Malcolm Turnbull

Whatever criticisms and complaints about it, the Prime Minister had a clear strategy in dealing with Donald Trump: keep it out of the public gaze. Even when savaged for refusing to criticise Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States — a ban that even senior Republicans said would increase the risk of terrorism — Turnbull was guided by a plan to avoid unnecessarily offending the new administration in Washington — led, after all by fellow businessman-turned-politician. The Brits, the Canadians, the French, the Germans, even the Kiwis might all attack the ban, but it wasn’t Turnbull’s job to engage in public commentary on other countries. He would deal — and deal was the relevant word — with Trump privately.

Of course, as Crikey pointed out, Turnbull has been only too happy to comment on other countries, including the United States, before, but Turnbull was sticking to his plan, and wearing grief and accusations of spinelessness for it. All for the goal of ensuring a solid working relationship with Trump — and, most of all, to secure the vital political deal originally made with the Obama administration to send approximately 1200 refugees from our nightmarish offshore detention camps (“prisons”, Trump prefers to call them, in a perhaps unique example of truth-telling) to the United States.

Until yesterday, the strategy appeared to have worked. The Americans had agreed that the deal would be honoured, Turnbull assured us. To pat itself on the back, the government quietly dropped to The Australian that it was the result of a “special favour” to Australia. And Australian dual nationals would not be affected by the Muslim ban — the result, Turnbull announced in a press release on Wednesday, of the government “securing” an exemption. Here was evidence, it seemed, that the softly, softly approach to Trump would work.

Only problem was, the government had “secured” nothing for Australians: the Americans had — depending on which source you read in an effort to nail down exactly what the Muslim ban consisted of — simply given all Five Eyes countries the same carve-out, or exempted all dual nationals.

And, yesterday, the refugee deal went to hell in the most remarkable eruption in US-Australian relations in a generation. Turnbull’s studied approach might have worked with any normal leader, but Trump is no normal leader — if he is indeed the actual leader in the White House. The details of the Turnbull-Trump discussions were leaked — including details that appeared to have no other purpose than to humiliate Turnbull, such as Trump hanging up on him and telling him the call was his worst of the day. And then Trump backed away entirely from the deal via that tweet.

Twenty-four hours later, we’re still not clear if the deal is still on — overnight, Trump himself said “we’ll see what happens” in off-the-cuff comments attacking the deal, while his spokesman said that Trump would “continue to review the deal”, then suggesting it would proceed with extreme vetting — a mixture of Trump’s own position and the position adopted by the State Department and the spokesman himself earlier this week.

The government will be desperately hoping this is all just Trump trying to give himself some political distance from the deal so he can blame it all on Obama, even if it has meant a spectacular blow-up in relations with one of its most loyal vassal states and embarrassment for a fellow conservative leader. A worse outcome would be the Americans refusing to help the government get out of the problem it finds itself in of running permanent offshore detention facilities where the detainees are abused, raped and given inadequate health care, all overseen by a department that has been repeatedly found to be incompetent at the most basic bureaucratic processes.

Turnbull will doubtless continue his softly, softly approach, but he does so knowing full well it won’t be rewarded. He’ll have to continue to endure the criticism of spinelessness about Trump, while struggling to point to any benefits from it. Meantime, other leaders have decided that publicly standing up to Trump at least has the merit of speaking to the President in a language he understands, because he plainly doesn’t understand — or has no interest in — the language of diplomacy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey