Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s explicit linking of the arrangements to send Australia’s offshore refugees to the US and to accept some from Costa Rica presents not just an immediate credibility problem for Malcolm Turnbull but, potentially, a more serious longer-term one.
It contradicts the prime minister’s flat – if unconvincing – denial of such a link. It also raises the question, why would people believe Turnbull on anything remotely related to this issue in the future?
And that could be important if the Trump administration were to ask Australia to boost its military commitment in the Middle East.
Turnbull says any such request would be considered on its merits.
If there was a request and Australia were to agree, he would deny that the acquiescence had anything to do with his managing to twist Donald Trump’s arm to accept the deal Australia did with the Obama administration to take people from Nauru and Manus Island.
But that denial – always likely to be questioned – would be an even harder sell now.
In September, after the Costa Rica arrangement was announced, Turnbull was asked whether it had any material impact on the government’s ability to find homes for people on Nauru and Manus Island.
“It is not linked to any other resettlement discussions,” he said. “The announcement today is not connected to any other arrangements.”
This became the mantra, including after the deal about Nauru and Manus Island was announced following the presidential election. Dutton said on November 14: “The Costa Rica arrangement had nothing to do with this deal and it’s not a people swap.”
On Tuesday’s Bolt program on Sky, Dutton predicted the first offshore refugees would move in the next couple of months. Asked then when the first people from Costa Rica would arrive, Dutton said: “Well, we wouldn’t take anyone until we had assurances that people were going to go off Nauru and Manus … We want an outcome in relation to Nauru and Manus.”
“One of the lessons we’ve learnt from past arrangements, say the Malaysian deal for example that Julia Gillard entered into, we accepted all the people from Malaysia, not one person went from Australia. So we’re not going to be sucked into that sort of silly outcome.”
It should be said this is more than a bit rich. The people didn’t go because the Coalition opposition blocked the “swap”.
Bolt pressed Dutton on the arrangements with the US. “So it was a deal? It was, we’ll take yours if you take ours.”
Dutton said it wasn’t a “people-swap deal” but added: “I don’t have any problem with that characterisation if people want to put that”.
It’s always defied common sense to think there was no link between the Costa Rica and Nauru/Manus Island deals, and the government was taking the public for mugs to try to argue that. Now it is paying the price.
It remains unclear what the Americans honouring the deal will amount to, given it is up to them how many of the people they finally accept after Trump’s “extreme vetting” process.
Dutton’s proposition that the refugees from Costa Rica can’t come until he’s sure some of the offshore people are going suggests he feels the need to take out insurance.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, in Washington for wide-ranging talks with the Trump administration, said on Wednesday: “The agreement is progressing and our officials are working together with United States officials to vet the applicants for settlement in the United States.” She wouldn’t be drawn on detail.
Asked whether she would characterise it as a swap deal, Bishop said: “That’s not the way I would categorise it.”
The government continues to fall victim of its own spin.
Even those of us who didn’t have high hopes about what a Trump presidency might look like in practice have been astounded by his incompetence, ignorance and refusal or inability to confront reality.
As the old saw has it, you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. Donald Trump clearly feels this is another idea that doesn’t apply to him or his administration.
Any doubts that the 45th president of the United States really is a thin-skinned blustering bonehead with appalling judgement and little understanding of the complexity of the job he is supposed to be doing were put to rest by his latest press conference. It’s not hard to see why he doesn’t like giving them.
It’s not just that his behaviour was “unpresidential” that was so striking – surely no one expects a man with his personal track record and “life experience” to be a role model for his country or anyone else’s – but that he refused to acknowledge even the most basic, well-documented claims about his administration and its operations.
The “fine-tuned machine” Trump claims to have created at the centre of America’s government is in reality chaotic, dysfunctional, and still populated with some deeply divisive, potentially dangerous individuals. A number are either the representatives of precisely the sorts of vested interests Trump promised to eliminate or – in the case of the Rasputin-like figure of Steve Bannon – ideologues with a Manichean worldview that sees chaos as necessary and potentially cleansing.
The demise of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was belatedly fired because of his close ties to Russia – not to mention lying to the vice-president, the FBI and the public-at-large – is emblematic of Trump’s poor judgement. This “captain’s pick” was a compromised figure who should never have been considered for such a crucial role.
