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Abbott is now the cautious one as US and EU step up pressure on Russia

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is showing caution on Russia. AAP/Paul Miller

As the United States and the Europeans impose fresh sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the Abbott government is notably out of step.

The Prime Minister is not ruling out further measures later – Australia already has some financial sanctions and travel bans on named individuals and entities – but says that for now Australia’s attention is focused on getting access to the MH17 site to search for remains. There is no plan for more Australian sanctions.

This is understandable. But, given all that was said about Tony Abbott “leading the world” after the plane’s downing, it sits rather oddly with his initial stance that was especially tough on Russia.

On Monday of last week, after a round of calls to leaders, Abbott said: “The mood of the leaders that I spoke to is firmer and sterner now than it was in the 24 hours immediately subsequent to the downing … as it should be as more and more facts emerge about this terrible, terrible event.”

That he was censorious of their initial caution was clear. Some of the Abbott cheer squad in the media strongly praised him for getting out in front and attacked other leaders for taking a more timid approach saying some were driven by dependence on Russian resources for their energy supplies.

But now the boot is on the other foot.

Barack Obama has announced that, building on previous measures, the United States “is imposing new sanctions in key sectors of the Russian economy: energy, arms and finance”.

America is blocking the export of specific goods and technologies to the Russian energy sector; expanding its sanctions to more Russian banks and defence companies; and formally suspending credit that encourages exports to Russia and financing for economic development projects there.

The EU is acting against Russian banks; imposing an embargo on the import and export of arms and related material from and to the Russian military; and imposing restrictions on certain energy exports to make Russia’s development of oil resources more difficult.

Asked about Australia’s attitude, Abbott noted Australia already had some sanctions on Russia.

“I’m not saying that we might not at some point in the future move further, but at the moment, our focus is not on sanctions, our focus is on bringing home our dead as quickly as we humanly can.

“So, I know that various things are happening in Europe and elsewhere – that is a matter for the Europeans and others. We are just focused on getting onto the site as quickly as we can. We want to get in, we want to get cracking and we want to get out.”

The Netherlands, the country that lost the most people in the plane’s downing, is leading the mission to get to the site and so (like Australia) involved in delicate negotiations with the various parties.

But as part of the EU the Dutch are signed up to the sanctions.

Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans said they would send a strong signal to Moscow that “you are on the wrong path”.

The EU and the US have shifted from the specific incident to intensifying efforts to deal with the wider situation in Ukraine, as Abbott has narrowed his attention to retrieving the rest of the remains.

He is taking the course that he believes will have the best chance of achieving the objective (although on Wednesday the government was advised by the police that the mission could still not get to the site).

But Abbott has opened himself to the charge that his actions are not consistent with his early tough words.

He has left himself the out of doing more later. To be logical, however, that surely would require a new trigger – such as a finding of Russian culpability out of the investigation into the crash. But by then, Abbott would seem to be playing catch up.

Expectations are easy to raise and hard to manage

Tony Abbott has called for the ceasefire commitment to be honoured. AAP/Alan Porritt

Polls out this week are showing Tony Abbott has got a lot of credit for his strong early response to the MH17 disaster. But he now faces the challenge of managing the expectations of what can be done, when the ability of Australia and other countries to achieve the desired outcome is limited and in the hands of players with other priorities.

For the third day the Dutch and Australian investigators have been prevented from getting to the wreckage.

In a statement on Tuesday night the Australian Federal Police said: “The team decided not to attempt to travel to the site as fighting had intensified in recent days and had led to the mission being aborted on both previous attempts.”

Earlier Abbott, noting that all parties had committed to a ceasefire and “humanitarian corridors” for the police mission, said: “It is high time that those commitments were honoured and I’ll be making phone calls later today to try to see what we can do to make that happen.”

The impasse was frustrating, he said, “because there are remains out there … we owe it to their loved ones to get them back and that’s what we are determined to do”.

Abbott has called the return of the Australian victims “Operation Bring Them Home”. But AFP deputy commissioner Andrew Colvin this week had to concede it was possible that not all remains will be recovered.

Obviously, the longer it takes to get access, the more difficult it will be to retrieve the remains (and no one can know at this stage the nationalities involved).

Initially, it was the separatists and their Russian backers who were the problem. Targeted by the international community, they found themselves in a relatively weak position, something the Ukrainian forces have now exploited on the battlefield.

For the participants, the fighting agenda has become more important than the aftermath of the plane disaster.

Hopefully a breakthrough will be quickly achieved. The Australian government has had Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the ground in Ukraine (together with her Dutch counterpart) trying to exert diplomatic pressure. But if progress is not made very soon, Abbott will have come up against the limits of what Australia, or any other country, can do in this fraught situation.

He has already wound back his rhetoric about bringing the perpetrators to justice (for the moment anyway, as more immediate objectives are pursued). He may eventually be forced to adjust it in relation to the promises to families.

In the period ahead Abbott will also have to manage the very strong public feeling that MH17 has generated about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his presence at the G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane in November.

Tuesday’s Essential poll, which asked whether Putin should be allowed to attend “based on Russia’s response to the shooting down” of MH17, found 49% believed he should not, while 29% said he should.

From the start, Abbott has been careful not to overreact to calls for Putin to be excluded, essentially taking a wait and see approach.

Abbott has spoken to Putin several times and reported that the Russian leader has expressed the right sentiments. Given this, and the more complicated situation in the wake of Ukraine stepping up its fighting, Abbott is sending out the message he wants everyone at the G20.

He said on Tuesday that “my hope is that the G20 can gather in the normal way and look at how we can collectively and collegially improve the economy of the world, improve the way the world’s economies interact so that everyone can be better off. And plainly, the more significant economic players are there, the more likely it is that we will get a good result.”

