Wednesday, 23 July 2014

In a national disaster, who speaks for us?

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The attack on flight MH17 and the Australian Government’s response to it is one of those moments that brings us up against some very particular difficulties with the whole notion of democratic politics and our role as citizens. It is an event that transcends the sometimes petty divisions of our national politics and is one of those moments that we tend to see through the wide eyes of our shared humanity rather than the blinkered eyes of our divided political loyalties. But is that actually possible?

No-one should give a shit about the politics of those who died in the criminal attack on flight MH17, and our response to the loss should not be coloured by partisanship either.

And yet, the whole infrastructure of national mourning is mediated through political structures - first and foremost, the office of the Prime Minister - and this presents difficulties.

I don’t think we look to the prime minister for comfort at times like this, so much as we desire that whoever is power at the time of such an attack uses the power of the office in the pursuit of justice (beyond merely good foreign policy).

Of course, some comfort comes from that pursuit, but only to the extent to which the holder of the office can speak outside his or her usual political role.

In the immediate aftermath of such an event, we expect a prime minister to address parliament, to invite the leader of the opposition to do so too, to include the opposition in security briefings and intelligence sharing, to organise and perhaps speak at some sort of memorial service, to be available to those most directly affected by the tragedy, and, in the case of flight M17, to demand answers from those responsible.

Much of this is not inherently political, and some of it is specifically designed to rise above politics-as-usual (sharing roles and information with the opposition, for example). Some of it, though, is political, as is the office of prime minister itself, which means even relatively neutral actions have the potential to be coloured by political interpretations.

What’s more, the big temptation for any given prime minister is to co-opt such moments for political purposes. Indeed, it is the transcendent nature of such events - that they exist above and beyond mere partisanship - that makes them so tempting to exploit.

The desire to move from hated politician to national statesman is almost overwhelming in such moments, and this is the transition Tony Abbott is currently trying to negotiate.

Abbott himself is aware of the sensitivities, and by implication, is aware of his own unwelcomeness, or at the very least, the unwelcomeness of what he represents as a political figure. He has said:

“My intention is to call all of the families of victims who would like a call from their Prime Minister. Some may want calls, some may not. I do not want to intrude on anyone’s grief, but I want them to know their Prime Minister is available to them in a time like this.”

There is something almost sad about him feeling the need to say that, underlined as it is by his invocation of himself as “their” prime minister. He is acknowledging that at least some of the bereaved families might not consider him to be “their” prime minister, and look, kudos to him for recognising that.

Under our system, some of the weight of such moments is meant to be borne by the Governor General, precisely because that person is our head of state and apolitical, as opposed to the person of the prime minister, who is our head of government and deeply political.

But from what I can see, the Governor General has had almost no ongoing role in all of this. Yes, he was present and spoke at the memorial service, but I don’t get the sense that he is assuming any supra symbolic role as a national figurehead as events develop.

This speaks, I think, to the irrelevance of the office of Governor General to most Australians, something that I don’t think would necessarily be cured if we simply turned the GG into a President. (Though it might also have something to do with the fact that the incumbent, Peter Cosgrove, has already had his wings clipped over another humanitarian incident where the government thought he was stealing their thunder.)

Anyway, in moments such as these the state and the nation demand the existence of a non-political leader. In fact, the prime minister needs such a person to inure him against claims of self-aggrandisement and political opportunism.

So if the office of prime minister is too political, and the Governor General too irrelevant, what do we do? In a national disaster, who speaks for us?

Tony Abbott’s inclination seems to be - when he wants to indicate that he is rising above politics and is trying to take a more neutral role - to reach out to the military.

Abbott apparently has great faith in the idea that most Australians will accept the authority and integrity of military (or former military) personnel as the go-to guys when he needs gravitas and apolitical cover.

Indeed it is telling that the person he chose as Governor General is a former military General, Peter Cosgrove. (Cosgrove not only had the military background, but the imprimatur of former PM, John Howard.)

And there was no surprise to see Abbott deploy another former military person, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, in the wake of the attack on flight MH17.

FORMER Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has been sent to Ukraine as Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “personal envoy” at the head of a 45-man team to ensure “justice is done”.

The former defence force official, who also led Australia’s failed search for the wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines MH370, is already in Kiev, the Prime Minister said today.

The prime minister also said:

"Marshal Houston will ensure the Australian effort is handled with authority and coordination."

In other words, the prime minister not only chose him for his expertise, but sought to frame him as some sort of authoritative national representative at the scene.

The trouble is such a use of the military (even if they are retired) tends to have the reverse effect: it doesn’t lend neutrality to government actions so much as it tarnishes the independence of the military and makes them seem to be the tool of partisan politics.

This has been most notable with the case of Lieutenant General Angus Campbell who has fallen victim to this and has damaged his reputation and that of the military more generally as a non-partisan symbol within Australian society. His involvement in Scott Morrison’s set-piece, non-interview, “border security”, unpress conferences, where he has been wheeled out as a human shield for the minister, is simply a bad look. (Especially when he has subsequently been appointed as Chief of the Army.)

The question becomes, when the office of prime minister is occupied, as it is now, by a person who is not only overtly and unapologetically political, but also deeply unpopular, is it possible for him to “rise above” his partisanship and speak for the country as a whole?

Is it possible for those who dislike him politically to accept him as a uniting national figure in a time of national emergency?

Well, no.

I think Tony Abbott is trying hard, in this instance, to overcome his instincts as a political operative. His response to the attack on MH17 has been reasonable and he has tried to fulfil the sometimes conflicting duties the office and the role of prime minister bestow upon him. He is a naturally awkward person and a poor orator, so some of his word choices have been bad, but I haven’t sensed any malice.

