scott morrison donald trump state dinner G20
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The stench from the Trump White House crossed the Pacific Ocean in only slightly less time than the prime ministerial jet bringing Scott Morrison home from his cheek-rubbing hoe-down with the Donald last week. Now, here it sits, stinking up our national in-tray as the realisation begins to dawn that a half-smart prime minister is also inevitably half-stupid.

Politics aside, here’s a question to send the irony-meter up to 11: has Australia been engaging in some foreign interference in the electoral affairs of another nation? You know, that thing we’ve all been morally panicking about since suspicions were first raised that not every Chinese billionaire is just a good bloke.

The story begins with the FBI’s “Russia” probe, which led to the Robert Mueller inquiry which found plenty of evidence of direct interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential election — and clues to Trump campaign involvement. One of the revelations emerging from the mess of leaks was that, in May 2016, Trump adviser George Papadopoulos told then-Australia’s high commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer that Moscow had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Downer duly reported this to Australian authorities, who passed it on to the US. Reportedly it triggered an FBI investigation into Russian interference.

Trump pointed a finger squarely at Downer and Australia in May this year, disclosing that he’d directed US Attorney-General William Barr to investigate whether his 2016 campaign had been spied on. “I hope he looks at Australia and I hope he looks at Ukraine,” Trump said. Papadopoulos had been loudly insisting that Downer was a Clinton spy, a self-satirising allegation.

It was May 25 when Trump chucked his wobbly. It was May 28 when our ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, sent a letter to Barr saying that Australia would use its “best endeavours” to help and support the investigation into “the origins of the FBI’s probe into Russian links to the 2016 US election”.

We now also know that, just before Morrison flew to Washington last week, Trump gave him a call and asked directly for help finding evidence for a review Barr is conducting into the Mueller inquiry. Morrison, according to media reports, said yes. The only response from Morrison’s office to the breaking news was a statement that “the Australian government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation. The PM confirmed his readiness once again in conversation with the president.”

Given Morrison’s instinct for refusing to answer questions at all, that statement suggests that he knows the transcript of the Trump call is going to come out and that it will not read well for him. The government spin will be that there is nothing to see here; we are a close ally and best friend of the US, of course we would assist with a Department of Justice inquiry into matters of national importance. Business as usual.

But it isn’t. For one thing, what Barr is investigating of specific relevance to Australia is the allegation that Downer was a participant, knowingly or not, in a conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 election on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Whatever Downer is, he’s not an agent of the mythical deep state. It’s patently ridiculous rubbish and yet Morrison has volunteered to go along with it, happily prepared to trash Downer in the process.

The other thing is that, as has been known by everyone all along, the Barr investigation is bullshit. Barr himself is a compromised, partisan hack; a joke chief law officer. His probe into the FBI and Mueller inquiries is self-evidently no more than misdirection politics, designed to distract attention from Trump’s own alleged crimes.

Simply put, the project which Australia voluntarily offered its resources to help and support is a nakedly political exercise conducted for obviously illegitimate purposes. The fact that it is being perpetrated by a duly elected American president does not provide even a fig leaf of cover for our government or prime minister.

Given the reality of what’s going on, and regardless of how much practical assistance Australia has actually offered or provided, the conclusion beckons that the Australian government may have been actively (if naively) participating in foreign interference in the US political system. Our integrity as an impartial ally has been compromised, by allowing ourselves to be dragged into the Trump sewer of unbounded mendacity and manipulation.

The mugging for the cameras and shameless pandering to the superpower who guarantees our national defence is, as it has been since the fall of Singapore, fine and dandy. Every Australian prime minister has had to kiss the American ring one way or another. But there are lines. One of them is that we leave them to decide which president they choose to elect, and we don’t take sides.

In his shallow eagerness to pal it up with a leader whose orange glow he thought would reflect flatteringly on him, Morrison committed one of two unpardonable sins: either he didn’t realise that the price of a state dinner with Trump is your country’s soul; or he did.

Should Australia be getting involved with Trump’s grubby politics? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication. 

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey