MUNGO MacCALLUM. Tariffs and Mateship.

Mar 13, 2018

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.


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