The Prime Minister’s bold and immediate response to the MH17 disaster resonated strongly with the grieving Dutch population, who were furious with the more muted political response from their own Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. Mr Abbott, who was to leave tonight for Europe, will have talks with Mr Rutte.
He will also meet disaster victim identification experts and some of the 500-strong team involved in Operation Bring Them Home. Mr Abbott put Moscow on notice today Australia would not accept that any Russian troop movement across the border could have a humanitarian purpose.
“Everything’s on the table,” he said when asked about the prospect of extending sanctions to include uranium. “Our message to President (Vladimir) Putin is, `hold your forces back’,” Mr Abbott said. “Any move by Russian forces across the border would be an invasion, pure and simple. “The business of Ukraine should be left to Ukrainians to sort out.”
The comments came three days after Russia slapped an embargo on agricultural imports from Australia, the EU, the US, Canada and others. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the government was working with affected Australian agricultural producers to try to get access to other markets. But he said the $400 million of trade hit by Russia’s sanctions represented only about 0.4 per cent of exports.
“It is not a significant amount of trade,” he said. Mr Abbott said today he would formally thank Mr Rutte for his country’s leadership in the wake of the plane tragedy, in which 298 people died.
But he has also warned the bereaved in Australia to brace for a long wait. It took months for the final Australian victim of the Bali bombings to be identified and brought home, he said. The identification process would take place as quickly as possible, but it would regretfully and of necessity be a very slow process, Mr Abbott said in Sydney today, AAP reported.
“The bodies are inevitably very badly damaged by an explosion at 33,000 feet, the subsequent deceleration, decompression and fall … I hate to talk in such terms but that’s what we’re talking about,” he said.
The government has already offered to fly victims’ next of kin to the Netherlands to accompany the bodies back to Australia.
“It’s very important that we accord to these people, so cruelly cut down, dignity and respect in death that they certainly weren’t accorded by the Russian-backed rebels who shot their plane out of the sky,” Mr Abbott said.
The Prime Minister will later go to London for talks with the British government and officials about counterterrorism operations and the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Mr Abbott will have dinner with Mr Rutte at The Hague and also be briefed by Dutch forensic scientists on the difficult and painstaking identification process to help locate the remains of the 38 Australians on board the July 17 disaster.
He will sign an official book of condolence.
The downing of MH17 has brought together Australian and Dutch police, military and forensic elements, as well as air crash investigators. Australia has also provided significant military support with two C-17A Globemaster aircraft which has helped transport cargo and personnel and repatriate bodies from Kharkiv in Ukraine.
Mr Rutte’s office announced the visit. The two prime ministers, who have met once previously at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, will discuss the two stages of the air crash — the disrupted search for any remaining body parts and the ongoing investigation into the crash cause, believed to be a surface-to-air Buk missile. Mr Abbott will also thank Mr Rutte for his country’s leadership in both stages.
He is then expected to meet the Australian Federal Police and defence officers who have been at the crash site and who have returned to The Netherlands. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the government should be wholeheartedly focused on repatriating Australian bodies and ensuring the safety of investigators.
“If Tony Abbott believes that travelling to the Netherlands will help that, then of course he should and we support him being there,” he said.