Abbott’s shirt front stunt affronts on all fronts.

 “I’m going to shirt-front Mr Putin,” “You bet you are, you bet I am.

“I am going to be saying to Mr Putin Australians were murdered.”

Tony Abbott at press conference in North Queensland

The Australian Prime Minister raised eyebrows yesterday when he vowed to ‘shirt-front’ Russian President Vladimir Putin when he attends the G20 conference to be held in Brisbane. Abbott’s promise to deal tough with Putin comes in the context of criticism of his decision not to disinvite Putin in the wake of the downing of MH17 by pro-Russian troops equipped with Russian arms and Putin’s subsequent lack of co-operation in Australia and Holland’s attempts to retrieve bodies from the wreckage of the downed airliner. Abbott’s macho tough-talking was matched by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s public questioning of Putin who was even less diplomatic in suggesting that Putin ought to be too ashamed to attend.

Some of the eyebrows raised belonged to Aussie journalists who later reported that they did not understand the phrase at first and had to look it up. The media consensus is that the phrase is an Australian football term for a type of full-frontal body tackle, a head-on charge aimed at bumping an opponent to the ground although it may be contended that the term has wider currency denoting a ‘please explain’ confrontation amongst other English-speaking peoples. What is certain, however, is that the words would have raised eyebrows in the Kremlin where translators would have wasted only a few nanoseconds in confirming with the Russian President that he had been insulted by his prospective G20 host who was vowing to hold him to account over the downing of MH17.

The Russians did not waste time in getting into the bear-pit with Abbott, responding via the state-owned Pravda, that their leader wash his hands. In an opinion piece Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey writes

I would advise Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to wash his hands carefully and sterilize them after shaking the paw offered to him by Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the forthcoming G20 Summit in Brisbane. It is not about Ebola Virus Disease, it is about the disease called insolence and Australia’s colonial chip on its shoulder.

Thank God no Australian can be Head of State, that privilege belongs to Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, because judging by the arrogance displayed recently by its Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it appears the political class doesn’t have what it takes. … Tony Abbott displays a degree of insolence, arrogance and incompetence which mirrors the intrusiveness, belligerence and chauvinism inherent in other members of the Anglo Saxon alliance in NATO. You know, that global terrorist organization whose budget is a staggering one point two trillion USD a year, each and every year.

When Australia isn’t busy crawling around the legs of its colonial master, England or trying to crawl up the anatomy of London’s master, Washington, participating in their wars to pick up a few crumbs thrown Canberra’s way, its politicians are busy kowtowing to Europe and the USA making stupid and unfounded remarks about Russia.

Was it a stupid and unfounded remark? Unless his minders have gone on holiday it is not impossible that Abbott has been given a licence to offend Putin on behalf of Australia’s more powerful friends, a role Abbott would happily perform and capably morphing into mighty mouse, an eagerly athletic antipodean mouse that stands up on its hind legs and roars. Whilst the role of the political sock-puppet is not unknown in history, it is more likely, however, that Abbott simply improvised. Given his earlier tough talk towards Russia over the downing of MH17 ten weeks ago, it would seem, on the face of it, that Abbott was reassuring Australian voters that he was not weakening Australia’s position by now agreeing to Russia’s participation in the G20 and that he would in fact be demanding answers. Whatever the true motivation, the gaffe was not helpful either to Australia’s diplomatic responsibility in hosting the G20 or in terms of Abbott’s increasingly compromised capacity to successfully discharge his elected responsibility as Prime Minister of Australia.

The macho challenge is unlikely to help Abbott’s proposed dialogue with Putin. Cynics or perhaps realists would say this does not matter because there was never the faintest prospect of any genuine dialogue with Putin let alone any acceptance of responsibility for the downing MH17 or the annexation of Ukraine. In this sense Abbott had nothing to lose by inflaming relations with intemperate language.

Yet Abbott has everything to lose in terms of his perceived capacity to observe diplomatic protocols and in the example he sets on the world stage. Naturally, there are many tempting diversions and distractions in his path to success in international affairs. It may be that his ego has been over-nourished by his close relationship with Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph and his regular on-air massages with Alan Jones on 2GB, both of whom have invested some time in promoting the Australian leader as a blunt-spoken antipodean hero who in his rough-hewn Australian way can cut through red tape dispense with indirection and other formalities and call a spade a spade. If this is the case, Abbott’s minders need to wean him off such boosters before he has done too much damage to his own and Australia’s cause. As it stands, Russia has been quick to quash any prospect of a bilateral meeting with Australia in Brisbane. Abbott’s much-vaunted opportunity for dialogue, the rationale for inviting Putin in the first place, has evaporated along with his own credibility.

Abbott’s language is a big step down at a time when what is needed is just the opposite. His shirt front challenge evokes the primitive physicality of the Australian true-blue bloke, squaring off against his adversary and settling a difference of opinion with his fists. Apart from the ludicrous image it conjures of a mismatch between the keen amateur and the hardened professional slugger, Abbott’s promise to square off against Putin is an empty gesture. It is a faint reassurance to the nation. His comical but wrong-headed vow to put pressure on the Russian President, to confront him as the only way of holding him to account is a patently silly and potentially risky gambit against a ruthlessly powerful adversary with nothing to lose in continuing on his chosen path of denial and disavowal when all the evidence points to an increasingly compelling case for indictment. In terms of his electoral appeal, it may be that Abbott’s instincts sense a primitive point of resonance with the average voter over his Paul Hogan type heroics but wiser heads would question whether he really needs another caricature at this moment in his career. Nor does it help the cause of international relations when any leader descends to this type of behaviour. The shirt front stunt is an affront on all fronts.