Even more worrying, however, is that Bannon has been appointed as a key security advisor, too – over the heads of more seasoned and potentially appropriate choices with defence backgrounds.
It is important to remember that Bannon thinks – as does Trade Secretary Peter Navarro – that war with China is inevitable.
Given their respective positions and the influence they appear to exert over a president who appears to have little understanding of, or interest in, the complexities of global politics or even economics – his supposedly strong suit, let’s not forget – they have the capacity to make some of their fantasies reality.
Neither is Trump going to lose any sleep about possible conflicts of interest when his own family is the living embodiment of all that is wrong with his administration and his complete contempt for the idea of good, never mind principled government. His wife and daughter clearly see occupying the White House primarily as an opportunity to leverage their respective brands and earning potential.
His refusal to answer questions from the “lying media” about his business interests or release his tax returns as he promised is another telling illustration of his unaccountability and hostility to one of the few institutions that seems potentially able to hold his administration to account.
Although, when the Wall Street Journal’s own staff are collectively uneasy about the lack of scrutiny the paper is applying to a regime that is seen as close to Rupert Murdoch, even this is no certainty anymore.
Speaking of the Murdoch press, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan can be relied upon to take a Panglossian view of Australia’s alliance with the US under any circumstances. This week he didn’t disappoint his admirers. In customary form, Sheridan suggested:
The substantial signs on policy from Trump over the past week or more have been generally very reassuring and showed a fairly rapid move back to the centre of the centre-right continuum on foreign policy.
No doubt this was due to the efforts of the “Trumble government” and its enormous influence in the US.
Yes, that’s a cheap shot at Trump’s beleaguered press secretary, Sean Spicer, but not being able to remember the names of supposedly key allies in not a good look. At least it was an inadvertent slip of the tongue, rather than a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and the collective public consciousness with “alternative facts”, which is another trait of team Trump.
The key question to ask about Trump is whether he knows he’s lying when he dismisses well-documented facts about domestic politics, foreign relations and his own extensive business interests, or whether he actually believes the patent nonsense and untruth he spouts.
It really is hard to know which is the more worrying: that he is a congenital liar with an absolute contempt for the truth, or that he is so removed from the reality the rest of us inhabit that he actually doesn’t recognise it or feel the need to engage with it. This is not just a world of alternative facts; it is an alternative world.
The key question to ask Australia’s policymakers and strategic elites is: do we really want to be associated with, never mind potentially hostage to, a regime that is immoral, dishonest and more dangerous by the day?
We’re only four weeks into a rapidly unfolding nightmare. We must hope those who believe Trump will be socialised by America’s political institutions are right. There is little indication of it so far to judge from his rapidly deteriorating relationship with the fourth estate.
127, mostly tech, companies have signed a brief of support opposing US President Trump’s “Muslim travel ban”. The companies, that include Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Tesla have filed an “amicus brief” with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in support of US District Judge James L. Robart who ordered a stay on Trump’s executive order to ban anyone from 7 countries from entering the US for between 90 and 120 days.
The tech companies have argued that immigration is a central factor in the history and makeup of the US and has helped fuel American innovation and economic growth. Immigrants, or their children, founded more than 200 companies that are amongst the top 500 companies in the US. Between 2006 and 2010, immigrants were responsible for opening 28% of call new businesses in the US. Thirty percent of US Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics have been immigrants.
Mostly however, the brief focuses on the harm that its chaotic implementation will have on US companies. They allege:
“The Order makes it more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees. It disrupts ongoing business operations. And it threatens companies’ ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States.
The consequences of this action will be that US companies will lose business and ultimately
“Multinational companies will have strong incentives, including from their own employees, to base operations outside the United States or to move or hire employees and make investments abroad.”
This last is no idle threat. In 2015, it was estimated that US companies have US $2.1 trillion overseas that haven’t been repatriated because of the tax implications. Apple alone has over US $230 billion held outside the US.
The idea of using this money to set up development and further manufacturing capabilities outside the US makes a great deal of sense, even without the imperative of Trump’s actions. However, there is another move that Trump is threatening that may make the decision to move operations outside the US more attractive still.
Trump’s administration is planning to target the high-skilled worker’s H-1B visa. This offers mostly tech companies the ability to recruit up to 85,000 skill developers and other staff from around the world. According to the Republicans and Trump however, tech companies should be recruiting locally.