Assuming nothing happens to change his view, Abbott needs if possible to try to ensure community opinion comes to match what would be in the best interests of the G20.

It’s notable that in the polls people are distinguishing between their praise for Abbott over MH17 and the level of support for the government, which remains poor. Voters can and do separate issues. Even while applauding the Prime Minister’s handling of the disaster they remain angry about the budget.

One central reason the Coalition’s vote is in trouble is that its actions in government belie the expectations it created in opposition. It did what it said it wouldn’t do; it failed to keep promises.

Expectations are among the most potent and difficult forces in politics. Raising them can be very effective. They are part of the politics of hope.

But if they can’t be met, the disappointment can be sharp. If they are betrayed, the retribution can be brutal.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, US Ambassador John Berry.

When an economist politician plays with numbers, you can get some surprising results

Andrew Leigh with his earlier book Battlers and Billionaires. AAP/Alan Porritt

As books by or about present and former politicians rain down, Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh, a one-time academic, has produced something for the superior trivia night.

The shadow assistant treasurer is the ultimate magpie in his discipline of economics. There is nothing he can’t explain by the dismal science, whatever might be said about damned lies and statistics. The Economics of Just About Everything might be a diversion as politics tragics chew over former Labor minister Greg Combet’s The Fights of My Life, Madonna King’s Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, and Mark Latham’s The Political Bubble, all out within a week.

Leigh had a special interest in the effect of the Howard gun buyback scheme, because of personal connections with two of Australia’s worst gun massacres. Hoddle Street killer Julian Knight is Leigh’s adopted second cousin (he’s never met him); one of the Port Arthur victims mentored Leigh at a law firm where he worked as a summer clerk.

The buyback had one “rock solid” result. Australia averaged more than one mass shooting a year (involving five or more people being killed) in the decade before the buyback – between 1987 and 1996, 94 victims were killed in mass shootings. In the decade after the legislation there wasn’t a mass shooting.

Leigh puts the chance of this being just luck at less than one in 100.

But actually the buyback reduced gun deaths mainly through fewer domestic shootings and suicides. Leigh and another researcher looked at whether places with more buybacks had a larger drop in gun homicide and suicide. The answer was yes.

With firearm suicide, the greatest reduction in weapons was in Tasmania, which had the biggest drop in these deaths. The smallest reduction in firearms per person was in Canberra, which saw the smallest drop in the firearms suicide rate. “Overall, we estimated that the Australian gun buyback saved at least 200 lives per year – mostly suicides.”

Leigh noted that one’s chances of being a victim of homicide in the late 2000s was about half what it had been in the late 1980s.

He has posited a couple of unexpected causes – legalised abortion and unleaded petrol – with Australia following US trends.

Although changes in the circumstances in which abortions could be legally performed (following court decisions) did not occur everywhere at the time, for more than two-thirds of the Australian population the change happened in the late ‘60s or early '70s – about 20 years before the crime rates dropped. There was “some evidence that the drop in homicide occurred first in the states that legalised abortion the earliest”.

The effect of legalising abortion, he says, has only a minor effect on the number of children born. “The main effect is not that families have fewer children, but rather that all of these children are born when the parents feel ready to raise them” – making them less likely later to fall into crime.

Children exposed to lead are more likely have behavioural difficulties and, when they become adults, to commit crimes, according to research. In the United States, lead was phased out of petrol between 1975 and 1985. Two decades later, it was found the sharpest drop in violent crime occurred in the states that were the first to reduce lead levels.

In Australia the phase-out didn’t start until 1986, but happened at the same time nationwide. “If we assume that the impact on crime was similar in both countries, it suggests that unleaded petrol might have been responsible for reductions in crime as late as the mid-2000s.”

Turning to the field of sport, Leigh declares that perhaps the biggest piece of luck you can have is to be born in the right month of the year. To make the case, he has looked at the birthdays of the general population in the 1980s and those of samples of top cricket, rugby league and soccer players, along with the age cut-off that applied to most of them when they were children.

There is little difference in the general population between the proportion born in the least and most common months for births (February and March respectively).

But for cricket, NRL and soccer, there are spikes just after the cut-off date. “This shows an excess of players who would have been among the oldest in their teams when playing age-graded sports.

“In cricket, the most common birth month is November (the third month after the cut-off), while in league and soccer the most common birth month for elite players is the month directly after the cut-off. A boy born in January is nearly twice as likely to play first-grade rugby league as a boy born in December. A boy or girl born in August is more than twice as likely to play soccer for Australia than a child born in July.”

Also, when the youth soccer cut-off point was changed (until the late 1980s it was January 1), the birth dates began to change. “If you look at the distribution of top soccer players' birthdays in that era, the most common season of birth is the first few months of the year. But when the cut-off date was shifted, the birthdates of top soccer players began shifting too. It’s a fair bet that if we hadn’t changed the cut-off age for youth soccer, the Matildas and the Socceroos would contain more members with January birthdays and fewer members with August birthdays.”

Strangest of all are the death statistics on either side of July 1, 1979, the day federal inheritance taxes were abolished.

Leigh (building in the odd assumption) estimates that about half of those who would have paid inheritance taxes if they’d died in June “managed to shift their date of death to July”.

“How do people shift their date of death? One possibility is that families were considering whether to turn off life support. Another is that through force of will, people were able to hang on for another week. It’s also possible descendants misreported the date of death to the authorities … we can’t be sure precisely how so many people managed to avoid inheritance taxes in the final week: we just know that they did it.”

At the end, this flouts the observation about death and taxes being the two givens in life.