What’s more, he has been absolutely right to call out Vladimir Putin for his and Russia’s role in this crime, and to demand not only answers about what happened, but dignity and respect for the victims at the site of the downed plane.

Abbott’s good work in this regard was even acknowledged by former chief-of-staff to Julia Gillard, John McTernan:

Have to say @TonyAbbottMHR stood out in his angry and moral denunciation of Putin's evasions. What a leader should do.

But Tony Abbott is a politician, a particularly ferocious one at that, and it is that very ferocity and single-mindedness that wins him plaudits from those on his side of the aisle. But he pays a big price for this. Perhaps we all do.

Having established himself as just that sort of political animal, it is impossible for his opponents not to suspect his motives and to set the bar very high when it comes to giving him the benefit of the doubt. It is also impossible for him to wriggle out of that skin and leave it behind.

As Dr Tad said on Twitter the other day:

Jeebus. Abbott is really trying to make #MH17 into what 9/11 was to Howard. Not going so well in my estimation.

Mine either, and the reason is pretty obvious.

Tony Abbott has simply put too many people offside, broken his trust with the electorate on too many matters, ridden roughshod over the concerns of too many people who don’t happen to hold to his particular narrow view of good governance, and he takes too much pleasure in the political woes of his opponents for him to suddenly be embraced in the non-partisan way a situation like the attack on flight MH17 usually demands.

Fans of Tony Abbott may well point out that I could just as well be describing Paul Keating with that paragraph and maybe that’s fair enough. But I think this government’s, and this prime minister’s partisanship, actually goes much deeper.

The Abbott Government, more than most, has made a sport - largely for their own amusement - of many of the opportunities for the sort of appointments and funding decisions that have traditionally provided a chance for governments to reach out beyond their immediate base.

Everything from positions on the appointments panel of the ABC, to ambassadorial roles, to the commission of audit, to the creation of the role of a so-called Freedom Commissioner at the expense of a Commissioner for Disability Discrimination seem to have been taken less for reasons of good governance than as a way of rewarding friends and supporters, of ensuring the government only hear opinions that accord with their own, or simply to get up the nose of their political opponents.

The same attitude is apparent in the installation of Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House and the partisan way in which she has chosen, with Tony Abbott’s support and blessing, to interpret her role in that traditionally independent office, and in how she runs Question Time.

It has extended to defunding or severely reducing the funding for everything from the CSIRO, to the ABC, to the Refugee Council.

And it is apparent in the fact that one of their first actions as an incoming government was to establish a one-sided royal commission into their political enemies in the trade union movement and another into the workings of Kevin Rudd’s home insulation scheme.

It even went so far as to have Mr Abbott break with years of convention and provide cabinet-in-confidence documents to the pink batt royal commission.

This is a government and a prime minister that has taken petty partisanship to new heights (depths, I guess) and taken a winner-takes-all approach to government. This is a political party that has, at almost every point, been willing to abandon the niceties of political decorum, dating right back to their time in Opposition.

Tony Abbott, at least initially, did a good job responding to the international tragedy of flight MH17. But so what? How much praise should he get for mere competence? Or for not overtly exploiting the moment for political gain? Surely we should expect nothing less?

Well, not according to key sections of the media. Once again, they seem to think that it is their job to bear him aloft so that we-the-people may more properly gaze admiringly upon him. It is more than passing strange to watch them, as the story unfolds, positively will Mr Abbott’s modest achievement into some sort of heroic turning point., for instance, wondered breathlessly if this was Mr Abbott’s “seminal moment”. They ran the headline, “Tony Abbott’s handling of Malaysia Airlines MH17 incident sees a spike in his approval rating” over a story that showed no such thing.

The AFR offered this spin:

Tony Abbott’s handling of the MH17 atrocity is being universally admired. It has failed to have any instant impact on the government’s lowly poll ratings in the latest Australian Financial Review/Nielsen poll. However, his approval and disapproval ratings improved slightly.

In The Age, Michael Gordon dissolved Viagra in the Kool Aid and engorged the flaccid:

Having been firmer and sterner than all other leaders in his initial response to the MH17 catastrophe, Tony Abbott is now cautioning against ''facile optimism'' in the difficult days ahead.

The man whose blunt language articulated the world's initial shock, anger and outrage and set the tone for subsequent responses, now appears to be opting for a more measured and nuanced approach.

And Annabel Crabb, writing in The Drum, joined the cheer squad:

One year ago, one would not necessarily have expected a toe-to-toe between Vladimir Putin and Tony Abbott. One would not have anticipated these beyond-dreadful circumstances. And one would not, perhaps, have expected Australia's 28th prime minister either to have attempted so much, or to have got it so right.

Seriously? Are we so desperate to have a national leader that we can admire, one in whose presence we do not cringe in shame, that we will alight on the slightest act of competence and blow it up into a “seminal moment” of world admiration?

Maybe that’s what this whole event tells us, that there really is a great, big, fat leadership hole in the middle of our national politics and that we - and most especially, the media - are desperate to see it filled.

As I said, I’m more than happy to give Tony Abbott his due on this, but it will take more than a passing act of adequacy to convince me that he has changed in any sort of fundamental way.

If he wants to be taken seriously on those occasions that demand the prime minister be a figure of national unity, then he has to begin by being less divisive on the all those occasions that don’t.

Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop writes regularly for The Kings Tribune, The Drum and other publications. His new book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, was released on August 26.

Follow him on Twitter @timdunlop