MUNGO MacCALLUM. Tariffs and Mateship.

Yet another triumph for our indefatigable Prime Minister. Now he has saved the nation – maybe the world – from the scourge of The Donald’s dastardly tariffs on steel and aluminium. 

Through diligent persuasion, remorselessly argument and irrefutable logic Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues have explained that because Australia has followed America into a few military adventures together, because we have shared values like the rule of law and respect for women – well, some women – and above all because of the shared mystique of mutual mateship Australia, along with a lot other countries, will be exempted from the onerous duty. Cheering, fireworks, dancing in the streets.

There is, of course, another version, which is that the result should never have been in doubt. Why, just a few days ago in Washington Trump and Turnbull collaborated in a cosy love-in and POTUS promised, in front of witnesses, that if there were to be any tariffs – and of course he was not saying there would be – then certainly they would not apply to Australia.

And yet our relieved leader had barely touched down in Canberra before Trump announced that not only would there be tariffs, but there would be no exemptions. This was war, Trump implied – a full-scale trade war. “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he enthused.

And given that piece of braggadocio, there was an understandable reaction from the proposed victims. China, the main one, must have been a little puzzled; after all, it may be a huge exporter to the United States, but only a tiny part of that is metals. However, having been designated a target, it felt compelled to respond, although at this stage it is not clear how serious or widespread any reprisals might be.

The European Union, on the other hand, is a big exporter of both steel and aluminium, and would thus be collateral damage to the Trump campaign: it too has threatened to retaliate, and if those two giants get into the stoush, things could be very nasty.

Turnbull went through his ritual affirmation of free trade all around, but from a domestic political point of view, it was vital that Australia should get the favourable treatment it was promised. So he, Julie Bishop, Steve Ciobo and anyone else who could be roped in pleaded for Australia to be made a special case: like Canada and Mexico, it could – nay, it must – include security considerations, thus avoiding possible sanctions from the World Trade Organisation.

But mainly, it was just because it was Australia – America’s most loyal ally. And to show just how loyal we could be, Turnbull begged, implored, grovelled. He negotiated on his knees, not to change the mind of his great and powerful friend, but just to urge him to stay consistent for a couple of weeks.

It worked, naturally; it was always going to. Much of what Trump announces is in the nature of ambit claims, all-embracing proclamations on Twitter which frantic bureaucrats have to sort out before they can be transformed into policy. So although the world economy may well still be in trouble, Turnbull got the concession he needed.

But only at the price of a humiliating, even desperate, series of entreaties which proved just how flaky the President’s word can be. We do not yet know what the quid pro quo will be, but, Trump being Trump, it’s a very safe bet that there will be one and if China remains the primary objective of Trump’s tantrums, It may not be a pretty one for Australia. As Henry Kissinger once observed, America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

And at this stage of its history, America’s interest is focussed unremittingly on Donald Trump and what he may do next. And as has just been shown, this may not be predictable, logical or even entirely sane. Perhaps, as some foreign affairs analysts are starting to consider the unthinkable: we may have to have a hard, cold look at just how we may be pulled into the mix as The Donald charges wildly into an uncertain world.

But for the moment we are back to the same old domestic reality as Turnbull tries to salvage a last, lingering week of the autumn session of parliament before disappearing into the entrails of the next budget – and probably the last one before a federal election.

He says he will definitely go to 2019 (perhaps hoping to make it more than 60 losing Newspolls in a row: is there no end to his ambition?) But to hold things off until after the budget would involve a certain manipulation of numbers and dates, and that kind of trickery did not turn out too well in 2016.

So yet again we are searching for a reset, a circuit-breaker, just something that works. But it looks as if we are facing more of the same: brutal and ruthless personal attacks on Bill Shorten, now extending to his family, staff and acquaintances, and more innumerate waffle about the wonder and beauty of corporate tax cuts.

