A week ago, the leaked transcript of the January telephone call between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump revealed Turnbull had told the president, “You can count on me. I will be there again and again.”
Now, as the US-North Korea verbal war intensifies, with fears it could run into a military conflict, Turnbull has made specific that general pledge.
In extended comments on Melbourne’s 3AW on Friday, Turnbull declared: “Be under no misapprehension – in terms of defence we [Australia and US] are joined at the hip”.
“Let’s be very clear … If there is an attack on the United States by North Korea, then the ANZUS treaty will be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States, just as if there was an attack on Australia, the United States would come to our aid.”
Asked what would happen in the event of an attack on the US territory of Guam, Turnbull said: “We would come to the aid of the United States. Now, how that manifests itself will obviously depend on the circumstances and the consultations with our allies.”
North Korea is threatening to launch missiles not at Guam itself but in the ocean nearby.
Ahead of a Friday briefing from military chiefs and intelligence and foreign policy experts, Turnbull underlined his point: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States”. The worsening crisis was among topics discussed in a Thursday night telephone conversation between Turnbull and US vice-president Mike Pence.
The 1951 ANZUS treaty says: “The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific”. (Article III)
“Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” (Article IV)
Despite the tight alliance, only once has ANZUS been invoked – by John Howard after the September 11 2001 attacks.
Mostly, when Australia has stood with the US militarily, the treaty has been not relevant or not needed.
Nor has ANZUS or the wider American alliance meant the US automatically supports Australia. Australian efforts to get America involved in regional clashes, notably Indonesia’s claims to West New Guinea, and the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation of the 1960s, were met with resistance.
Geoffrey Barker wrote in 2015, “In fact the US commitment to ANZUS has never been as strong as the Australian commitment”.
While Turnbull has trumpeted the message that Australia would support the US in a conflict with North Korea, Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, believes he has given a narrow, literal interpretation of the treaty and gone further than he had to.
“He’s missed the point that we have the right to judge our interests”, White says.
“Under article IV there is an obligation to act – there’s no obligation to act by contributing military forces. It’s always acknowledged that each side has the right to make a judgement about the kind of response it makes.”
The judgement, White argues, would depend on the particular circumstances. He outlines four scenarios of military conflict.
– an attack by the United States on North Korea, which some believed Trump was building up to in his words earlier this week, when he said continued threats to the US "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen"; – an attack by North Korea on the US; – North Korea firing its missiles to near Guam, but not on Guam; – A pre-emptive strike by the US to prevent North Korea completing the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.
White says that Turnbull has walked past the complexities of what might happen, and asks: “Is it in Australia’s interests to encourage the US by saying we’d support it unconditionally”?
Foreign minister Julie Bishop had been more circumspect. When it was put to her this week that we would be in the fight, if it came to that, given both ANZUS and Australia’s being a party to the Korean War ceasefire, she said: “In fact we were not a party in the legal sense to the armistice so there is no automatic trigger for Australia to be involved. As far as the ANZUS alliance is concerned, that is an obligation to consult. But of course we have been in constant discussion with our friends in the United States”.
Bishop carefully kept options open.
It is worth noting, however, that Kim Beazley, a former defence minister, has a different view of the ceasefire agreement. He wrote in The Strategist: “At the signing of the armistice in Korea in 1953 we agreed, with South Korea’s allies, that we would defend the South in the event of an attack by the North.”
If Australia became involved in a military conflict, it would be a limited contribution. It would be presence, rather than capability, that (as usual) would be important to the Americans.
As has become evident, Trump’s presidency presents Australia with serious management challenges in the alliance relationship, which is built into the foundations of Australian security policy.
This presidency is unlike any of its modern predecessors, and judging how to handle it is extremely difficult for the government. It’s interesting to note the new administration hasn’t yet even posted an ambassador to Australia.
Turnbull, with his personalised style of operating, has chosen to try to get up close and personal, talking as one businessman to another. Hence the “you can count on me” sort of line.
Turnbull may later nuance his Friday comments, but as they stand, they lock Australia into the unpredictability of unpredictable players. They also reflect, unvarnished, the reality that Australia always answers America’s call.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dealt Australia into the argument over how to respond to North Korea’s brinkmanship over its nuclear weapons program.
Debate persists over whether this is an absolute guarantee, but Turnbull left no wiggle room in his declaration that Australia would regard an attack on the US as a casus belli. He said:
America stands by its allies, including Australia, and we stand by the United States. So be very clear on that. If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked.