Companies like Microsoft, where I have first hand experience of recruitment experience, did actively try and recruit within the US. Recruiting from outside is generally more expensive and time consuming and so there is no real reason why tech companies would actively ignore domestic applicants or favour foreign ones. Tech companies seek to employ the best people for the job and if the pool is global, that is how they achieve that goal.
Having offices remotely distributed can be made to work although it makes communications across teams and different product areas more challenging than if they are all in a single location. However, it already happens in most tech companies with Google and Microsoft already having research and product development occurring out of countries like Australia, India and China.
As outlined in the amicus brief, Trump is sowing uncertainty and chaos with his desire to treat policy like tweets on Twitter. That is going to provide enough incentive for companies to brave the potential disapproval from Trump and use the significant investments held outside the US to expand their capabilities.
Trump may succeed, contrary to his intentions, in catalysing a new phase in globalisation in which companies shift their centres from the US to a more distributed model. Of course, companies may still run into problems if Trump’s brand of nationalism succeeds in taking hold in other countries like Australia or Europe.
The other side-effect of the US uncertainty is the fact that increasingly businesses based outside the US will have a competitive advantage and customers may decide that it is easier to avoid doing business with the US for at least the next four years. China is rapidly becoming the technological equal of the US in many ways and so its ascendancy may also benefit.
The amicus curiae brief is the start of a long legal campaign which will aim to keep the worst of Trump’s plans in check. Depending on the outcomes, the world outside the US may actually benefit from Trump if companies are forced to look outside the walls, real and virtual, he is seeking to create.
Just weeks after his inauguration as US president, it is clear that Donald Trump is making a further bold claim on power, one that goes beyond the executive orders that are rightly drawing so much attention. He is reinventing the royal fiat by novel means: the rule-by-tweet, or “twiat”. This move is not an extension of popular democracy, but its enemy, and it needs to be resisted.
We are becoming used to Trump’s new way not just of sustaining a political campaign, but of making policy. We wake up to news of another state, corporation, institution or individual caught in the crossfire of his tweets. Corporations and investors are setting up “Twitter Response Units” and “Trump Triggers” in case the next tweet is aimed at them.
The process is so alien to the ways of making policy that have evolved over decades in complex democracies that it is tempting to dismiss it as just funny or naive. But that would be a huge mistake.
A tweet of Trump’s opinion at any moment on a particular issue is just that: an expression of the temporary opinion of one person, albeit one with his hands on more power-levers than almost any other person in the world.
Such expressions matter, for sure, to Trump’s Twitter followers. But, although one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, they do not (at 23 million) constitute a significant proportion of the world’s population, or even a large proportion of the US population.
The king holds court
A Trump tweet only becomes news if it is reported as news. And it only starts to become policy if those who interpret policy, including the media, start to treat this news as policy. Until then, the Trump tweet remains at most a claim on power.
But once key institutions treat it as if were already an enactment of power, it quickly becomes one. Worse, it inaugurates a whole new way of doing power whose compatibility with democracy and global peace is questionable.
Imagine you are a diplomat, trying to schedule a meeting for yourself, or your political master, with Trump in a few weeks’ time. Is it sensible for you to rely on the confidentiality of the meeting? Could a poorly chosen phrase or look – or indeed your most carefully argued reasoning – provoke a tweet that publicly mocks your whole strategy?
How do you deal with a figure who claims the power to broadcast on his own terms his gut reactions to whatever you say or propose? Yes, you can tweet back, but that is already to give up on the quiet space of discussion that was once diplomacy’s refuge.
The impact of rule-by-tweet is potentially profound: above all, on policy, whether global or domestic, legal or commercial. A new type of power is being claimed and, it seems, recognised: the power, by an individual’s say-so, to make things happen, the twiat. Just the sort of power that revolutions were fought to abolish.
If Trump is the putative Tweet King, who are his courtiers? Surely they’re the mainstream media institutions that regularly report Trump’s tweets as if they were policy.
If a medieval king’s courtiers refused to pass on his word to the wider world, its impact changed. While courtiers could be replaced overnight, contemporary media corporations cannot (for now at least). So why should the media act as if they were Trump’s courtiers?