Repeated experiments have shown that the voters are not impressed; they would probably prefer a few more verses of The Ballad Of Bonking Barnaby, as this endless soapie meanders into ever more bizarre trails. And the commentariat apparently believes that the answer is more conservative (meaning, in many cases, reactionary) ideology, a conclave of philosopher kings (themselves, naturally) to revive the heart and soul of what they laughingly call the centre-right – the time when the coalition ruled unchallenged and the voters knew their place.

The problem is that those days are gone forever – and a cursory glance towards Washington (or perhaps Mar-a-Lago) is all that is required to prove it. In this febrile atmosphere, Turnbull’s triumphs are likely to be both transient and illusory – what is needed is precisely the nimbleness and agility Turnbull once aspired to in those giddy days when people still believed in him.

The Trump presidency is still a work in progress, but we will be stuck with it for nearly another three years at least  – more likely seven. It will certainly outlast the Turnbull prime ministership. Kow-towing for crumbs from the table is, perhaps, one tactic to end a pseudo-crisis; it is not a re-election strategy. But then, nor is anything else Turnbull has turned up.


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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6 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Tariffs and Mateship.

  1. Avatar rumtytum says:

    Isn’t Trump a wonder! He’s transforming the role of president so comprehensively that it’s hard to see how it can ever go back to where it was. We now know that presidents can lie, profit from their position, punish the nation in order to punish their enemies, have no morals, little knowledge, no shame and face few consequences. Which of his successors will voluntarily surrender all those conveniences? Maybe they would surrender one or two of them, but the temptation to take advantage of some others would be hard to resist. And the moral rot spreads like gangrene across the world. Do Australian politicians any longer care about lying? About milking their political positions for undeserved perks, lobbying jobs, corrupt deals? I don’t think so. As our society is concentrated more and more into a Ponzi-type sales frenzy, market claims, whether from politicians or admen, conform to the “rules” of advertising. Blarney, bullshit, deliberate deception, smoke and mirrors.

  2. Avatar Tony Ryan says:

    Is nobody giving real thought to what Trump meant when he hinted at security concessions? I suspect he is referring to America’s 51st state of North Australia. But then nobody in the southern states has their eye on what is happening so covertly in the North.

    The ABC-celebrated Arnhem Land aerospace project, rather than being dedicatedly civilian as the nation was media-led to believe, will have a US military component. This was admitted quietly in NT estimates committee hearings (28 November 2017, P49).

    A little bit military? This is like being a little bit pregnant. When military are involved this becomes, by definition, a military project with the usual tight security provisions; and the only kind of military rocket that makes sense in today’s tense global context is an ICBM; inevitably aimed at China.

    This means that the Arnhem Land rocket base will become one of China’s automatic nuclear strikes. Other probabilities are Darwin airport; the two Echelon spy satellite bases in rural Darwin; Tindal air base; Pine Gap; and at least one other in coastal Western Australia. This is Malcolm Turnbull’s clever defense policy. But wait, there is more.

    Only 40 kilometres from the proposed rocket base is Melville Bay, a deep water harbor long coveted by the Pentagon as a naval base, now urgently required considering the demand of the people of Guam and Okinawa that Americans depart pronto. The host nations have good reason to want the Americans out: day and night aircraft noise; their women regularly raped by servicemen; and the usual toxicity associated with military aircraft bases polluting their drinking water.

    Tindal air base has already poisoned Top End water, polluting the Katherine River. And this was predictable.

    What will happen if Turnbull approves a Trump-owned Melville Bay? Based on the security exclusion zones applied to other foreign US bases, everywhere within a 20 kilometre radius of Inverell Bay, within wider Melville Bay, will be accessible only to people with US military and/or intelligence security clearance.

    The rocket base will feature an even tighter security exclusion zone, both bases forming a geographical figure eight. As this would entirely encompass the Central Arnhem Highway for a distance of 40-50 kilometres, it is likely that Yirrkala Aboriginal community will also be abandoned. And goodbye Garma Festival.

