Leading article Australia

Ukrainian quagmire

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

‘We will not be deterred in our efforts to get on to that site and retrieve the bodies of Australians who were killed,’ proclaimed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop from the Ukrainian capital Kiev recently. Along with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, her single-minded focus on a worthy goal has been viewed around the world with admiration bordering, in some cases, on envy. Would that the leaders of the European Union, or indeed the United States, spoke with such forthright clarity and determination.

It is not only abroad that this dynamic duo’s efforts have been noted with approval. In a predictable, but nonetheless slightly paler imitation of the soaring poll figures that greeted John Howard’s equally forthright responses to several tragic events on our own shores and abroad, the Australian public has for the first time since September’s election victory shown its appreciation for the leadership skills of Mr Abbott. All true.

Yet a word of caution. The most talented Hollywood scriptwriter would struggle to come up with a more diabolical or treacherous scenario in which to conduct such a dangerous rescue or retrieval operation so far from home. To paraphrase the Prime Minister earlier in his term, the Australian Federal Police now find themselves in the middle of a conflict of ‘baddies versus baddies versus often-not-much-better-than-baddies’. Thuggish ‘rebels’, or ‘terrorists’ as the Ukrainian government labels them, armed with technology they are ill-prepared to handle by an unscrupulous Kremlin, are in deadly conflict with Ukrainian forces that are themselves no angels. Indeed, these government forces are viewed as fascists by many locals in the Donetsk region, particularly those with long memories.

Although every care is being taken to protect our police — much of the initial planning revolved around whether or not to arm them — the risk of something going awry in this quagmire is uncomfortably high. With the new cold war of sanctions, Tony Abbott calling the figurative shots against Vladimir Putin, and a possible ‘uninvitation’ to the G20 later in the year, the last thing Australia needs is to be dragged further into this conflict either by accident or by design. What complicates matters is that, as leading US foreign policy realists have argued, the West is hardly blameless in provoking the Russian bear. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone takes it upon themselves to harm Australian interests, or, heaven forbid, Australians.

The mission to return the remains of the 37 Australians murdered over the Ukraine is admirable and civilised. So too is the desire to investigate fully the shooting, and bring to justice the perpetrators.

But the harsh reality is that those Australian lives are lost. Putting other Australian lives at risk in order to honour them is a very risky exercise, both physically and morally.

Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop are to be praised for their determination. But, alas, the time to bail out may well be long before the mission is completed.

History rewritten

John Howard and Peter Costello hold a unique position in Australian literary circles; people actually read their books. Yet where both conservative leaders became best-sellers, an avalanche of Labor books floundered in the remainders bins. Lindsay Tanner’s Open Australia sold around 400 copies; Wayne Swan’s Postcode sold just over 1,000; Bob Carr’s Thoughtlines sold half that; and Craig Emerson’s Vital Signs, Vibrant Society not much more. Admittedly, Mr Carr did better with his Speccie-like Diary of a Foreign Minister, but a serious political tome it was not.

Now the deluge continues, with the current flood of books presumably designed to merrily rewrite Labor’s recent woeful history. Taking Carr’s fondness for political satire to even greater heights, former climate change minister Greg Combet bases the pitch for his book around the conceit of being offered the job of PM by Julia Gillard. Meanwhile, the World’s Greatest Treasurer puts the finishing touches to his own no doubt class-warfare driven The Good Fight, whilst Ms Gillard threatens to reveal all about her terrible suffering at the hands of evil Aussie misogynists in My Story.

Yet could there be light on the literary hill? Former Spectator columnists Mark Latham and Chris Bowen both have less partisan affairs coming out. For those less eager to justify and regurgitate the follies of the hapless Rudd-Gillard years, they may be worth a look.

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