Donald Trump’s immediate demonstration of extremism and policy cluelessness in the White House have brought the dilemma of his presidency into immediate and sharp relief for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: does Turnbull continue his policy of deference to Trump, or does he speak up for Australians and Australia’s interests?
Trump’s ban on Muslims from countries where he has no business interests travelling to the United States — and let’s be clear, the ban is aimed at Muslims, as the son of Trump’s National Security Adviser gleefully acknowledged — affects any Australian with dual nationality in those countries. While Turnbull might be relieved Trump has — for now — retained the agreement nutted out with Barack Obama to send Nauru and Manus Island refugees to the United States sometime at the end of 2017 or in 2018, actual Australian citizens are affected by Trump’s ban — to say nothing of basing an immigration policy on race and religion, which is supposedly antithetical to Western liberal values.
All Australian visitors to the United States — regardless of dual nationality or not — could also be required to detail their internet browsing histories and share their phone contacts with US border officials under a policy currently being considered by the White House. Green card holders are already having their social media accounts vetted by Homeland Security staff to “evaluate their political views” before being admitted, under the current ban.
Malcolm Turnbull, so far, has said nothing about the impact of the Muslim ban on Australians with dual nationalities, Australia’s efforts to have its citizens exempted, or commented more broadly on the policy, despite a reported 25-minute phone call with Trump yesterday. Turnbull took time to laud Roger Federer and Serena Williams on Twitter, but has otherwise kept resolutely silent. Only Julie Bishop, speaking from a lavish Hollywood gala, offered the comment “the Australian government will continue to work closely with the Trump administration so we could both implement strong border policies”.
In contrast, a handful of European leaders have publicly criticised the ban, and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson first attacked the ban publicly and then quickly engineered its removal for British citizens with dual nationality. That was after British PM Theresa May backflipped on her initial refusal to condemn the ban.
Turnbull’s silence and Bishop’s endorsement stands in remarkable contrast to the British strategy — in which even a buffoon like Boris Johnson can look both high-minded and effective. Moreover, so far there are no details of what exact deal Turnbull achieved regarding refugees on Nauru and Manus Island — including the crucial question of whether Muslim refugees would be accepted by the Trump administration.
Then there are the direct national security problems created by the ban. It directly assists Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups who have worked assiduously for decades to promote the idea that the west reflexively hates Muslims — for it provides incontrovertible, explicit evidence that they have been right all along. The advice of security agencies to Turnbull will presumably be that the ban will reinforce this narrative and increase the chances of radicalisation. His failure to criticise the ban should also be considered in that context.
This is likely to be a pattern that will be regularly repeated: Trump’s extremist policies will challenge both Australia’s national interests and raise moral and security issues. Turnbull will have to regularly decide whether to continue his policy of public alignment with Trump, or speak out clearly for Australia’s interests and the values he professes to believe in. As the neocon war hawk and Bush administration senior official Eliot Cohen put it today in The Atlantic
“For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behaviour, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.”
Are you listening, Prime Minister?