In the end, every leader is defined by their own words. Which words they will be isn’t always immediately obvious, but think of a past leader and the phrase will come to mind. My strong suspicion is that, for PM Malcolm Turnbull, those words have now been said.

The Prime Minister might have thought he was just taking the shortest route out of a press conference he apparently wasn’t enjoying, but when he was asked for his response to the Trump Muslim ban executive order — which has turned the entire world on its head — what he chose to say was a definitive moral positioning of absolute clarity.

“It is not my job, as Prime Minister of Australia, to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries. I am not about to run a commentary on other countries’ practices.”

In immediate political terms, the price of Trump’s agreement to not cancel the refugee resettlement deal struck with the Obama administration appears to be that Australia doesn’t join the worldwide chorus condemning the Muslim ban. Julie Bishop’s and Scott Morrison’s tone-deaf endorsements of Trump’s policy put that beyond doubt. Not that our government is consciously intending to support what is a straightforwardly fascist act; it’s just so blinded by opportunism that morality has no place in its thinking anymore.

There are two long-term consequences of Turnbull’s choice, however. One is that he’s now in a rhetorical corner from which he cannot ever escape. The other is the bigger question of what it means for Australia and the world when evil is tacitly condoned.

For Turnbull, there’s nowhere to turn. For starters, if we really have no interest in the domestic policies and practices of other countries, why are we currently bombing Syria and Iraq? Why are we supporting sanctions on Iran, Russia and North Korea? Why, after 50 years, are we still providing peacekeepers to Cyprus?

[Rundle: liberal howls of outrage over Muslim ban play into Trump’s tiny hands]

To put it another way, other countries’ “domestic policies and practices” have, in the past, included slavery and apartheid, not to mention the Holocaust and innumerable other genocides. Apparently, none of our business.

More to the point, on what basis will the Australian government ever be in a position to say a single word, to raise a single objection, when a foreign country takes measures against its own people which call for legal and moral condemnation? When the next horrific story of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal campaign against his population emerges, what possible right could Malcolm Turnbull claim to utter a squeak? 

Anyway, that’s his problem — we’ve got bigger fish to fry. Trump’s actions have raised a challenge that hasn’t been confronted since the 1930s. Not because Trump is Hitler re-incarnated, but because the existential threat to world peace and human dignity is grave. How the world responds is no small matter.

As Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, world leaders really didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know the ultimate outcome, so we should be cautious about judging them. In truth, right up to the outbreak of war, there was a continuum of attitudes including Churchill’s outright opposition, but it was appeasement that mostly governed the response of Western governments to the Nazis’ escalating outrages.

When Hitler first turned on his own people on a basis of explicitly legalised bigotry, with the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which effectively excluded Jews from most aspects of German life, the reaction overseas was muted, an attitude that persisted even after the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews. The Australian government’s official reaction was silence, while internally it persisted in the view that direct criticism of Germany would serve no good purpose, right up to the invasion of Poland.

Not that things improved much once we were at war, from the perspective of standing up for moral right. Our government, along with those of our allies, was well informed as to the progress of the Holocaust, but there was no significant public condemnation or impetus to do anything to help save the victims. The resulting price was 6 million lives, not a great result.

[How did Australians score an exemption to the Muslim ban?]

That’s just the shining-est example from history of the benefits of conducting a policy of polite non-comment in the face of gross violations of human decency. There are plenty more from which to choose. Indeed, if history teaches us anything, it’s the same thing as we learned in the playground: giving bullies what they want doesn’t generally end well.

Again — Trump is not Hitler. However, his entourage includes some historically familiar character types. Word is that another executive order will shortly emerge, designed to condone and legitimise the vilification of LGBTI people. Good times. The fact that nobody’s hinting at mass deportations or other forms of “cleansing” isn’t to the point. The point is that a week has been enough to tell us that Trump is a threat to civilisation.

We are seeing the full range of possible responses, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plain rejection through UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s bet each way to Turnbull’s silence. With breathtakingly cynical speed, much of the focus from governments and media has turned from the question of what to say, to how best to live with the new normal. Peter Hartcher in The Sydney Morning Herald called on Australia to grasp the competitive advantage, which the US turn to isolationism presents for us. That’s the spirit! 

[Razer: white guilt and the individualised impotence of modern protest]

The UK and Canadian governments, having expressed their disagreement, very quickly jumped to negotiating exemptions for their own dual nationals, prompting Julie Bishop to demand and get the same concession for ours.

What actually is the difference between (a) declaring that the US policy is unconscionable and wrong, while acting to protect your own selfish interests from its effects, and (b) saying nothing at all? Personally, I don’t see it. Both courses are morally bankrupt. Uniquely, however, Australia took option (c) give a nod and wink and collect immunity as our reward.

So, where to next for the modern day appeasers? What lesson has Trump learned from the responses to his overtly anti-Muslim policy change? When he moves next against LGBTI people, presumably that will also be a matter for us to politely ignore, other than ensuring that we are personally unaffected via Turnbull’s preferred method for promoting global standards of human dignity — “I give [advice] privately, as good friends should.”

Apparently not the keenest student of history, our Prime Minister. As former US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich said: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

Peter Fray

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