Turnbull’s forthright intervention might be regarded as fairly unexceptional were it not for the fact it aligns Australia with a US president untested in a crisis, and one who has shown a predisposition to shoot from the lip.
In effect, Turnbull is mortgaging Australian security policy to an unpredictable commander-in-chief whose instincts may be to take the safety catch off first and ask questions later.
Turnbull should remind himself that recent experience in which an Australian predecessor followed the US precipitately into the sands of Mesopotamia did not end well.
In his interview Turnbull might have calibrated his remarks more carefully when he said that: “In terms of defence, we are joined at the hip”.
This recalls unfortunate prime ministerial contributions such as Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” at the time of Vietnam, or John Howard’s characterisation of Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific. We can do without these sorts of glib statements.
Turnbull’s undertaking to apply the ANZUS Treaty should the US be attacked recalls Howard’s decision in September 2001 to invoke the treaty’s mutual defence elements after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
This activation of Australia’s security obligations under ANZUS was largely pro forma. No follow-up ensued that could be described as action under the treaty itself. Australia’s support for the US in Afghanistan was part of a NATO deployment.
The question then becomes: how seriously should we regard an escalating war of words between a US president and North Korea in which Donald Trump has doubled down on his earlier “fire and fury” threats?
No-one should make light of the risks involved of a conflagration on the Korean Peninsula, which remains potentially the epicentre of the world’s most-destructive conflict. Nor should threats by North Korea’s idiosyncratic leader Kim Jong-un to fire a missile toward the American Pacific territory of Guam be dismissed as a stunt.
Where the real risks lie in a volatile environment is a miscalculation that could precipitate conflict that spirals out of control with unpredictable – possibly terrible – consequences.
South Korea’s vulnerability to a North Korea first – or retaliatory – strike cannot be overstated. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within range of North Korean artillery, leaving aside a nuclear threat.
This raises the question of the extent to which North Korea has acquired the ability to arm its missile systems with a nuclear warhead, and whether intelligence reports of its development of a “miniaturised” nuclear device are correct.
It is not clear that North Korea has achieved this level of sophistication. However, no responsible leader can afford to exclude the possibility that North Korea is further advanced in its nuclear program than had been assumed.
In an analysis on the war of words that has erupted between Trump and Kim, the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way:
The war of words underscores both the American rejection of the idea of vulnerability to a nuclear-armed Kim and the increasing dangers of miscalculation that would accompany a North Korean capability to follow through on its past offensive threats to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.
The intensity of the rhetorical escalation underscores the fact that North Korea is on a trajectory of confrontation with Washington that Defence Secretary James Mattis characterised as “catastrophic”.
Since there is no chance of Kim giving up his nuclear capability short of ironclad US guarantees of his regime’s survival, the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear pretensions will likely remain intractable. What represents the best outcome is a de-escalation of tensions, an end to the war of words, and some prospect of negotiations that would rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
If there is a model for such an arrangement it lies in the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran that led to an effective freezing of its nuclear program. Unhelpfully, the Trump administration persists in claiming Iran is breaching this agreement – without supporting evidence.
This is especially destructive at a moment when the US and its allies need to reduce tensions, not add to them.
In all of this, the best outcome is for North Korea to be drawn back into negotiations on its nuclear program under the threat of escalating sanctions to which China and Russia are party.
In the meantime, as the Council on Foreign Relations puts it:
The more the crisis escalates, the greater the dangers of miscalculation, and the harder it will be for either side to find an exit ramp from a high-stakes crisis.
Talk of the next Cuban missile crisis may be premature, but the risks of a destructive conflict in which nuclear weapons are deployed cannot be disregarded. This is shaping as the Trump administration’s first big security policy crisis.
On August 8, US President Donald Trump used his most extreme language yet in relation to North Korea. He warned the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, that any North Korean aggression will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before”, if it does not stop threatening the US.
Trump said North Korea’s threats had gone “beyond a normal state” and that “North Korea best not make any more threats”. But his reaction is at odds with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent comments that the US is open to dialogue with North Korea and is not seeking regime change.
And by promising “fire and fury” Trump actually plays into Kim’s hands and replicates the aggressive and posturing rhetoric of the North Korean regime.
North Korean state media predictably responded with reports Kim is “actively considering” a pre-emptive missile attack on the US Pacific island territory of Guam, with the country’s military experts reportedly drawing up plans for this.
The role of personality
One of Trump’s clear goals from the beginning of his campaign for the presidency was his desire to be seen as a strongman on the national and international stage.
