Features Australia

Hanging on the telephone

11 February 2017

9:00 AM

11 February 2017

9:00 AM

January 29, 2017 might be remembered by Australians and Americans as the day when the President of the United States, in a temper tantrum, banged down the phone on the Prime Minister of Australia. Or so it was reported when details of the call came to light five days later. Perhaps it will be the only such day; then again, perhaps not. Why this is remarkable hardly needs explaining, but that it is so can be readily appreciated from a national YouGov survey, coincidentally conducted in the US on January 28th–February 1st, which revealed that Australia is the country Republicans call America’s strongest ally (the second-most among Independents and the fourth-most—behind France, oddly enough—among Democrats). To be reminded that we are held in such high esteem by ordinary Americans is reassuring, but let’s be honest: why wouldn’t they?

Before considering what led to this unprecedented diplomatic convulsion, and before analysing its significance, let’s first acknowledge the remarkable basis on which the response of Australian and the US media to the evolving fracas has been delineated. Opinion has been divided not along national lines (as might have been predicted under ‘normal’ standards), but along ideological ones. That it should be so may explain the remarkable extent (perhaps unparalleled in modern times) to which the imbroglio received attention here in the US, notwithstanding American adoration for Australia. The political centre of gravity that has shaped the emerging commentary is the fate of 1,250 asylum seekers detained by the Australian government on Manus Island and Nauru. Around 75 per cent of them happen to originate from the seven Muslim-majority countries from which President Trump, two days before his phone call with Prime Minster Turnbull, imposed a 90-day ban on travel to the US by an executive order. While the exact nature and extent of the theatrics during that phone call remain unclear, they were headlined by the vainglorious Washington Post on February 1, (No ‘G’day, mate’: On call with Australian prime minister, Trump badgers and brags). Since then the Post has furnished us with an abundance of opinion—both its own and aggregated (much of it tendentious)—and political satire, as well as the odd substantiated fact or two.


The human and diplomatic elements that make up the gravitational epicentre of this media maelstrom may be self-evident. So, are the media in conniptions over refugees, or are they in a state of shock at the indecorous posturing by a new US president towards his arguably closest ally? The answer is partly both, and partly neither. Is this development likely to be ultimately inconsequential, or might the fallout be dramatic? At this point, the outcome is uncertain. The debate over what precipitated the apparent stoush, and what might happen next, is no less polarised than those that have come to define President Trump’s nascent incumbency. Again, the story is remarkable in that it is not simply a blunt example of Mr Trump’s famous/infamous character (however flawed that might be); it is also an instructive example of the emerging political doctrine known as Trumpism, the central plank of which is prioritising America’s interests above anyone else’s. Such a distillation does not reveal itself upon indulging in the breathlessness of the Washington Post, the Australian, or virtually all the mainstream media—on both sides of the Pacific. ‘Why would he pick a fight with Australia? Everybody loves Australia!’ has been a familiar refrain over on this side. Well yes, but…

Glossed over, or not mentioned at all, is the fact that the President was blindsided immediately prior to and during his conversation with Mr Turnbull. Depending on media outlets’ political leanings, they will either acknowledge that Mr Trump’s surprise may have been engineered, or they won’t. They are likely not even aware of the Machiavellian planning which clearly took place. Whether widely reported at the time or not, Mr Turnbull announced, on September 20, 2016 at the UN in New York, that Australia would resettle an unreported number of undocumented Central American immigrants who were being housed at American camps in Costa Rica. What appears to have been overlooked, especially in the Australian media, is that this curious agreement was, as reported by TIME magazine, the initial half of a still-sketchy arrangement that Mr Turnbull negotiated with his political ally, President Obama (let’s not pretend Messrs Turnbull and Obama, in relation to each other, were otherwise). In exchange for taking in the Central Americans (the costly housing of whom was presumably a headache for Obama), Australia would be able to offload 1,250 illegal immigrants detained on Nauru and Manus Island (who without question had been a political migraine for Turnbull) onto the US. The terms of the latter part of the deal were announced—quietly—less than a week after Mr Trump unexpectedly won the US election in November (such news would not have been given much oxygen in the aftermath of Trump’s victory in any case). The suddenly urgent but successful closure of the deal by Turnbull while Obama was still in office would surely have been a relief for the PM (aware that Trump had campaigned vigorously against such policies). Perhaps this explains the Australian leader’s exuberant but weird posing for a selfie with Obama only a week later at the APEC summit in Lima, Peru.

Word in the US is that when President Trump abruptly announced his executive order to immediately halt the travel plans of anyone on their way to the US from one of the seven countries on his list, he was unaware of the Turnbull-Obama deal, or that someone within his administration had to have signed off on its exemption from the ban. If Mr Trump was blindsided in such a way (as he surely must have been if this chronology is correct)—seemingly immediately prior to his scheduled conversation with the Australian PM—we can assume all huffing and puffing by the Washington Post and its mainstream-media, anti-Trump allies is essentially or even completely true.

If so, exactly which part of Trump’s not-so-diplomatic behaviour is surprising: accusing Turnbull of wanting to send him ‘more Boston bombers’, telling him that of the four phone calls he’d had had that day (including one with Vladimir Putin), the one with him was ‘the worst by far’, and banging down the phone on him? It’s difficult not to view Obama’s and Turnbull’s deal-making as, at best a grubby quid pro quo, and at worst, a malevolent middle-finger at Trump from an angry Obama—wittingly aided and abetted by a sycophantic Australian PM. Should President Trump decide to put the kibosh on the deal, it would be swift justice.

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