Friday, November 14, 2014

Shirt Fronts and Coat Tails

Not being terribly familiar with Australian Rules Football, when I first heard Mr Abbott say that he intended to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin, I had a slightly different image come to mind.

The picture that I saw was of an aggressor taking hold of his target’s “shirtfront”, possibly with both hands, drawing him in close and delivering a stern talking to. It’s a common enough standover tactic, and works to intimidate an individual with the implied threat of violence, without having to actually be violent.

As I soon discovered however, the phrase has long been used in the AFL to describe a physical clash which can be both reckless and dangerous. Given the fallout from Mr Abbott’s utterance, perhaps this is the more accurate definition after all.

Nevertheless, even the most ardent critic of Mr Abbott must surely realise that he was not speaking literally, but metaphorically. In effect, Mr Abbott was saying that he intended to demand Mr Putin’s attention, whether Putin wanted to give it or not, for long enough to express his extreme displeasure with the state of affairs.

It should not have been a surprise to anyone that Mr Abbott would use a sporting metaphor, given his athletic proclivities. In any case, he is far from being alone in employing such figures of speech. Indeed, sporting metaphors are to be found throughout not only politics, but also the corporate world.

There is constant talk of “crash tackling” an opponent, “destroying” a competitor, “blowing out of the water” rival companies, and so on, and so on, and so on. It’s a manner of speaking so commonplace that it usually passes without comment.

But not in Tony Abbott’s case.

Of course, the almost universal condemnation of Mr Abbott’s choice of metaphor portrayed a picture of a man who opens his mouth only to jam both his feet into it. The more extreme critics suggested that he is not fit to be in politics, let alone run the country.

The worst of them carried on as if the metaphor was intended literally, and gave the appearance of salivating over the prospect of the volunteer life saver going 12 rounds with the KGB hard-man.

Then, when Abbott and Putin finally had fifteen minutes together on the sidelines at APEC this week, it was widely reported that the “shirtfront” had failed to materialise.

But it’s time for the armchair critics and the professional commentariat to get a grip. There was never going to be a bout of jelly wrestling for the photographers; the metaphorical shirtfront was always going to be a personally delivered verbal message.

And that’s exactly what took place.

I’m quite certain that Vladamir Putin doesn’t often have the leaders of smaller countries coming up to him to personally demand an apology, request compensation and offer advice on how to run Russia. That’s just not something that would happen everyday... or even, let’s see, ever.

I’m sure that Putin is much more accustomed to people snapping to attention and carrying out his every order as if their lives depend on it. Because, most likely, they do.

But instead of being able to carelessly bat Mr Abbott’s concerns aside, Mr Putin had to listen to an Antipodean upstart lecturing him about not seeking to reinstate the past glories of the Soviet Union, or for that matter the Tsars of the old Russian Empire.

I hope it pissed him off.

I am equally certain that Tony Abbott knows full well that Vladimir Putin is highly unlikely to take his advice, or to give the requested apology. I suspect that Mr Abbott believed that he had an obligation to speak for the dead of MH17, as well as for the living breathing Australians who want to see Putin held to account for his actions.

Obviously, Mr Putin did not pull the trigger himself, and the MH17 disaster was an unintended consequence of his regional politics. But he is clearly in a position to provide much greater assistance to the investigators of this terrible crime. His only problem is that any transparency might reveal too much about his role in propelling the rebellion in the Eastern Ukraine.

So far, it looks like Tony Abbott is the only one prepared to grab Putin by the lapels, metaphorically of course, and give him a few choice words. At least the only one prepared to do it in public.

And then there has been the wild hysteria about the Russian “fleet” steaming “towards Australia.” Television reports in particular were lurid in their assessment of what it all meant, speaking of “elevated tensions.”

So what if a handful of Russian Navy vessels are steaming along our east coast? So long as they stay in international waters there is no problem. They are only there, coinciding with the G20 meeting in Brisbane, in an attempt to remind the world that Russia is a powerful nation. It’s a bit like the village hoon doing blockies in his Monaro, showing off to the locals.

So long as he keeps to the speed limit, nobody will get hurt...

Anybody suggesting that the Russian navy flotilla represents some kind of threat is hyperventilating. And to claim that it is a direct response to the “shirtfront” remark is myopic and moronic.

Sure, Putin and his navy want to remind us that they are tough guys. But the message is not for us alone; it is a message for the whole world. And it is also a message for Putin’s constituents in Russia, where his “strongman” image has made him remarkably popular.

It’s nothing more than the schoolyard bully parading around to remind everybody not to mess with him.

While others might lower their eyes, Tony Abbott has instead gone up to the bully, tugged on his coat tails, and said, “You’re not fooling us.”

There’s a lot about Tony Abbott’s government that I find disappointing, and many of his policies with which I disagree. I even agree that the “shirtfront” comment was ill-considered, and the way it was delivered was awkward and embarrassing.

But I’m glad he told Putin what he thought of him. It was the Australian thing to do.

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