View from The Hill

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.