    Exclusion will also mean that Ski Beach and Wallaby Beach Aboriginal settlements will have their populations removed, no doubt redeveloped to become beachfront accommodation for US Naval personnel.

    Can the town of Nhulunbuy be permitted to survive? Probably not. Rio Tinto’s bauxite mine will soon close and the only other functions of the town are as a servicing hub for local Aboriginal communities and as a staging post for tourism. Obviously, both roles will end.

    How will this affect the region’s population? There will be no compensation. The US will apply its own lucrative distortion of the US Law of Eminent Domain, which was originally intended to pay market value for real estate acquired for public service. The cunning Catch 22 now applied is that once word is out about the security exclusion zones, the value of Nhulunbuy real estate will collapse and all properties will be unsaleable. Australian government valuations will follow the inevitable pattern of descent, following the tragic US experiences (ie New York and New Orleans).

    And the Indigenous population? Without access to Songline sites, morale will collapse and Arnhem Aboriginal culture will go into terminal decline.

    No prizes for guessing what part of Australia Malcolm Turnbull has turned over to the US military in return for Trump’s tariff concessions.

    Sixty percent of Australians believe we must pay any price to keep the US as our ally. Malcolm Fraser, a former PM, vehemently disagreed. He warned Australians that America cannot be trusted.

    Fraser pointed out that there is no treaty requiring America to protect Australia and that the US has already betrayed us; twice taking Indonesia’s side against Australia.

    Moreover, he said, the US intends confrontation with China and Russia, which will mean WWIII and several nuclear strikes on Australia. If the Melville Bay and rocket base deals go ahead we will certainly experience nuclear strikes right here. Nine by my count.

    If you want to lose everything, just do nothing.

  3. Avatar Ben Morris says:

    Turnbull’s visit to Washington seems to be too well staged-managed. Turnbull arrived in Washington and hit hard on the mate-ship between the two nations. Then Trump dropped the tariff bombshell and Turnbull looked like he was to be collateral damage.

    However, because of mateship Australia gets an exemption that initially was ruled out. Meantime Trump is talking about Defence Agreements that need to be drawn up. What defence agreements?

    As Turnbull hit upon another great leap forward that he can keep Trump happy by going into Defence Agreements that have not yet been made public but will use all the available person-power in the Defence Force and some more.

    This little problem can be solved with a little bit of salve labour in the form of conscription.

    In 1973, the National Service Act was abolished. However the Defence Act 1903 was amended to retain a provision that it could be reintroduced by proclamation of the Governor-General. Potentially all Australian residents between the ages of 18 and 60 could be called up for service. New legislation is not required, the effect of this provision is to make the introduction of conscription possible. Under section 51 this power can also be exercised by the Prime Minister or even two authorised ministers in certain circumstances. The question that needs to be asked will it be done to protect the alliance?

  4. Avatar Mike Yewdall says:

    Trade and Foreign policy in all countries is always based on self interest, that’s a fact, not fake news. We have won some concessions (which we may not have actually lost) but at what cost. How much of our sovereignty do we lose to remain in bed with the bear. Permanent bases? A cruise in the South Chins seas? The deal is fine as far as it goes , but how much face do we lose? How does this play in Washington? Are we to be taken for granted again and again. And, just quietly, what is the quid pro quo for those Manus refugees being hived off to the U.S.? Are we getting Stormy Daniels in a swap?

  5. Avatar David Allison says:

    Another good one, thanks.

  6. Avatar J Deacon says:

    Great work Mungo! Not enough of this quality questioning (and humorous) writing around these days. Love the bit about Turnbull declaring that he will “go to 2019 – and your question “60 losing Newspolls in a row, is there no end to his ambition?”.
    Essential Poll out today has Labor leading them 54-46%. Usually a point ahead of Newspoll, but they both have the same trajectory.
    PS: Please dont say 7 years of Trump!

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