The sound of transactional businessmen – Trump and Turnbull-brokering a Faustian bargain was never going to be edifying. The question is how Australians want to deal and to be seen to deal with the world as it is, while working out how we would like it to be.
When two political leaders who pride themselves on being “highly transactional businessmen” took to their phones last January to broker a Faustian bargain to relieve each other of human beings who had become a political embarrassment, it was unrealistic to expect that the leaked transcript of their conversation would make edifying reading.
But there are few of us who have never had a private conversation or phone call which, were it to be made public, would reveal a darker side of ourselves that we might rather have kept hidden.
So some commentators have been prepared to turn a blind eye to the darker side of our own Prime Minister revealed in the transcript. They have pointed out the difficulties of dealing with an opponent like Donald Trump, who is not weighed down in the contest by the baggage of facts and the distractions of a moral imagination.
But the transcript revealed that all the difficulty was not on our Prime Minister’s side. Donald Trump also found it hard going. Even with his tenuous and erratic hold on logic, he was able to identify contradictions in the bipartisan narrative that Australians have constructed to justify the treatment of refugees arriving by boat.
Trump was entitled to assume he was talking to a leader from his own side of politics. As our leader reminded him, “you and I have a lot of mutual friends”.
Malcolm Turnbull had already explained to POTUS that the vast bulk of people on Manus Island, are ‘economic refugees’ from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The addition of the word ‘economic’ here fails the ‘nothing but the truth’ test. The fact is that they are refugees. But let us overlook that fact here, and indulge the Prime Minister.
Just suppose that the people on Manus Island are people who left their country with the primary motive of bettering their economic prospects in Australia and that they committed the sin of paying ‘people smugglers’ and of risking death at sea in unsafe boats. Hearing this, Donald Trump might well be forgiven for thinking that these are precisely the kind of people that Australia’s Coalition Government might welcome. If there were such a category as ‘economic refugees’ surely these would be the kinds of people who have had the nous to provide themselves with ready cash to cover exigencies and to be prepared to take risks to reach their goals. He may even have some respect for those who see a business opportunity in selling a place on a leaky boat to desperate people for a high price.
If he were more familiar with the rhetoric and the domestic policy record of the Coalition Government he might have been even more puzzled about a narrative in which these ‘economic refugees’ were condemned as queue-jumpers.
Who can forget the Coalition’s erstwhile domestic full-fee paying students policy? Students who, in the competition for places to their chosen university course, failed to gain entry on the basis of their own academic record, could jump the queue and gain admission if their parents were able to pay full fees.
…..Or a previous federal Minister for Health who once explained to an ABC TV audience that the Coalition’s rationale for the private health insurance rebate was to benefit those who were able and willing to pay because they did not like to wait for health treatment? We were being asked, by implication, to contrast those with private health insurance with those whose preference is to join a long queue and to run the risks and discomforts from their maladies rather than to have timely relief.
…In the queue for tax concessions and rebates? If so, the Coalition invites you to line up over here if you have family members among whom you can spread your large income and minimise your tax through a family trust.
Why a party that could aptly brand itself as Queue-Jumpers-R-Us should have such a repugnance for queue-jumping when it comes to refugees – including ‘economic refugees’ is as puzzling to some Australians as it seems to have been to Donald Trump.
‘What is the thing with the boats?’ he asked Malcolm Turnbull. Trump found difficulty in coming to grips with the Australian PM’s revulsion for refugees who arrive by boat, having risked death at sea. This followed the PM’s statement that “We would rather take a not very attractive guy that helps you out than take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.’
Now Donald Trump, through his extensive TV viewing, may well know of the annual Sydney-Hobart race, where brave, wealthy boat-owners take to the wild seas from Sydney, careless of the risks to themselves and to those who might have to rescue them, and are then welcomed back on shore in Hobart, where their arrival boosts the local economy. Or of the feckless lone adolescents who take to the sea from time to time in a blaze of publicity, seeking attention for themselves or for some worthy cause or both, and who are greeted back with adulation.
Trump could well be imagined complaining to his minions after the phone call: “What’s this guy whingeing to me about? He’s got the whole ocean between him and these people he doesn’t want and I’ve only got the Rio Grande”.
The Coalition Government generally has little time for egalitarianism. Concerns about inequality are dismissed with references to the ‘politics of envy’. Abbott and others preach that we cannot have both equality and prosperity. It seems only to be in relation to refugees that the Coalition demands some kind of rigid fairness and equity; only in this area where the prospect of arranging the world’s refugees in strict order of ‘need’ is unattainable. (As, for that matter, is attempting to arrange the religions of the world in order of merit – a task I undertook as a school project in my first year at high school.) It seems to be OK for the Coalition to support their mates to jump queues for tax concessions, housing, health care, education, justice; but, at the same time, to neglect and mistreat refugees who use what meagre resources they have to seek safety and a better life.
Meanwhile, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, is foreshadowing the need for Australia to adopt public policy in international as well as national affairs, that seeks to deliver peace prosperity and security to all the world’s citizens and that is grounded in values of equity, equality, respect, acceptance and compassion.
While it has the cover of Opposition, the Labor Party could do worse than photocopy the leaked text; delete the Prime Minister’s words; and fill in what its own leader might have said in Australia’s name to Donald Trump over the phone last January had it been in office, knowing as it does now of the likelihood that it would be leaked.
Lyndsay Connors AO is now retired after a career in school education at national and state level.