“It is not my job, as Prime Minister of Australia, to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries,” Malcolm Turnbull insisted, when pressed yesterday on why he had said nothing about Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the United States, including Australian dual nationals.

Well, there’s a funny thing — because Turnbull has previously been perfectly happy as Prime Minister to run what very much looked like a commentary on the domestic policies of several countries.

Like the European Union. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Brussels early in 2016, Turnbull was eager to lecture the Europeans on their poor security and social cohesion. The attacks, Turnbull insisted, were an “unfortunate reminder of how Islamist extremism appears to have reached a crisis point in Europe,” he said. “Governments are confronted by a perfect storm of failed or neglected integration, foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, porous borders and intelligence and security apparatus… there are no internal borders in Europe … and the external borders are difficult to manage.”

But as Turnbull doesn’t offer commentary, perhaps that can best be described as constructive criticism.

Or there was Turnbull’s views on Brexit, when he said that “we” would welcome Britain remaining in the European Union — earning himself a rebuke from a Conservative Brexiteer MP. Obviously not a comment by Turnbull, more a passing observation.

Or there’s China. Turnbull has been silent on China’s human right abuses — which are, after all, a matter of domestic policy. But he’s seen fit to criticise another Chinese domestic policy, its reluctance to encourage foreign investment inside China, comparing it most disadvantageously to Australia’s foreign investment regime. Plainly not a commentary — let’s call it instead, say, an analysis, which just happens to be unfavourable to another country’s domestic policies.

Turnbull was also happy recently to comment — sorry, how about reflect on North Korea’s human rights abuses with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Indeed, the Turnbull government isn’t backward in, well, noting the poor human rights records of other countries — only in December, Minister for Parties Julie Bishop gave a lengthy speech on human rights, mentioning a number of countries by name and reiterating Australia’s opposition to the death penalty everywhere — something that one would assume would fall under the heading of “domestic policy.” Bishop has also singled out the murderous president of the Philippines, Duterte, for his domestic policy of extrajudicial killings.

Still, that’s Julie Bishop, and possibly her job is to offer commentary on other countries’ domestic policies.

Still, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Turnbull was commenting when he attacked US gun laws last year. “You only have to look at the tragic examples — I was going to say ‘daily’ but certainly ‘weekly’ — in the United States of what happens when you have very little if any restrictions on the purchase of weapons.” Fully agree, Prime Minister — but isn’t that commentary? Perhaps he gave Donald Trump, who publicly mused on the assassination of his opponent during the election campaign, the benefit of it during his recent phone conversation.

But let’s quit the joking, because Trump’s Muslim ban is deadly serious. And it’s not merely a matter of US domestic policy, even if Turnbull and Bishop belatedly extract from the Americans the same exemption that dual nationals of the UK and Canada have already received. The ban has already been hailed by Islamic State as a victory in its efforts to convince western Muslim communities that they are hated by non-Muslim westerners. But let’s ask some western security experts and security establishment figures. Here’s a sampling:

Daniel Benjamin, previously a senior State Department counter-terrorism officer: “I don’t see why we would want to alienate the Iraqis when they are the ground force against ISIS … It sends an unmistakable message to the American Muslim community that they are facing discrimination and isolation,” which will “feed the jihadist narrative.”

GOP senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham: “We fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism… Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”

Phillip Lohaus, former US Special Operations Command and CIA officer, on locals who help US forces: “these individuals often put themselves at the risk of death for working with the U.S. and without the ability to offer them safety, we will be reducing the likelihood that those in countries targeted by the ban will work with us in the future. We relied heavily on local translators … Why would they take such a risk if they knew that they would face retribution or death by staying in their home countries?” 

Robert McFadden, former NCIS national security official: “From an intelligence, operations, and foreign liaison perspective, there will most certainly be a profound chilling effect, with respect to developing contacts, recruiting sources, and working with foreign counterparts.”

Or there’s the Pentagon itself, back in 2015, commenting on Trump’s then-proposed ban via a spokesman: Anything that bolsters ISIL’s narrative and pits the United States against the Muslim faith is certainly not only contrary to our values, but contrary to our national security.”

Trump’s ban has made us less safe. It’s not a matter of “domestic policy” or of some sick gloating that the world loves our border protection policies — it’s a threat to Australians. But apparently not something worth prime ministerial comment.

Peter Fray

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