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All eyes on our MH17 mourners in chief


'MH17 Mourning' by Chris Johnston shows mourners in Australia overshadowed by an aeroplane evoking the shape of a Christian crossOur national mourning following the MH17 airline tragedy is spontaneous and scattered but also requires leadership. Some individuals must inevitably become mourners-in-chief because of the positions they hold.

The way we mourn provides perspectives not just on these individuals but also, more importantly, insights into our cultural understandings and national institutions. The current tragedy provides some opportunity to reflect on ourselves as a nation, though unusually, unlike a natural disaster, this one is such a potent mixture of international politics and grief. It is more like a wartime tragedy than one brought on by a devastating earthquake or fire.

Leading national mourning is primarily a job for our elected or appointed leaders. This means Prime Ministers and Premiers and Governors-General and Governors. At St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney Tony and Margaret Abbott were flanked in the front row by Sir Peter and Lady Cosgrove on their right and Dame Marie Bashir, Governor of New South Wales, on their left. Opposition Leaders, like Bill Shorten, take their place but are largely ignored.  The State Opposition Leaders hardly matter at all. This has clear political implications.

Our style of our mourning also clearly reflects our federal nation. The reporting of the Australian deaths was almost immediately based around categorising the deaths by state. The number of Victorians, Queenslanders, and so on, became highly important. This simple point shows how we see ourselves. The dead were not calculated by gender, ethnicity or city/country but definitely by state. Capital city-based media followed up accordingly.

This regional emphasis meant that state premiers were afforded a high profile on the breaking news and almost treated as the equivalent of our national leaders. Strikingly one of the earliest to make a televised public statement was Campbell Newman, Premier of Queensland, who spoke particularly of the impact of the tragedy on his fellow Queenslanders.  Later Dennis Napthine, Premier of Victoria, followed Newman, though he did play an additional role as the political leader of the state hosting the big international HIV/AIDS conference, handling the associated questions related to that conference.

But as something above party politics national mourning constitutionally should generally be led by Heads of State not Heads of Government, though we are somewhat confused about these roles. Having a monarch represented by a Governor-General complicates relationships. In this instance the Governor-General has played a secondary role to the Prime Minister. This is perhaps explicable, given the mix of international politics and mourning and the need for a snap reaction by our leadership, but still notable. The Prime Minister has been the mourner-in-chief above all others. On later formal occasions related to the MH17 deaths the Governor-General may lead, but he has not yet done so.

The prominent role of the churches has also been striking. Our public mourning has been conducted in various arenas, including work-places, schools, and football fields as well as embassies and legislative assemblies, but religious ceremonies have stood out.

The most obvious example was the initial ceremonial Sunday Mass at St Mary's Cathedral. The decline of religious observance in a secular Australia is clear, but in times of mourning public religious ceremonies seem still to become paramount. Our leaders, whether personally religious or not, dutifully take part as a matter of course in these ceremonies. Those, like Abbott and Cosgrove, who are themselves observant Christians, should find such participation much easier and more comfortable than others who are not. The same is true of the common use of the language of prayer during mourning.

The possible domestic political implications can't be avoided. The awful tragedy comes at a time when the federal government is lagging badly in public opinion. It will be fascinating to see how their performance is judged in the next polls. Traditionally the high-profile afforded the leaders of the day in such circumstances pays dividends for the government because it distracts from its day-to-day problems. Certainly our national attention has been switched dramatically from the fate of the Budget and an unpredictable Senate to more heart-felt concerns.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, MH17, Tony Abbott, grief, politics, St Mary's Cathedral, religion, faith



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Existing comments

asd if they even care.... yet not a single tear for the 800+ murdered in gaza in the last weeks...

meh | 26 July 2014  

I find this exercise to be deeply disturbing. It also seems to be part of an Australian phenomenon that every time that two or more people get killed in any kind of tragic circumstance we are now all called by the media, in Pavlovian fashion to enter into a period of collective mourning, and/or participate in some kind of ritualized public ceremony whether in the form of a church service or an official home-coming ceremony of the coffins. Meanwhile world wide thousands of peoples lives get terminated in dreadful circumstances or via acts of political violence every day - either via direct drastic violence or via the effects of depersonalized institutional forms or structures.

John | 26 July 2014  

Forgive me if I appear to insert a sectarian note here. There is a convention in Australia and probably in other Commonwealth countries that official religious services are held in an Anglican cathedral. So the service yesterday in Melbourne was at St Paul's for example. Using St Mary's just because the PM, GG, Opp Leader, State Leader are all Catholics, seems to be a deliberate break with tradition. Or am I just being mischievous?

Frank | 28 July 2014  

Tony Abbot, himself a consummate opportunist, has learnt from is mentor, John Howard, to grasp opportunities like this - remember Howard and 9/11, Howard and Tampa. John Warhurst;s excellent piece delicately but firmly recognises this aspect of Abbott's 'leadership' in this matter. It is impossible not to be a little cynical about a leader with such a record of crass opportunism. O. Stevens 28 July 2014

Name | 28 July 2014  

Why would you even suggest that this tragedy be associated with public opinion polls. Abbott is a fine man and even if he cured cancer you would find some way to knock him down. Grow up. This tragedy is for all of us and we are ALL showing our feelings as people. We are lucky to have COSGROVE, ABBOTT and BISHOP as our leaders in these difficult times. Knowing one of the deceased your article appals me. Glad to know we have fine Christian (Catholic) leaders who are deeply concerned about this offensive act and who themselves are relying on their God to bring hope to all of us

PHIL | 28 July 2014  

I think that the quick and forthright intervention by Abbott and Bishop has been beneficial and brought them up in my estimation. They seem to have stepped in where others feared to tread. The Dutch have certainly thanked them for their efforts, which had to be more than general 'nice words' of a head of state, as the families of survivors want the bodies of their loved ones back. Russia has a long tradition of non co-operation and obfuscation in these matters.

Skye | 28 July 2014  

Leading public mourning is an appropriate job for the Governor General, but not for politicians, who may have mixed motives in displaying themselves as mourners.

Andrew Lynch | 28 July 2014  

One swallow does not make a summer. Give credit where credit is due, now if he shows compassion on refugees and assylum seekers. The poor. Etc

Irena | 28 July 2014  

It is very worrying when I don't realise I'm mourning until the media tell me that, along with everyone else in the country, Iam.

john frawley | 28 July 2014  

It is disappointing when the cynics find ways to be critical of our leaders when they are doing just as we surely would want of them.

BRIAN | 28 July 2014  

Thank you for a thoughtful and important comment, John. Like others I have been concerned by Abbott's response. The tragedy is a boon for Abbott as was Port Arthur for Howard. But the international dimension gives the opportunity used by leaders like Henry V, Thatcher, Sukarno and others when wanting to make big figures of themselves at home by finding enemies elsewhere. "We have terrible enemies out there, folks, but I will protect you. You are safe with me as long as you do what I say". The irony of Abbott saying we have to keep Putin to his word is laughable. Maybe we can get Putin to keep Abbott to his word. Tragically Australians were on the plane but so were other nations including Malaysia who lost crew and possibly an airline we don't hear much about them. The scramble for catholic ritual ground sounds as if we now have religious turf wars along with culture wars in Oz. Just the DLP all over again?

Michael D. Breen | 28 July 2014  

"Some have greatness thrust upon them". The Federal Government will certainly be applauded for its role in the MH17 disaster, and will certainly try to make the most of accidently happening to be in the right place at the right time. We will probably never be told if their response was at the behest of our "Head of State" or as a puppet of USA, which needed a "Front-man" to forward their agenda. It would be interesting to know what communications were passed on to our Government from each of our 'masters'.

Robert Liddy | 28 July 2014  

Meanwhile, parts of the victims' bodies are still lying in the fields of eastern Ukraiine - in the face of injustices, Australia talks big and does nothing - waiting for a safe period of time until the problem blows over - like we did in "defending" East Timor - waiting till the worst of the massacre is over and then sending the peacekeepers in. Let's admit - insurance policies don't allow us to take risks any more.

AURELIUS | 28 July 2014  

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