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Tony Abbott, Shirtfronting and Vladimir Putin

Feminists must be laughing themselves silly.  The psychologists are warming their sofas.  The diplomats are getting their slop buckets ready.  When the Prime Minister of Australia, the arrested-in-development Tony Abbott, starts throwing physical challenges to the President of Russia, you know that something has gone astray in the school of diplomacy.  Russia’s Vladimir Putin has got Australia’s undergarments in a true twist.

“I’m going to shirtfront Mr. Putin,” huffed Abbott before journalists, referring to Russia’s position on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which saw the deaths of 298 individuals, 38 of whom were Australians.  The term is part of the jargon of Australian Rules Football, which goes to show the limits of its relevance.  A search for its equivalent in a Russian-English dictionary is bound to come up short on the subject.

Sports writer for The Age, Matt Murnane, offers an unmistakable description: “‘Shirtfront’ is an AFL term used to describe a collision between two players, where one player is hit ‘front-on’ by another player coming from the opposite direction.”[1]  Murnane also suggests that the term is now “old-fashioned”, having been replaced by the even less complicated “the bump”.

What will the form of this outmoded “shirtfront” take?  “I’m going to say that Australians were murdered. There’ll be a lot of tough conversations with Russia and I suspect the conversation I have with Mr Putin will be the toughest conversation of all.”[2]

In a sense, such blustery lingo betrays the huge problems of leadership and public relations.  Abbott thinks that surfacing from the foam of the sea in trunks termed “budgie smugglers” is tantamount to a Botticelli revelation tinged with persuasive oratory.  He is proud of his two University blues in boxing.  He cycles, and needs to tell everyone about it.

Putin has other preferences, and they are also larded with the physical.  He is a sixth-degree black belt in judo.  He fishes.  He rides horses, torso exposed.  He thinks that doing such mundane, yet earthy things, is bound to keep him in the electorate’s diaries as a person who matters, father of the nation who combines doing and thinking.  Like Abbott, it is important that everyone knows about it.

The leader who promotes the physical as a cover for various inadequacies is not a new concept.  Such orchestrated spectacles of health and physique show a good deal of borrowing from authoritarian regimes. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy was a classic example, strutting his alpha male complex during exercise routines even as his country sank. Fittingly, he collapsed whilst jogging in 2009.  It is telling that leaders in supposedly democratic states have decided that a fascist physicality wins votes and keeps the voters happy – it matters that you have a six-pack set even if your mind is a sieve.

Australian leaders who have ventured into the world of the physical have ended badly – Prime Minister Harold Holt, one who excelled in the water, disappeared under the surf in December 1967, an incident that prompted a range of fabulously exotic theories.  (Was he the abductee of a Chinese submarine, lying in wait as he waded out?)[3]  John Howard, showing the originality that only comes with imitation, followed US President Bill Clinton in donning the tracksuit and running in Canberra.

This dribbling teenage scuffle is already taking shape – Australian politicians, small as they are, have decided to transform into truculent hair tugging pygmies, suggesting that the Russian President can’t attend the G20 summit, only to then claim that he can attend by “consensus”.  A bad man, they have designated, though they are confused how that badness might be measured.  The cranky spilt milk syndrome is bound to be more destructive than worthwhile, but the diplomats have decided to sit this one out.

Australia’s invertebrate opposition leader, Bill Shorten, showing the lack of imagination that one has come to expect from the government’s mirror in parliament, was convinced that Putin had to be given the rough treatment when coming to Brisbane in November.  According to Shorten, Putin knew “more about what happened with MH17 than he’s let on”, which is tantamount to suggesting that Shorten knows even more than Putin.  What’s there to talk about?

A columnist writing for Pravda, the customarily savage Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, made his charge with the retro-language of traditional East-West confrontation.  Sterilize and wash your hands, he suggests to Putin, after shaking with Abbott at the G20 summit.  “It is not about Ebola Virus Disease, it is about the disease called insolence and Australia’s colonial chip on its shoulder.”[4]  His advice to Putin, relayed by email to the Melbourne’s 3AW Radio Station, was to “grab the bastard”.

Leaving aside the Russophile sentiments of the piece, Bancroft-Hinchey is close enough on various points, and is bound to get a rise with his remarks about Australia’s crawling “around the legs of its colonial master, England or trying to crawl up the anatomy of London’s master, Washington”. International relations language can, in comparison, seem so dull.

Not all was plain sailing in the sea of rough rhetoric.  The Tasmanian senator of the Palmer United Party, Jacqui Lambie, even found herself praising Russia’s hardest of hard men for “trying to find world peace where he possibly can”.  The often unpredictable senator even went so far as to suggest that Abbott was overstepping the mark in pointing the finger of MH17’s downing.  “Vladimir Putin did not pull the trigger. If Putin had had a choice, Putin would have made sure that didn’t happen.”[5]

She had both an observation, and a suggestion.  “The PM is no longer in the school yard.  I would suggest the PM start acting like a PM and extend the olive branch out.”  As Abbott had treated federal politics as the continuation of student politics by other means, a carnival of sorts is bound to ensue.  May it be mercifully free of anatomical suggestion.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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