His level of ego and his obsession with appearing to be the aggressor is all very well at a town hall rally. But on the international stage it is an incredibly risky part of his personality that places the entire Asian region – if not the world – at risk.
So-called strongmen bring a distinct style and flair to international crises. Trump wants to sort things out personally. This often means he is prepared to ignore the advice of the highly trained diplomats who have been working on this issue for decades.
This kind of highly personalised, ad-hoc diplomacy may be exciting and play well for a domestic audience keen to see their leader as someone to be reckoned with. But it is inevitably destabilising and counter-productive to actually solving critical issues, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Significantly, this is the first time we are dealing with unpredictable characters on both sides of the North Korean nuclear dispute.
Previously, North Korea would have been viewed as the most risky party in such a crisis. But right now its behaviour is entirely predictable, particularly in the face of confusion and a deliberate escalation of the US response – which Trump is leading.
There are more moderate forces within the US government, but their actions are being repeatedly drowned out by an unpredictable president who appears to have no appreciation of the damage and threat his statements are causing.
Strongman or madman?
The issue with Trump’s ad-hoc response and commentary on North Korea is the inconsistent messages this sends to an already paranoid and isolated regime.
North Korea is led by a power-driven despot who will not hesitate to put his own needs and political survival well above the needs of his people. Kim is already paranoid about US actions. And the increasingly disjointed nature of Trump’s dealings with North Korea serves to strengthen the regime’s claim that the US is actively seeking to destroy it.
Prior to the Trump administration the US had taken a relatively consistent approach to North Korea through the Clinton, Bush and Obama years. Essentially, the US has previously always been careful to provide an exit strategy for North Korea.
By contrast, there are several critical errors with Trump’s approach. It is imperative to allow leaders like Kim the space and flexibility to back down with some semblance of dignity. Irrespective of his character, political collapse in North Korea would be dangerous for the world – and disastrous for the region.
Trump needs to tread carefully and allow space for negotiators and diplomats to do their job. The inconsistency in message that is apparent through his tweets and off-the-cuff comments compromises the actions and statements of US diplomats working on this issue.
This undermines any progress that may be being made, and pushes North Korea further toward a critical nuclear tipping point.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has previously warned of an “overwhelming” response to nuclear provocation by North Korea, but said a military solution in North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale”.
As a direct result of Trump’s actions, what could have been a week of triumph as the international community came together to enact harsh sanctions on North Korea has instead perhaps drawn us one step closer to the tragedy Mattis predicted.
What is the point of international co-operation in matters of shared concern? According to the UN Charter, its founding member nations were determined to achieve overarching societal progress based on human rights.
The international legal system of the UN era continues to attempt, with mixed success, to promote these goals.
Within intricately connected global systems that produce ever-more complex problems, a framework for international co-operation is essential. The international legal system, however imperfect, must be maintained as a bulwark against the wholesale pursuit of domestic political interests.
Yet our belief in the efficacy of this system is challenged when the stark reality of international power relations is laid bare. It seems the more insight we have into what happens behind the scenes, the harder it becomes to convince the sceptical that international law has either legal or normative power.
The shocking conversation reveals that the deal for the US to accept some of those asylum seekers currently detained offshore – a key feature of the Australian government’s effort to close its offshore detention centre on Manus Island – imposes no obligation on the US beyond “going through the process”. According to Turnbull:
… the agreement … does not require you to take 2,000 people. It does not require you to take any.
Trump made it abundantly clear that he did not see either the US national interest or his personal popularity being served by upholding the agreement:
… boy that will make us look awfully bad. Here I am calling for a ban where I am not letting anybody in and we take 2,000 people. Really it looks like 2,000 people that Australia does not want and I do not blame you by the way, but the United States has become like a dumping ground.
Trading lives in a ‘refugee swap’
The deal between Australia and the US remains mired in confusion almost a year on. Australia committed to resettling some Central American refugees currently in Costa Rica, as part of a US-led program.
Soon after, Turnbull announced an agreement with the Obama administration that would see the US resettle perhaps 1,250 refugees currently detained on Manus Island and Nauru.
The transcript confirms that Trump was resistant to inheriting what he described as a “rotten deal”:
I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.
Turnbull sought to reassure Trump he could sell the agreement to the US public as consistent with his campaign promise to tighten immigration controls.
