MUNGO MacCALLUM. Trump and Turnbull.

The problem is not with America and Australia – it is with Trump and Turnbull, and more urgently with Turnbull. Sooner or later he will have to decide: does he continue as the next in line of Trump’s Aunt Sallies, punching bags and door mats or does he have a plan B? Perhaps it is finally time to unleash his inner political animal – assuming, of course, that he actually has one.  

Malcolm Turnbull declares determinedly that he is not a political animal.

Well, perhaps not: maybe he is a political vegetable, silent and immobile, fed on copious amount of bullshit.

It is hard to imagine a week that went so far off the rails, or one in which the management of hope and expectation went so awry. It was supposed to be the grand overture for the year of delivery: a meeting of minds with his fellow businessman Donald Trump followed by a triumphal address to the faithful via the National Press Club in which the hopes, dreams and aspiration for the yearning masses would be turned into reality by the glorious leader.

We shall, of course, return to that phone call later, but at first it seemed to have gone pretty much okay, even if Turnbull refused to say what had actually been discussed. But the Press Club was initially a disappointment and ultimately a fiasco.

Turnbull spent much of his time berating Bill Shorten for ramping up the renewable energy target and spruiking the myth of clean coal technology, a process in which the Australian industry has shown no interest at all unless it can be massively subsidised by a compliant government.

And the positive bits, such as they were, were a reprise on the need for corporate tax cuts and a revamp of the plans for child care services, paid for, naturally, by other welfare measures. Turnbull no doubt considers these solid and worthwhile measures, but they are hardly likely to capture the imaginations of millions of disillusioned voters.

But then it got worse. The rumours of Turnbull’s massive gift to the Liberal Party on the eve of the last election had been around for a while, and it was believed that all would be revealed when the annual accounting was made public that week. But Turnbull, ever the lawyer, discovered loophole and leapt through it.

If his own contribution could be counted as the start of the new financial year – a couple of days before the July 2 election – disclosure could be postponed for another year. So Turnbull stood pat, telling the mugs nothing while insisting that he would do everything within the rules.

All that proved, of course, was the at the rules were hopelessly inadequate; Turnbull had been, in the words of a previous generation, too clever by half and belatedly his advisers, such as they are, realised it. So eventually he came clean on ABC TV of all places and admitted that he had slipped a lazy $1.75 million to the party funds in the last year.

There was always going to be a backlash about his out of touch opulence, which duly arrived; but the delay and procrastination made it much worse: not for the first time the Prime Minister appeared mean and tricky. In one sense, though in only one, it was almost a relief when the distraction was subsumed by the Trump tsunami.

The leaking of the phone call was a calculated and deliberate attempt to make Trump look tough and decisive, and, by contrast, to make Turnbull look weak and vacillating. It put Turnbull in the worst possible light: the man who connived with Barack Obama to empty Australia’s illegal immigrants from their prisons (Trump’s words) and swamp America with terrorists preparing to bomb the next Boston marathon.

Turnbull had to plead, to talk about the great longstanding alliances in which Australia had committed to American wars, to kowtow shamelessly in order to keep his refugee swap still on the table. before Trump, exasperated, ended the call; presumably he hung up, although to say so was considered impolite. And when the leak occurred, Trump immediately confirmed it by tweeting about the dumb deal.

And although his rhetoric was, as always, a bit over the top, the fact that it was, and is, a dumb deal is uncontestable. To spend millions ferrying the refugees from Manus and Nauru half way around the world in order to be bring back another lot of refugees from Costa Rica and install them in Australia is manifestly silly. It has nothing to do with national policy or Australia’s interest: it is a cynical, even squalid, political fix.

But it is one in which Turnbull has now invested far more political capital; than he actually possesses, so if it falls over he is in deep shit. And it might yet collapse in a screaming heap: Trump, like any good businessman, in hedging his bets partly by insisting that he is still studying the deal and partly through the mechanism of extreme vetting, which may mean that few if any of the refugees qualify to enter America. Indeed, given Trump’s predilection for torture, if the vetting is sufficiently extreme some may not even survive it.

It has been a thoroughly unhappy experience for Turnbull, and a humiliating one; in spite of his assurances that he would always stand up for Australia, he didn’t – he didn’t even stand up for himself.

In the bigger picture it need not matter much: even if Trump doesn’t much care about alliances, the overwhelming mass of the American military-industrial complex does, and Australia is too valuable an asset to abandon: the station at Pine Gap alone makes an irresistible bargaining chip. The alliance will lumber on, although it is more of a symbol than a real protection: our great and powerful friend will defend us if, and only if, it is in its own interests to do so. And that goes double in the age of Trump.

The problem is not with America and Australia – it is with Trump and Turnbull, and more urgently with Turnbull. Sooner or later he will have to decide: does he continue as the next in line of Trump’s Aunt Sallies, punching bags and door mats or does he have a plan B? Perhaps it is finally time to unleash his inner political animal – assuming, of course, that he actually has one.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist. He was a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery for many years.

