost 12 months into the top job.

As tragic and terrible it is for the families and friends of the victims and Ukrainians still facing the daily prospect of death and destruction at the hands of pro-Russian separatists, it may be a domestic political game-changer for the coalition.

The Abbott government faces a dire position in the wake of unpopular budget measures such as the GP co-payment and fuel tax hike.

Having repealed the carbon tax, it still faces huge problems trying to convince the Senate and its 18-member crossbench to pass billions of dollars in budget cuts and deliver on key election promises.

But like John Howard before him, who was in Washington during the September 11 terrorist attack in 2001, Abbott has embraced the role of comforter while at the same time expressing the nation’s sense of anger and despair.

Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rightly championed a UN Security Council resolution to ensure proper access to the crash site and the respectful and professional treatment of bodily remains.

The sight of coffins being loaded into Dutch and Australian aircraft, after days wondering whether the rickety train carrying them would make it out of separatist-held Ukraine, must have been a blessing for the families of victims.

It’s also reassuring to know that Australia’s most skilled forensic experts are now in the Netherlands helping with the identification and seeking answers to the who, how and why of the terrible crime.

What happens next might be just as crucial as the initial government response, both in political and global security terms.

If investigators can’t get reasonable access to the crash site because of ongoing fighting in the region in which the aircraft went down, public attention will turn to how Australia and other countries plan to enforce the UN resolution.

To date, neither NATO nor the United States and its allies, such as Australia, have shown an adequate interest in staving off the strongarm tactics of the Russian-backed separatists.

Abbott himself admitted Australia bodies and belongings may still be lying in the looted fields of eastern Ukraine.

The success or failure of Operation Bring Them Home, as it has been dubbed, will have political consequences.

From another perspective, the plane shooting in the context of the Ukrainian conflict is a demonstration of global issues not being taken as seriously as they should.

It brings into question the coalition’s previously bitter disdain for the bid of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard for an Australian seat on the security council.

Without that seat, Abbott and Bishop would not have had the platform to voice Australia’s views and seek the reassurance and justice the victims deserve.

What’s more, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is being gutted just when Australia needs more feet on the ground in countries such as the Ukraine where our interests have not been focused.

The aid and development budget may yet face further cuts if other budget measures can’t be secured.

Then there is the question of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin should have his G20 summit invitation torn up, given his nation’s culpability in supplying missiles to the separatists.

The G7 sidelined him in June as a sign of anger over the start of the Ukrainian offensive.

Despite Russia supporting the security council resolution, Putin is considered by many Australians to be a bully and a pariah.

Summit host Abbott has declined to engage in the debate yet, but he may need to start thinking about it soon especially if Russian bombs start obliterating the 50 square kilometre crash site.