John Menadue. Overplaying one’s hand.

Jul 31, 2014

With the benefits that governments get with incumbency, presidents and prime ministers need to be careful not to overstate their case or overplay their hands. The temptation is great, particularly when there are national outpourings of grief and when a global stage awaits.

Tony Abbott was certainly on the world stage over MH370. On 21 March in PNG he announced that “satellite footage showed what could be debris from the missing airline’s flight MH370”. Then he added, ‘now it could just be a container that fell off a ship … we just don’t know … we owe it to [families and friends] to give them information as soon as it is to hand’.

His speculation about the wreckage was not correct.

On April 11 in Shanghai, Tony Abbott said ‘We are confident that we know the position of the black box flight recorders to within some kilometres … we are very confident the signals we are detecting are from the black boxes on MH370.’ On the same day, after Tony Abbott’s press conference, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who was in charge of the search said ‘On the information that I have available to me, there has been no major breakthrough in the search for MH370’. The media reported in the SMH of that day ‘[Angus Houston] gave no indication that the black boxes were any closer to being found’.

Tony Abbott was too early and overstated in his comments.

On MH17, Tony Abbott and July Bishop have been playing on a much bigger stage in the United Nations. (Interestingly their platform was the Security Council seat that they inherited from the previous government despite the fact that the Coalition criticised the waste of money and that time should not be wasted in talking to Africans.)

The unanimous decision of the Security Council drew world attention to the shooting down of MH17 with 37Australians and Australian residents on board. We had a direct and legitimate interest. But that Security Council Resolution 2168 on MH17 had no enforcement mechanism for the recovery of the bodies and the necessary investigations. The lack of any enforcement mechanism is now the reason why our AFP and others, particularly the Dutch and Malaysians, have been unable to access the crash site for days. And it seems that the reason for that denial of access is not because of Russian supported separatists, but because the Ukrainian government has seized the opportunity to escalate its military actions against the separatists. This action by the Ukrainian government seems to be a clear defiance of the Security Council Resolution.

There are clear lessons to be learnt from the disasters of MH370 and MH17. The lessons are don’t overplay your hand or overstate your case for domestic political reasons.

Tabloid headlines from the Murdoch media are not a good guide as to how we should conduct our foreign policy.

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