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3 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Trump and Turnbull.

  1. Jaquix says:

    Just listened to a very angry Turnbull lecturing his party faithful this morning, the lies ! How everything the Liberal and National Parties do is for the good of Australian families! What a threat Bill Shorten is to that, wrecking this and that. One little sentence stood out, speaking about out “sovereign borders”. “Look at the chaos (….) in Europe, its all caused by not having secure borders”. Big elephant in the room Malcolm, your government has continued to cause millions of Syrians to flee from the bombing and destruction of their country. The cause of their fleeing is not lack of “secure borders” but the war raging within their own country. You could tell Turnbull was angry, and no doubt the thought and sight of Bernardi sitting there in the room, waiting to make his move away from the Liberals, would have fuelled that. Great to see them all fighting among themselves, the more splinters the better I say. And Turnbull had the cheek to warn voters pre 2nd July not to vote for the chaos and disunity in the Labor Party !!! What a forked tongue he has.

  2. John Ward says:

    Coal is not cheap, reliable and affordable.
    Coal is, across the board, exceptionally subsidised, political corrupting and malignant.
    The IMF calculates that Australians subsidisations to the Fossil Fuel Industry account for hidden adverse costs spread out across the states and the ATO, that ultimately, permanently come out of taxpayers’ pockets.
    At the same time Malcolm Turnbull has been subsidising the fossil fuel industry with (the IMF estimates) $1,712 per Australian a year or $41 billions of taxpayer funds.
    This includes exploration funding for Geoscience Australia and tax deductions for mining and petroleum exploration.
    Lowering business taxes is really just another subsidy offered to control a government policy. For instance, he price is governed by where direct and indirect outlays and subsidisations are concealed.
    The price of electricity is an intrinsic deceit of government and a political choice these days to prolong the use of Coal as a squalid deal by both conservative parties and their generous donors.
    The level of, malfeasance and misfeasance and corruption in Federal and State Governments will someday be addressed by courts as a matter of urgency. The High Court and Federal Circuit Courts, are ultimately the only Judicial bodies with the constitutional authority to address these executive levels of wrongdoing. The Government made commitments to meet its self-imposed targets to the United Nations and in the latest Paris Climate Change Agreement, which it has demonstrated it has no intention to honour.
    The same IMF financial forensic methods applied to the price of coal-generated electricity, must but does not account the cost of ‘Black Lung’ in miner’s and pollution related disease and many thousands of preventable deaths among the general population and workforce.

    Coal is not cheap and has not ever been ‘cheap and affordable,’ t
    Taxpayer money is handed to the Fossil fuel Industry in the form of subsidies.
    The fossils fuel industry donates to the Liberal and National Party, the IPA, the Sydney Institute, the Menzies Centre Et al., in turn the LNP Looks the other way as international corporations remove profits by ‘paying HQ for research and any other dodgy scheme the ATO allows, they do these things, without paying Australia a fair tax, while they plunder our resources.

    Ultimately, the LNP is funded with taxpayer receipts which started out as subsidies.

  3. Edward Fido says:

    I would suggest our problem is not with Turnbull per se but the morally and economically bankrupt current ideology and behaviour of most members of both the Coalition and Labor. Hence the rise of the minor parties and independents. Some of these latter are good, some not so good. It is people pressure, as some astute members of both the Coalition and Labor, such as Barnaby Joyce, realise which will change things. Witness the back down over compulsory land purchases for the Defence Department. Likewise the imminent demise of that great political gravy train, the Lifetime Gold Pass. Trump is an odious bully: witness his gratuitous denigration of Senator John McCain, a genuine war hero. Trump’s behaviour towards Turnbull resulted in many current serving American politicians publicly apologising for that. Australia and Australians are held in enormous regard by most Americans. As you say, we hold at least one very important military card – Pine Gap – in regard to America. Our physical and thus military situation is in a potentially very volatile area. We do need American support but we also need to look to our own ends. Trump’s sabre rattling against Iran and support for the continuation of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories could further destabilise the Middle East. We need to stay out of a potential Israel/Iran conflict. We also need to tread carefully in regard to China. We need to take more responsibility for our own long term defence and safety. This does not mean abandoning the American alliance but becoming more nuanced there. We need to do whatever is necessary to prevent ourselves becoming involved in another debacle like Iraq. These are new and challenging times. They need politicians with a fresh approach. I think Malcolm Turnbull, aided by the politically street savvy Barnaby Joyce, could rise to the task. Side issues, such as Cory Bernardi’s defection and a change of policy on the referendum on same sex marriage, should not be allowed to get in the way. Perhaps Turnbull could take a leaf out of Menzies’ book? Menzies was no gravy trainer and genuinely cared about his “forgotten people”. Our politicians ignore them at their peril.

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