We must not underestimate the short-term pressure on media corporations to conform to Trump’s claim on power. For sure, there will be an audience if they report Trump’s tweets, and their financial need to grab audiences wherever they can has never been greater.
But, if news values still mean something, they refer not only to financial imperatives, but to what should count as news. And norms about news must have some relation to what passes for acceptable in a democracy rather than an autocracy.
Why is the ‘twiat’ anti-democratic?
Some might say: Trump’s tweets are just the new way of doing democracy, “get with the program” (in the words of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer). But, as the grim history of mid-20th-century Europe shows, authoritarian grabs on power only ever worked because their anti-democratic means were accepted by those around them as a novel way of “doing democracy”.
The “twiat” is anti-democratic for two reasons. First, it claims a power (to name individuals, pronounce policy, and condemn actions) against which there is no redress. Its work is done once uttered from the mouth of the “king”.
Second, and more subtly, allowing such power back into political decision-making undermines the slower, more inclusive forms of discussion and reflection that gives modern political democratic institutions their purpose and purchase in the first place.
Trump’s claim to a new form of charismatic power through Twitter is, in part, the flip-side of the damaged legitimacy of today’s democratic process. But, instead of curing that problem, it closes the door on it. The presidential tweeting ushers us into a new space that is no longer recognisable as democratic: a space where complex policy becomes not just too difficult but unnecessary, although its substitutes can still be tweeted.
Can anything be done to stop this? A good start would be to stop reporting the tweets of our would-be Twitter king as if they were news, let alone policy.
Let Trump’s tweets have no more claim on democracy’s attention than the changing opinions of any other powerful figure. Refuse the additional claim to power that Trump’s Twitter stream represents.
Fail to refuse that claim, and all of us risk accepting by default a new form of rule that undermines the restraints on power on which both democracy and media freedoms, in the long term, depend.
When former prime minister Paul Keating said last year it was time to “cut the tag” and loosen the bonds of the Australia’s alliance with the US, who would have thought the man wielding the knife would be Donald Trump?
The public disagreement between the Trump White House and the Turnbull government over the deal to send asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru to the US is unprecedented. At no previous time in the history of the Australia-US alliance have things seemed so dire – and got there so quickly.
Past tensions kept quiet
Australian and American leaders over the years have, from time to time, disagreed or said things to cause embarrassment. But for the most part, such disagreements have been kept out of the limelight.
John Howard and Bill Clinton did not like one another. Their discomfort did not, however, seriously affect the alliance. But sometimes discomfort breaks into something stronger.
Blanche D’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s then-biographer (and later his wife), recounts that Australia’s former foreign minister, Bill Hayden, and US Secretary of State George Shultz loathed one another. Hayden referred to Shultz as “the German pork butcher”, while Shultz called Hayden “stupid” to his face.
But, unlike the current saga, the Hayden-Shultz spat did not become public until after D’Alpuget published her Hawke biography.
In 2008, the content of another phone conversation between Australian and US leaders became pubic. A brief row broke out when reports emerged of a leaked conversation between Kevin Rudd and George Bush.
As the 2008 financial crisis erupted, Rudd had suggested using the G20 as a way of handling things to Bush in a phone conversation. Bush allegedly replied:
What’s the G20?
The White House angrily rejected the public version of events.
Time to think differently
Members of the US Congress have made a rare intervention in the latest spat in an attempt to counter Trump’s amateurish handling of the issue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said:
Australia is a very important and central ally and it’s going to continue to be.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham admonished Trump, suggesting the president “sleep more and tweet less”. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said:
Before the president shows such disrespect again, he should consider this: there is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century, from the fields of France and Belgium to the mountains of Afghanistan – Australia.
Trump has handled this situation very badly. In a very short space of time he has undone decades of work in building trans-Pacific security ties between Australia and the US. Other American allies – Japan and South Korea in particular – must look on, aghast at what has transpired.
But the Australia-US alliance was already under pressure before the phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull went awry. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a vital element in the Obama pivot to Asia, was headed for the dustbin even before the US election. Within hours of being sworn in, Trump cancelled US involvement in the trade deal.
More ominously, other US security partnerships in the region exhibit severe strain. In an eerie and intemperate foreshadowing of Trump’s outburst, Philippine President Duterte in 2016 called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and then denounced his country’s security alliance with the US and embraced the Chinese.