Turnbull emphasised his and Trump’s shared identity as businessmen and represented the “deal” as a business transaction that ought to be upheld, at least formally:
Please, if we can agree to stick to the deal, you have complete discretion in terms of a security assessment. The numbers are not 2,000 but 1,250 to start. Basically, we are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States. We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take. The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat. So we would rather take a not very attractive guy that help you out then to take a Noble [sic] Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.
Despite Trump’s reluctance, US immigration officials have conducted some screening interviews with refugees on Manus Island. However, these were suspended mid-run and the officials withdrew to the US, once it was announced that the US’ annual humanitarian refugee quota had already been fulfilled.
Those detained have been told that interviews will resume and that resettlement in the US is still on the table. However, whether the Trump administration ever had any serious intention to be party to a resettlement solution is now in doubt, as is Turnbull’s commitment to anything more than a domestic political win.
On Manus Island, the leaked transcripts arrived amid heightened tensions. Protests have been ongoing since Tuesday, when water and power services were withdrawn in the largest compound. Local police, detention centre guards and reportedly the Australian Federal Police are attempting to remove those deemed “prisoners” by Trump – something that Turnbull, perhaps tellingly, did not dispute.
This latest insight into the international game of trading unwanted human beings compounds the frustration and sense of injustice that those trapped in Australia’s offshore detention system are experiencing.
Proof that Australia fails to see the humanity of refugees
Turnbull’s position appears to be that the people detained on Manus Island and Nauru are “good” and deserving of protection somewhere, but that his domestic political environment demands they must be treated like criminals.
In the call, Turnbull repeatedly refers to the people imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru as “economic refugees”. This pernicious framing is consistent with government messaging about “boat people” and “queue jumpers”.
In reality, no refugees are accepted on economic grounds under Australia’s rules. It is disingenuous of Turnbull to make such an inference about those detained in offshore detention, considering that almost 90% of those on Manus Island have been assessed as bona-fide refugees by both Australia and the UNHCR.
Turnbull’s indifference to human suffering is chilling, surprising even Trump:
We should do that too. You are worse than I am.
When two of the most powerful men in the world conspire to inflict further harm on some of the world’s most vulnerable to satisfy domestic agendas, we truly need to question whether the goals of the international community as constituted in the UN are being upheld by our elected officials.
Dehumanising refugees and treating them as the problem avoids any serious consideration of why people are displaced. This is where the international community should be working together.
Adopting a punitive approach to those seeking protection not only goes against international law, but it is an insult to those that uphold Australia and the US as leading beacons for human rights and freedom.
The Washington Post’s leaked transcript of a January phone call between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlights the failure of Australia’s deal with the US to take refugees from offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
It also reveals Turnbull’s desperation not to let people who came by boat settle in Australia.
The refugee deal was made in the dying days of the Obama administration. Trump, upon assuming office, tweeted his dismay over it:
Here are a few of the key issues revealed in the leaked transcript.
Turnbull: ‘You can decide to take them or to not take them after vetting. You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you.’
Turnbull’s comments highlight a key fault with the US deal.
Throughout the call, Turnbull reiterates that the only obligation on the US under this deal is to consider taking refugees. Trump asks:
Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any?
That is the point I have been trying to make.
The transcript highlights concerns that the deal could end up with the US deciding not to take any refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. A key question for the Turnbull government is what its plan is for the rest of the people left to languish indefinitely.
The harms of offshore processing are well known. Accommodation standards, facilities and services in the detention centres remain well below international standards. There have been consistent and alarming reports of abuse (sexual and otherwise). There has been one murder and six other deaths from inadequate medical care in offshore detention centres.
Turnbull: ‘We will then hold up our end of the bargain’
During the conversation, Turnbull highlighted that in exchange for the US taking people from Manus Island and Nauru:
We will then hold up our end of the bargain by taking in our country 31 [inaudible] that you need to move on from.
This is a reference to the commitment the Turnbull government made in 2016 to resettle in Australia an unspecified number of Central American refugees currently residing in a camp in Costa Rica. This aspect of the deal still remains unclear, with the transcript “inaudible” during this key moment.
Although the Turnbull government strenuously denied the deal was a “people swap”, it has been cast as a quid-pro-quo arrangement, whereby the Australian government can publicly maintain its unwavering commitment to an offshore detention policy that is no longer sustainable.
Turnbull: ‘The people – none of these people are from the conflict zone. They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.’
This statement highlights either wilful ignorance or blatant deceitfulness by Turnbull in an attempt to sell our responsibility to the US.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s statistics show that of the 2,235 people on Manus Island and Nauru who have been assessed, almost 80% have been found to be persecuted refugees.
