Emissions deal: Abbott looks like a shag on a rock
The Australian prime minister knew APEC was not going to be
an easy meeting. Tony Abbott was expecting it to be tense when he
"shirt-fronted" Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he wasn't
expecting it would be the leaders of the United States and China who
would leave him like a shag on a rock on climate change.
This is Abbott's most glaring ideological blind spot.
Just a day after he held one-on-one talks with US President
Barack Obama, emerging with the President to field questions while
looking increasingly at ease in the role, the American showed leadership
on a grander scale again.
US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Beijing. Photo: Reuters
The US and China have agreed to new co-ordinated action
described even in the conservative press as "a historic pact to reduce
carbon pollution levels on the eve of the G20".
The timing was no accident.
Abbott had first attended the White House in June, making it
clear in both word and gesture before the meeting that Australia would
not be joining the gathering global bandwagon wanting tougher
co-ordinated action on climate change. And he went further, directly
repudiating White House and other international requests to have it
listed on the G20 agenda. At Abbott's insistence it listed only as
energy security. Imagine how that will look in a few years?
Tense: Tony Abbott and Vladimir Putin gather for the APEC forum "family" photo in Beijing. Photo: Andrew Meares
His advisers continue to insist it is a non-issue, that there
is no friction between Abbott and Obama on climate, citing as evidence
that there was no mention of it at the first White House meeting. Yet
Obama has made clear at every opportunity that he wants to drive the
agenda forward, together with the other big polluters. He called a
special UN summit which Abbott and his pal, Canada's Stephen Harper,
deliberately brushed – in Abbott's case with surgical precision
– arriving in New York just hours after it was over.
The government dismisses the risk of Australia being seen as a
laggard, but the US-China climate pact has made its position look
Almost as absurd as his strangely emotive declaration that he
would use Putin's attendance at the G20 to "shirt-front" the strongman
over his country's involvement in the shooting down of MH17.
As he lined up for the "family" photo with other world
leaders at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in
Beijing, Abbott was more than a little on edge.
The pressure was on to secure his much-hyped one-on-one
meeting with Russia's notoriously icy president, Vladimir Putin. And
that pressure had come largely from Abbott himself.
Since sparking the firestorm, Abbott had been experiencing
second thoughts. At risk, he reasoned, was the national and personal
political kudos for hosting of the world's premier economic forum. A
prurient focus on his man-clash with Putin threatened to become a
sideshow, obscuring his highest moment of statesmanship.
Hence the decision to bring the meeting forward to APEC, if
possible. The Russians seemed amenable. Perhaps they, too, wanted it
dealt with before the G20 circus hit Brisbane.
A few words between the pair at the photo and subsequent
dinner on Monday evening confirmed they would grant the meeting the
following day. But it was to be a low-key "pull-aside" as they say in
the business, meaning it would not have formal bilateral status.
Abbott's nervous entourage warned no actual time had been set and the
meeting could just as easily fall through if, as is common at such
multilateral talkfests, the main event runs long.
It was not going to be pretty.
But just as Abbott would have been marked down for not
delivering on his promise, he must be given credit for the fact that he
went through with it.
Notwithstanding infantile commentary which had taken his
promise literally, Abbott had, in diplomatic terms, shirt-fronted Putin.
He had told him directly of intelligence showing that the
missile launcher used by Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels to ground MH17,
with the loss of 38 Australians among 298 passengers and crew, was
Russian, had come from Russia and had since returned to Russia. He told
him of a precedent where America had paid restitution to victim-families
of the 290 killed in 1988 when the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down
an Iranian Airbus 300 en route from Tehran to Dubai. And, he told him
that Australia expected Russia to observe absolutely UN Security Council
Resolution 2166 requiring all governments to co-operate fully with the
independent investigation into the atrocity. Russia he said, should fess
up, pay up and apologise.
Does Abbott regret the use of the term shirt-front? No he
does not. Rather, he believes it "dramatised" the situation, forcing
Russian complicity in the mass murder, and subsequent shilly-shallying,
into the open – into the cold light which diplomatic politeness normally
avoids. More importantly, he believes the US-Iranian airliner precedent
he put forward did actually cut some ice with the Russian President.
Time will tell. Maybe a lot of it, in fact, because the bit Abbott
glossed over was the bit where the US took something like eight years
to pay up, and never really apologised.
Abbott's plain-speaking style has continued to pay dividends
in the international sphere. When he said in April that he wanted the
nine-year Australia-China free-trade agreement signed this year, critics
tut-tutted, muttering that he had just surrendered his bargaining
position and that China would now just stonewall, knowing their
Australian interlocutor was working to a deadline. We are yet to see how
much has been conceded but the signs are the FTA, worth billions in new
exports in coming years, will be signed on Monday when President Xi
Jinping addresses the parliament.
It will cap off a major trade push by Abbott, who's stitched
up deals with Japan, Korea, and China all in the same year, and given
new impetus to the neglected trade relationship with India too –
currently just a 10th of the value of the $150 billion China-Australian
two-way trade relationship.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.