While many aspects of the US-Philippine relationship are still in place, it is nonetheless showing signs of strain.
The Australia-US relationship has suffered numerous knocks over the past year. The greatest threat to it has not come from China, the Philippines or Australia, but from the US. Trump’s misguided handling of the refugee issue and his withdrawal from the TPP has combined with external events to place real pressure on the alliance.
Trump has cut the tag. Now Australia must think differently about its relationship with the US.
It’s the last thing Malcolm Turnbull would want to do, or will do. But what he should do is walk away from the deal he struck with the Obama administration for the US to take refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.
He should then persuade his cabinet to grant a one-off amnesty, and let these people settle in Australia.
It would be a drastic and, for many in the government, a deeply unpalatable course. But the road Turnbull now has Australia travelling – that of the supplicant – is against our national interest. It’s one that sees the unpredictable Donald Trump treating the US’s close ally with near contempt, one that makes the Australian prime minister hostage to the US president’s capricious behaviour.
At the weekend, in their now much-canvassed telephone conversation, Trump told Turnbull it was his “intention” to honour the refugee agreement while, as revealed by the Washington Post’s detailed report, describing it to Turnbull as the “worst deal ever”.
According to the Post, Trump said Australia was seeking to export the “next Boston bombers”; he also told Turnbull “this was the worst call by far” in his round of five phone calls to world leaders that day, which included one with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Trump terminated the conversation after 25 minutes – it was expected to run for longer – although Turnbull insists Trump did not hang up on him, but rather “the call ended courteously”.
By Thursday (Australian time), after days of mixed messages from the US administration, Trump was publicly dissing the deal in the strongest terms, tweeting:
No-one can predict where this imbroglio will now go. As one senior Australian source put it: “We are like a cork bobbing on the sea”.
Logic would suggest that Trump would want to ditch “this dumb deal”, which sits at odds with his suspension of the US refugee intake and must look inconsistent to his rusted-on supporters. But equally, he could go the other way and decide there were pluses – in terms of sway over Australia – in keeping it.
If he does proceed with it, the deal could be scuttled in practice by the US “extreme vetting” process excluding most of the refugees. That would leave Australia, after having endured the diplomatic agony, still with responsibility for the people.
What is clear is that the deal has become a big and damaging issue in the Australian-American partnership.
Turnbull has already come under attack for refusing to criticise Trump’s provocative temporary bans on refugees (indefinite for those from Syria) and entrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, which have been widely condemned internationally. Even if he had other motives, his desire to preserve the refugee agreement was obviously one in Turnbull’s approach.
There could be serious longer-term implications if Trump did go ahead with the deal.
Trump is the ultimate transactional politician. If he does something for Australia, reciprocity will likely be demanded at a later stage – with Trump, whose approach is to bully, having no compunction in putting his foot on Australia’s neck. It could be over anything – such as a further commitment to the Middle East or an involvement if the US escalates pressure on China in the South China Sea.
If Turnbull had received a favour, it would be harder for Australia to resist US pressure to do what it might not want to do. Even if the government were comfortable on policy grounds to go along with some US request there would be the suspicion in the public’s mind that this was a quid pro quo.
Apart from those concerns, it is extremely unfortunate to have this issue, with the fractiousness surrounding it, dominate the start of the Turnbull government’s relationship with the new administration. Trump is known for his vindictiveness. If he keeps the deal but angrily and resentfully, that won’t stand Australia in good stead.
Early sourness could limit the extent to which Australia will be in a position to exert any influence on other matters that are of importance to it, such as trade policy – where there are substantial differences between the two countries – and, in particular, America’s future role in the Asia-Pacific region.
Regional countries will be watching closely how the Australian-US relationship unfolds; much of our clout with them derives from the perceived closeness we have with the Americans.
Critics will claim that if Australia cut its losses, dumped the deal and took in the refugees, all manner of disaster would follow.
In particular, they would say, the people-smugglers would start their trade again.
Turnbull on Thursday reiterated that “the only option that isn’t available” to the refugees “is bringing them to Australia for the obvious reasons that that would provide a signal to the people-smugglers to get back into business”.
Yet they didn’t restart their business when the US agreement was first announced, despite suggestions that this could send them an encouraging message.