The term “economic refugee” is also a misnomer. Those found to be refugees are people fleeing persecution, based on who they are or what they believe.
By telling Trump these people are “basically economic refugees”, Turnbull also misrepresents the ongoing persecution and conflict that people from these countries are experiencing daily.
Trump: ‘What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?’
Trump raises a good point about Australia’s “discrimination against boats”.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has highlighted Australia inhumane and discriminatory policies directed at boat arrivals. This includes mandatory and prolonged detention, as well as indefinite separation from families, restrictions on social services, and no access to citizenship.
Trump: ‘I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.’
Trump’s insistence that the people detained by Australia on Manus Island and Nauru “are bad” – which Turnbull did not contest – demonstrates the disdain and lack of understanding common to both the Australian and US governments with respect to forced displacement.
The notion of immigration detention being akin to “prison” underscores the punitive nature of the Turnbull government’s approach to people desperately seeking asylum – a description Turnbull fails to rebut.
Trump’s repeated attempts to draw a link between genuine refugees and terrorism are deeply troubling. ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis has said no such link exists. In Australia and the US, both the media and the government have used this misleading narrative to justify the persecution of refugees and asylum seekers.
Ultimately, the transcript reveals that Australia maintains control and power over the centres – essentially highlighting that Manus Island and Nauru are Australia’s responsibility.
As Turnbull said:
They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them.
As Australia maintains responsibility for these people, we must ensure their safety and dignity. As the transcripts reveal, the US deal may amount to nothing.
A decade ago, the Howard government faced the same question of what to do with hundreds of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island who had nowhere else to go. John Howard eventually realised the only option was to bring them to Australia. Turnbull must do the same – and quickly.
We’ve known for months the content and tenor of that explosive January phone call between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull about the refugee deal, but this week’s leak of the transcript to The Washington Post provides crucial detail and nuance.
It also opens the exchange to two interpretations, which quickly fed into the domestic political battle.
You can read the conversation as showing Turnbull playing the strong leader, bringing measured argument and, despite constant provocation, an even temper to trying to have Trump honour the deal Australia made with the Obama administration to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
Or you can observe Turnbull as the rather desperate supplicant, with the domestic political importance of the deal being his overwhelming concern.
It’s obvious Trump was only minimally across the agreement’s terms, under which the United States had agreed to take up to 1,250 refugees.
He exaggerated the numbers, referring to 2,000, even saying he’d heard 5,000. They had to be “bad” people – they were “in prison”.
He found it difficult to get his head around the boat issue. “What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?” Maybe that questioning wasn’t as strange as it sounds, in light of Turnbull declaration that “we would rather take a not very attractive guy that help[s] you out than to take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat”.
Above all Trump was preoccupied with how accepting the agreement would make him look.
Turnbull suggested a way to square away the contradictions in his situation. But the president wasn’t countenancing such spin, refusing to concede he could present the deal as consistent with his just-announced exclusionist policy.
“This shows me to be a dope”, he said, in a not unrealistic assessment.
“This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country. And now I am agreeing to take 2,000 people.”
In their excruciating exchanges, Turnbull extracted the president’s reluctant agreement to honour the arrangement. But agreement to what exactly?
As Turnbull put his case, he seemed to shrink the deal to be little more than the Americans having to simply put the refugees through a process.
Asking Trump to “hear me out”, Turnbull said: “The obligation is for the United States to look and examine and take up to and only if they so choose – 1,250 to 2,000”. (Elsewhere he clarified it was 1,250.)
“Every individual is subject to your vetting. You can decide to take them or to not take them after vetting. You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to only go through the process.”
In fact the deal “does not require you to take any”.
Turnbull’s minimising the US’s obligation is particularly important in light of the fact that so far not one of the refugees has been moved, and now the American general refugee quota is full – delaying any departures until October at the earliest. After the agreement was confirmed by the new administration, the timetable has been tortoise-like.
Turnbull’s desperation is obvious in the conversation. “This is a very big issue for us, particularly domestically,” he said at one point, and at another, “I am asking you as a very good friend.
“This is a big deal. It is really, really important to us that we maintain it. It does not oblige you to take one person that you do not want”.
Turnbull sought connection with the then-new US leader by referencing their common business backgrounds. Trump might relate to that, though the irritated president said he respected Turnbull but was sure “you have brokered many a stupid deal in business”.
Turnbull described himself as a “highly transactional businessman like yourself”.
