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.
With parliament resuming this week, the first Newspoll of 2017 has the government trailing Labor 46-54% on the two-party vote and the Coalition’s primary vote falling four points to 35%.
This is the seventh consecutive Newspoll with the ALP ahead and the worst for the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership.
In results that will send fresh tremors through Coalition members who had hoped to start the new year on a better footing, the government’s primary vote is seven points lower than at the election, which the government only just won. It last was this low when the first move was made against Tony Abbott’s leadership, two years ago.
The poll, published in Monday’s Australian, reflects the general trend of disillusioned voters looking for avenues to reflect their protests. It shows a surge in support for independents and minor parties, which have gone from 15% to 19%.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, soon to be tested at the Western Australian election, is polling 8% nationally.
Labor remains on 36% primary vote, unchanged since early December; the Greens remain on 10%.
Turnbull’s net satisfaction has marginally improved from minus 23 to minus 21, while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s has worsened, from minus 17 to minus 22. Turnbull leads Shorten as better prime minister – 42% (up one) to 30% (down two points).
The government, beset with an expense scandal and the loss of a minister, anger over pension changes and other problems, got no clear air over the summer break. Now parliament resumes amid the fallout from the Trump-Turnbull contretemps over the refugee deal, a push from some Liberal MPs to have same-sex marriage determined by a free vote in parliament, and the prospect of South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi defecting to lead his own conservative party.
Even Turnbull’s own issue of choice for the start of the year – energy policy – is not going as well as he hoped because of a lack of enthusiasm from energy companies and the financial sector for his advocacy of new “clean coal” power stations to be constructed.
In an interview with Network Nine on Sunday, Turnbull repeated he had “stood up for Australia” in dealing with Donald Trump, and said Trump had “absolutely not” asked for anything in return for saying he would honour the Obama administration’s deal to take refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.
Asked about any future military request that might be made, Turnbull said: “We assess all requests for military assistance on their merits, and there is no linkage, no linkage at all, between an arrangement relating to refugee settlement and any other matters.”
Turnbull was again cautious about the telephone call in which Trump was very aggressive.
“I’ve only said three things about the phone call with the president: firstly that it was frank and forthright; secondly that he gave a commitment that he would honour the refugee resettlement deal entered into by President Obama and thirdly that he did not hang up. The call ended courteously.
“Now I’ve got nothing more to say about the content of the phone call than that. It’s very important for me to be disciplined, to be calm and to pursue – in a very focused way – Australia’s national interests, and that’s what I do as Australia’s prime minister.”
On same-sex marriage Turnbull slapped down the new push for a free vote. “I’ve got no doubt that all of these matters will be discussed in the party room but I’m the prime minister, the government’s position is that which we took to the election, which is that this issue should be determined by a vote of every Australian in a plebiscite.”
A serious renewal of the same-sex marriage debate within the Liberal Party would be dangerous for Turnbull because it is a signature battle for the conservatives.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott at the weekend cast it in terms of Turnbull keeping his word. He told Fairfax Media: “Malcolm Turnbull made a clear election commitment that the marriage law would only change by way of people’s plebiscite, not free vote of the parliament. I’m sure he’ll honour that commitment. This isn’t about same-sex marriage, it’s about keeping faith with the people.”
Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne said on Sunday that there was no bill before the parliament to address marriage equality at this stage. “What happens down the track is a matter for the prime minister, for the cabinet, for the party room.”
In the Nine interview Turnbull, who gave the Liberals A$1.75 million for the campaign, made the startling revelation that when Tony Nutt became Liberal federal director at the end of 2015, “the party had so little money he had to work for several months without pay”.
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.
From time to time you come across self-serving fools who like to troll websites and splash their spam all over it. My Blogs suffer from this constantly and there is one who is constantly trying to spam a number of my sites day in and day out. I won’t mention his name as I don’t intend to give him any publicity or to in any way encourage visitors here to seek him out. I moderate my Blogs and only allow comments through that aid discussion of topics here in a useful manner, that don’t contain material I deem offensive, and that help to develop a sense of community. So if you must continue to post your material in the comments sections of my Blogs, rest assured that they are never read by visitors (or myself) and will never be read by them (or me). They are simply deleted and all of your time wasted. It will always be so.
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.