The government fortified the border further, and the so-called ring of steel around our north would surely be enough to keep boats at bay if it had to take another step. If not, there is something very wrong with our military and coastguard forces.
Politically, there is no question the amnesty course would be extremely difficult for Turnbull, after all the government has said and done.
How difficult? Well, Labor could hardly score real hits against it.
Turnbull would have much more to fear from the conservative ranks in his own party and the right-wing commentariat – and he doesn’t have a lot of gumption when it comes to standing up to these people.
But it would be better to do so, even with the undoubted political risks that it would involve for him, than allow himself and Australia to be subject to the current and future whims of a US president who is raising a great deal of alarm in many places.
After his unexpected election win, the immediate question was what would US President Donald Trump actually do? Would his administration be as confused as his speeches or as cunningly effective as his campaign?
In the interim, far from “draining the swamp”, he has assembled a team of billionaires, family and members of the far-right.
On his inauguration – just as they were lying about the size of the audience – LGBT rights, health care, civil liberties and climate change disappeared from the White House homepage. The latter was scrubbed from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website too.
In short, Trump seems ruthlessly efficient, wiping out America’s progressive legacy with deft pen-strokes of his grasping, little hand.
Servitude under Trump
For many who oppose this suite of unnerving policies, the question is how can Trump be legitimately resisted?
Étienne de La Boétie – the 16th-century French judge and writer – offered a simple, yet elegant answer: withdraw support so that “like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away”, the all-powerful ruler is forced to “fall of his own weight and break in pieces”.
La Boétie reasoned that the rule of any government acting tyrannically would abruptly end as soon as its subjects withdrew their active support, for such power only comes from the “voluntary servitude” of its subjects. The tyrant has “nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you”.
Given that governments rule by a very few – the ruling class and its functionaries – they are highly susceptible to non-co-operation of the people.
La Boétie’s essay, Discours de la servitude volontaire (Discourse on Voluntary Servitude), is his greatest contribution to political thought. It remains relevant, 440 years after it was published, in an age when the public’s understanding of political resistance to institutionalised authority is largely quarantined by anti-protest and anti-assembly powers.
The essay concerns tyranny – the rule of one. America is still a democracy, of course, though it is now openly “flawed”, with some pointing to its emergent oligarchy. At the same time, attacks on the media, lying to the public, denigrating facts/science, scapegoating minorities and nepotism are all hallmarks of tyranny.
The notable feature of La Boétie’s political theory is that the origin of tyrannical power is irrelevant: whether by election, inheritance or force, if rulership is oppressive, it is tyrannical.
La Boétie interrogates the mind of the ruler and the subservient, and the strategies to overcome this relation of servitude. His second key insight flows from his counter-intuitive analysis of this dynamic. He does not place political agency or power in the hands of the tyrant, but in the people themselves. He rails:
Poor, wretched, and stupid peoples, you let yourselves be deprived before your own eyes.
All your “misfortune” descends “not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is”.
Responsibility for freedom is our own
La Boétie is unremitting in his criticism of servitude – the servile are “traitors” to themselves. They give tyranny its “eyes” to surveil, its arms to beat and its feet to trample freedom.
Nevertheless, La Boétie intends his work not to cajole but to awaken these voluntary servants to the understanding that their own liberation is in their power. As he writes:
You can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free.
This principle of non-co-operation forms the root of civil disobedience movements today. If tyrannical commands cannot be enforced without subjects to do the enforcing, then withdrawal of both consent and action is a pragmatic, peaceful and legitimate means for conventional politics to resist even the most narcissistic of wig-wearers today.
And we can point to real-life heroes acting out this defiance today: Badlands National Park breaking its gag order to tweet facts of science, or NASA with its Rogue 1 doing the same.
At the same time, reliance on individual action can be confused and contradictory. For example, the battle at the airports over the Muslim immigration ban now seems to be between federal customs and Department of Homeland Security agents enforcing the executive order, and those following the Federal Court order barring deportations. The separation of powers is reliant on people serving this separation.
La Boétie was quick to realise that the key question is not how tyrannies remain in power, but why subjects do not withdraw their support. Fear and ideology, self-interest and habit all conspire so that the many acquiesce in their own subjection. In Trump’s oft-tweeted word: Sad!
