Why was Turnbull smacked down by Trump?

February 8, 2017

One of the many shockers of Donald Trump's first days in office was the report that he dressed down Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a first phone call between the two leaders. Trump was apparently peeved that Turnbull--head of Australia's center-right Liberal Party, the equivalent of the Republicans--hoped the new U.S. administration would honor a commitment by Barack Obama's White House to accept 1,250 refugees seeking asylum who have been held in wretched conditions by the Australian government.

The episode with Turnbull was reported in the U.S. as showing the extent of Trump's anti-Muslim fanaticism, but as Australian socialist Tom Bramble writes in an article for Red Flag, Turnbull has a shameful record of racism and xenophobia all on his own.

THE HUMILIATION is total. Malcolm Turnbull doesn't just have egg on his face, he's got the whole bloody omelette.

While other world leaders have been doing their best to distance themselves from the right-wing lunatic now in charge of the White House, Australia's prime minister and his cabinet have been sucking up to Donald Trump and pretending his shit doesn't stink.

Although he's never come clean, clearly Turnbull has been petrified that Trump might walk away from the refugee deal that the prime minister struck with President Obama, which will result in the US taking 1,250 asylum seekers from Australia's concentration camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Turnbull knew that if the deal fell through, the conservatives in his cabinet would maul him like a pack of slavering dogs.

So in the federal cabinet, it's been a case of "Yes, sir, no sir, three bags full sir." A four month ban on refugees? No problem, Mr. President. A ban on those holding passports from seven Muslim-majority countries? The height of common sense. A ban on Australians holding dual citizenship with one of those countries? Let's not get too upset. Trump walks away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Turnbull's response: The TPP isn't dead, just resting. Incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he'll go to war with China? A U.S. military buildup in the region is only a good thing. Can I puff up your cushion and fetch you another drink?

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Two months of self-abasement has come to nothing, with Donald Trump now strongly signaling that he wants to dump the refugee deal and rub Turnbull's face in it at the same time. The U.S. government previously issued a statement claiming that the prime minister's phone conversation with Trump on January 28 was cordial and productive.

It has now been revealed, presumably by one of the three other people in Trump's office at the time, that the president told Turnbull that "this was the worst call by far" of all his calls with world leaders, and abruptly ended the conversation just 25 minutes into a scheduled one-hour call. This to one of the U.S.'s longest-standing allies, who the president might have been expected to humor. If you didn't know Turnbull yourself, you might almost feel your toes curl up in embarrassment on his behalf.

So Turnbull comes out looking like a fool. Inept. Tactically dumb. Whatever you want to call it, Turnbull has failed at politics 101. Did he not notice Trump's basic character flaws, his arrogance, his egotism, his inconsistency, his failure to honor promises? Have the press exposés of the last 12 months not been enough to drum into his stupid private schoolboy's head that Trump would smell his fear and turn it against him? Did Turnbull think that appeasing the crook in Washington was ever going to end well?

TURNBULL ISN'T just a fool but a monster. All of this crawling, all of this sniveling, was to protect a deal that is in itself an abomination. More than 1,000 refugees currently held in barbaric conditions for years on end were going to be shipped off to the United States after they had thrown themselves at the mercy of the Australian authorities, when they had demanded that the Australian government live up to the commitments to the Refugee Convention that it had voluntarily signed. Australia is not a poor country. Australia is not short of space. We should be welcoming the refugees with open arms. Instead, Turnbull was trying to punt them to the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Turnbull and the Australian embassy in Washington will even now probably be trying to get the refugee deal back up. More sweeteners will be offered. Maybe more support for a U.S. confrontation with China? Maybe a tax deal for U.S. multinationals? We'll probably never know. But Trump well knows the art of the deal: never give a sucker an even break. He's got Turnbull crawling on his knees now--Trump's every instinct will be to give him another kick.

The solution is obvious. One, the Australian government needs to tell the U.S. president where to jump. No cooperation with his military escalation with China. No slavish support for whatever reactionary thought next drops into his head. Two, let the refugees in. The Australian government must close the disgusting hellholes on Manus Island and Nauru, and bring the asylum seekers Australia.

But I'm not holding my breath. Turnbull is unlikely to challenge Trump's reactionary agenda for the simple reason that the Australian government shares it. As his ministers--Dutton and Morrison--have so obligingly informed us: we did it first, Trump's just following our lead. Locked up refugees. Barred processing refugees from named countries. Australia wins the gold medal for inhumanity.

I'm not going to be waiting for Turnbull to turn over a new leaf. But this is a wake-up call. Trump gets his way through ignoring all the niceties of political convention. We need to do the same.

First published at Red Flag.

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