The government’s strategy for coping with a Trump presidency so far has been a mixture of forced enthusiasm and denialism. Clearly anxious for Trump not to kill off the pointless but, for Turnbull, politically important Trans Pacific Partnership and Turnbull’s refugee deal with the Obama administration, the Prime Minister has engaged in some slightly embarrassing truckling. “We are steadfast allies & trusted friends with a great future ahead of us,” he tweeted in response to Trump’s inauguration. Turnbull has previously lauded Trump as “a practical experienced businessmen who gets things done”. Turnbull couldn’t even bring himself to criticise Trump for “getting” the killing of the TPP done, claiming that Trump might change his mind. The nearest his government came to criticising La Donald was when Christopher Pyne offered that “it’s the wrong move for the United States”.
More difficult matters loom, however, given Trump’s other statements this week. For a start, Trump has flagged a return to the use of torture by its security agencies, claiming they have advised him torture is an effective intelligence-gathering technique — which is either yet another Trump lie or delusional on the part of intelligence officials. Even GOP leaders immediately attacked Trump, insisting torture was illegal, led by John McCain, who has firsthand experience of torture.
Australia has long been a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture and is a full signatory to the Geneva Convention, but appears to have sought to avoid its Geneva Convention obligations in Afghanistan and notoriously allowed Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib to be tortured in Egypt, with Australian officials in attendance, while denying it knew of his location; Habib received an undisclosed sum in compensation in exchange for his silence on the matter. Will the government continue its high-level intelligence cooperation with the United States if US agencies are engaging in torture? Will it use US-sourced intelligence obtained via torture, knowing such information is likely to be deeply flawed? Will it rebuke the Trump administration for violating the Geneva Convention and other international conventions against torture?
A related issue is Trump’s apparent determination to allow intelligence agencies to return to operating illegal sites to engage in torture. Australia did not, as far as we know, permit the operation of such black sites on its territory or in its overseas facilities during the Bush years, but might have allowed US aircraft carrying detainees to black sites to refuel in Australia. Again, the extent of Australian co-operation with illegal US activities is a live question for the Turnbull government.
These issues make Turnbull’s recent indifference to intelligence oversight all the more serious. Turnbull appointed, successively, two junior, inexperienced far-right chairs to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, in Andrew Nikolic and Michael Sukkar. Both, for different reasons, lasted five minutes; the unlamented Nikolic at least had a passing interest in security matters, but Sukkar’s only interest in the committee was what he could do to get promotion and greater profile, which he duly obtained. Both suggested Turnbull wants to reduce the status of what should be Parliament’s most important committee and essentially use it as a sop to the far right, and there is talk that he will continue that pattern by appointing new, extremist Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie as chair, which would be an act of open contempt to Labor given Hastie’s never-justified claims that Labor failed to support Australian troops. In the age of Trump, Australia will need better and greater oversight of its intelligence agencies, not the plaything of partisan grubs.
Then there’s the most frightening aspect of Trump’s recent comments, that not merely would it not have been illegal for the United States to take Iraq’s oil (in fact, it would have been a war crime) but that he is interested in doing so in the future. Trump has been a very long-term proponent of stealing Iraqi oil, but this week went further, saying “we’re gonna see what happens … when it comes to the military I don’t wanna discuss things. I wanna let — I wanna let the action take place before the talk takes place.”
Is Turnbull up for another Middle East invasion for oil? Will he follow the John Howard route of invoking false claims about imminent threats to justify joining another disastrous US invasion? After all, he attacked Labor shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong for essentially repeating Turnbull’s own, Gillard-era comments about the need not to defer so much to the United States. But Turnbull’s own “doe-eyed fascination” with Trump might yet lead him into some very sordid places.