So, while acts of peaceful withdrawal should be enough to cripple any oppressive regime, La Boétie’s thesis holds only on the condition that the many oppose the one.
Clinging to the tyrant
Here we run into two major problems. Some people lack the critical distance from their social order to question it. More problematic are those who benefit from Trump’s rule.
For La Boétie, this class is the most dangerous. Those who “cling to the tyrant”, who take “the bait toward slavery”, offer him their loyalty in return for institutionalised bribery (including, in today’s idiom, state contracts, tax breaks, administrative assistance and positions of influence). This 1% become the willing hands of tyranny, reaching throughout society.
Gustav Landauer calls this the “internal flaw”, that the people who “feed” tyranny “must stop doing so”. At this point, however, La Boétie leaves us with pure voluntarism as some rational hope against tyranny.
But even this idea can be educative. Much has been made of the punch on Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi who advocates “ethnic cleansing”. Some say that, rather than street violence, resistance must instead go “high”. Having a grandfather who was tortured by the SS, I am less sanguine. Spencer and his ilk promise horrific violence on a mass scale. Believe them.
Nevertheless, such punches seem very ineffective in making allies of centrists against Trump. For those who find such acts of resistance unsavoury La Boétie presents an effective middle ground. You don’t have to do anything: just don’t comply, ever. This principle could even appeal to libertarians.
So while La Boétie offers us no panacea for freedom, especially in overcoming political structures of tyranny, he helps jar our thought into recognising that it is we who can act for our freedom. To this end, he offers a legitimate means for even the most apolitical subject to resist:
Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.
The problem today is that many are willing to serve in their own oppression and even more willing to serve in the oppression of others. So the real question he leaves us with is: what are we to do against the willing servants of tyranny?
Let us turn to Shakespeare for guidance to describe the predicament in which Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, finds himself in his interactions with a bullying American president, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
– Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3.
In one of Shakespeare’s most oft-quoted passages Polonius is providing his son, Laertes, with some advice before he embarks for the bright lights of Paris.
It might be a stretch to compare Turnbull and the hot-headed Laertes; he is more like Hamlet in his indecision, it might be said. But in a transactional space he has placed his government in an invidious position by outsourcing a domestic political conundrum.
Neither a borrower nor lender be …
The Trump administration may well honour an agreement struck with the previous Obama administration in its lame-duck phase to take up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island. But the question will remain: will the diplomatic aggravation and reputational damage to leader and country have been worth it?
Turnbull’s spokespeople have been assiduous in their efforts to persuade us that an Australian prime minister stood up to the bully in the White House, and that rather than suffering a humiliating rebuff he gave a good account of himself.
That may be true, as far as it goes. But the point is, we should never have been in a position in the first place where we were relying on America’s good graces to salve an Australian domestic political problem at a moment when an American election was being fought on the refugee issue.
Let’s repeat: a deal of questionable probity was struck with an outgoing American administration in contradiction with the policy impulses of an incoming replacement.
No purpose is served now by arguing that few expected Donald Trump to prevail. That is one argument you cannot take to the bank.
If there is a reasonable explanation for Trump’s behaviour towards a friend and ally it is that he is being asked to sanction an arrangement that is antagonistic towards policies on which he was elected.
Whoever dreamed up this slithery refugees-for-politics arrangement in the prime minister’s office, or that of the immigration minister or the foreign minister, should be held to account for placing Australia’s reputation in hoc to an administration untethered form normal diplomatic niceities.
This proposed refugees-for-politics transaction might be characterised as an attempted end run around various United Nations refugee conventions.
My colleague at The Conversation, Michelle Grattan, has suggested that Turnbull cut his losses, tell Trump the deal is off, and offer those incarcerated on Nauru and Manus a “one-off” amnesty to come to Australia.
If Labor had the guts it would support such a course. But its position is even less principled than that of the government, if that is possible.
Labor both criticises its implementation and runs dead on such a transaction at the same time. This puts it in the position, discreditably, of both borrower and lender in this argument.
None of this is to suggest border controls be loosened, or that measures in place to counter unauthorised arrivals be relaxed. It is simply an argument to deal with an existing problem that has caused enormous rancour in Australia, and one that could be resolved if separated from politics.
Unfortunately, and in the case of a government bereft of an appealing political narrative, the “stop the boats” refugee mantra provides a port in a storm, it might be observed.