His case to Trump was pitched in blatantly transactional terms. He referenced the Central Americans Australia had agreed to take, making it clear it was a quid pro quo for the Manus/Nauru arrangement – something he’d previously denied. If necessary Australia would take more people – “anyone that you want us to take”.
He stressed the deal required Australia “to do a number of things for the United States”.
At the end, after an angry Trump refused to talk about Syria and North Korea and was just determined to get off the phone – “I have had it” – came this exchange:
Turnbull: “Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us.”
Trump: “It is important to you and it is embarrassing to me. It is an embarrassment to me, but at least I got you off the hook. So you put me back on the hook.”
Turnbull: “You can count on me. I will be there again and again.”
Trump: “I hope so.”
Turnbull was undesirably fulsome in declaring he’d be “there again and again”, especially given the nature of this president.
This is even clearer in retrospect – Trump’s capriciousness and his administration’s dysfunction has only increased in the months since the phone call.
One expects Trump will not forget he is owed for the favour he sees himself having done in endorsing the deal.
“I will be there again and again” may go down as the Turnbull equivalent of “all the way with LBJ (Harold Holt) and “we’ll go a Waltzing Matilda with you” (John Gorton).
The government’s challenge is to position itself with this difficult administration in a way that keeps the alliance strong but does not compromise Australia or its values. To be in Trump’s debt is unfortunate; for Turnbull to make what sounds like a gushy if vague pledge is unwise.
One final thing. When Trump described the earlier reports of the call as “fake news” and Turnbull, sitting beside him in New York, agreed, they were both lying. We knew it at the time, but the transcript has provided an effective lie detector.
Malcolm Turnbull’s opponents, including those reflexively opposed to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies, would be hard put to take exception to the substance of a leaked conversation with US President Donald Trump soon after January’s presidential inauguration.
In an early round of congratulatory phone calls from world leaders Turnbull broached an agreement reached with the previous Obama administration for the US to take 1,250 such refugees in exchange for an Australian undertaking to resettle displaced people from Central America.
The latter “understanding” has not been publicised as far as I know, but it was integral to the quid pro quo that enabled an agreement to be reached by the Turnbull government to relocate asylum seekers stranded on Manus Island and Nauru.
The incarceration of would-be refugees, economic or otherwise, who have arrived by boat on Australia’s shores is the running sore of Australian politics.
The Turnbull government has maintained a steadfast “stop the boats” policy, which was instituted by Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott, to widespread international condemnation and persistent domestic criticism.
The Labor opposition supports such a policy, while seeking to convey the impression it would apply it more humanely. In reality, there is virtually no difference between the two sides of politics.
When Washington Post published leaked details of a fractious conversation between Turnbull and Trump earlier this year, an impression given then was that Australia’s prime minister was treated disrespectfully, and indeed had yielded ground to a bombastic president.
What the now-leaked full transcript shows is that far from yielding, Turnbull held his ground as he patiently – and courteously – sought to explain the complexities of Australian asylum-seeker policy to a cantankerous president who had himself been elected on a “stop the illegals” platform.
A fair judgement is that Turnbull set out Australia’s position in a manner that would not have been out of a place in a barrister’s deposition to an interlocutor who had little clue about the complexities of Australian immigration policy, and seemed to care less.
Typifying the dysfunction of a conversation between two men who appeared locked in a cycle of mutual incomprehension are the following extracts.
Trump: Does anybody know who these people are? Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they going to become the Boston bomber in five years? Or two years? Who are these people?
Turnbull: Let me explain. We know exactly who they are. They have been on Nauru or Manus for over three years and the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.
Trump: Malcolm, but they arrived on a boat.
Turnbull: The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat.
Trump: What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats? No, I know, they come from certain regions. I get it.
Turnbull: The problem with the boats is that you are basically outsourcing your immigration program to people smugglers, and also you get thousands of people drowning at sea.
And so the conversation continued like a Beckett play, with Trump venting about the bad deal struck by his predecessor.
What emerges from these exchanges is that the US president was either inadequately briefed or had not absorbed what he had been told about a refugee deal leftover from the previous administration.
What it also reveals is that once fixated on a point of view, namely that he was talking about the broader problem of unauthorised immigration not the more specific issue of asylum seekers being brought to Australia by people smugglers, it was difficult for Trump to comprehend the distinction.
In Trump’s first weeks in office, it may have been unreasonable to expect him to be across these sorts of issues. But the transcript reflects some of the challenges America’s allies face in dealing with an administration whose chief executive knows less than he should about issues that come across his desk, and perhaps more to the point is not a good listener.