This brings us to the broader question of how countries like Australia might deal with a White House like no other in living memory.
If it is any comfort to Turnbull in his mendicant state as far as the refugee deal is concerned, leaders of comparable countries like Canada are faced with the same dilemma, and it is this. To what extent does Turnbull, or Justin Trudeau of Canada, or Angela Merkel of Germany, or Theresa May of Britain, assert their country’s values and at the same time criticise Trump at a moment when America’s own values are being trashed?
Trudeau perhaps provides the better model for an Australian prime minister seeking guidance about how to deal with the Trump phenomenon. Inside and outside the Canadian parliament, Trudeau has avoided direct criticism of the Trump administration, but he has made his views known via social media.
No such public sentiments have emanated from an Australian prime minister hostage to his party’s unsentimental refugee policy, and a supplicant on the issue to a new American administration.
For her part, Merkel did not dissemble, as might be expected, and in contrast to others, including Turnbull. Her spokesman said:
The chancellor regrets the US government’s entry ban against refugees and citizens of certain countries. She is convinced that the necessary decisive battle against terrorism does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin and a certain religion.
Finally, a word about the Battle of Hamel, of July 4, 1918. In the welter of words written about the Trump-Turnbull contretemps, in which an American president allegedly hung up on an Australian prime minister, much has been made of Australia having been America’s most steadfast ally from the first world war on.
It is true that American troops served alongside Australians under the command of then Lieutenant General John Monash. But it is also the case America’s commander, General John J. Pershing, whittled back American involvement on the ground for operational reasons.
In the end, a relatively small number of American soldiers were involved in what proved to be a successful operation in efforts to defeat the German army on the River Somme.
Like the reduced American commitment at Hamel, a Trump administration may seek to minimise its intake of refugees in what has proved to be an exercise in Australian diplomacy that has brought little credit to those involved.
The American embassy in Canberra has been forced to reaffirm that President Donald Trump’s undertaking to honour the refugee deal stands, after new doubt arose following an explosive story in the Washington Post.
Malcolm Turnbull refused to be drawn on a Washington Post report that Trump “blasted” him over the refugee deal in their weekend conversation, which the president told him was his worst call of the day.
Turnbull’s silence was taken as an effective broad confirmation of the Washingon Post story.
“‘This is the worst deal ever’, Trump fumed as Turnbull attempted to confirm that the United States would honour its pledge to take in 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention centre,” the Washington Post reported.
“Trump, who one day earlier had signed an executive order temporarily barring the admissions of refugees, complained that he was ‘going to get killed’ politically and accused Australia of seeking to export the ‘next Boston bombers’,” the story said.
“At one point Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day – including Russian President Vladimir Putin – and that, ‘This was the worst call by far’.”
The report said Trump had abruptly ended the call after 25 minutes when it had been expected to go for an hour.
It said Trump had told Turnbull it was his “intention” to honour the agreement. Turnbull told Trump that to honour it the US wouldn’t have to accept all the refugees, but only to allow each to go through the normal vetting procedures.
“At that, Trump vowed to subject each refugee to ‘extreme vetting’,” the Washington Post said, citing a senior US official who spoke to the paper.
One of the article’s two authors, Philip Rucker, said the sources for the story were “US officials who have been briefed on the specific details of the conversation”. Rucker is the White House bureau chief of the Washington Post. The other author, Greg Miller, covers the intelligence beat for the paper.
On Monday Turnbull described the conversation as “constructive”.
Peppered with questions at his Thursday news conference in Melbourne called to talk about energy, Turnbull repeatedly refused to be drawn. “I’m not going to comment on these reports of a conversation,” he said.
He did add that: “Australians know me very well. I always stand up for Australia in every forum.”
He repeated that he had received Trump’s assurance that the deal, negotiated with the Obama administration, would be honoured.
A US embassy spokesperson later said: “President Trump’s decision to honour the refugee agreement has not changed and [White House] spokesman Spicer’s comments [confirming this] stand. This was just reconfirmed to the State Department from the [White House] and on to this embassy at 13:15 Canberra time.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Turnbull should “talk straight to the Australian people” about what was going on. “We don’t want to find out our news from the Washington Post. We should hear it first from our prime minister.”