The view from Billinudgel

The heat is on
Who benefits from Malcolm Turnbull’s deal with Donald Trump?

When he spoke out against Donald Trump’s discriminatory immigration bans, the former US ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich warned that the hottest places in hell were reserved for those who remained neutral.

Less apocalyptically, the great English conservative Edmund Burke agreed: for evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men stay silent.

Now, no doubt Malcolm Turnbull regards himself as a good man – a great man, in fact, no doubt he considered himself the best man at his own wedding. And, as he has explained, he has his reasons – well, at least some of them – to hold his silence on The Donald.

They have little to do with his claim that his exclusive business and responsibility is to manage domestic affairs and that he never comments on the policies of other countries. This is demonstrably untrue: he comments whenever he thinks he can get away with it, and commands political advantage. And, in any case, his current message would mean a complete abrogation of foreign affairs, including the constant obsequious alliance to the US that he constantly spruiks.

However, when dealing with The Donald, our fearless prime minister obviously believes that discretion is the better part of valour. No doubt his father would have told him that truckling to bullies only makes them more belligerent, but Turnbull is, as he repeatedly informs us, a deal maker – he had a long and successful career in business before entering politics, just like Trump, in fact.

Turnbull declared that when he had criticisms of the president he would voice them privately, so we would never know, but he would always stand up for Australia and support Australia’s national interest. According to the leaks, he did nothing of the sort: he invoked the holy name of ANZUS to secure the deal he had made with Trump’s hated predecessor, and was treated to a tirade of abuse in return.

But Turnbull still said nothing – he preferred to sit and cop it rather than answer back. And the ultimate humiliation was Trump’s patronising tweet thanking him for “telling the truth” about the phone call – well, at least an alternative fact or two.

And still Turnbull did not retaliate. So in the end it appears that Turnbull has indeed acted in his own interest, if not in the national interest – it is hard to see how the refugee swap, if it actually succeeds, will materially enhance the nation’s wellbeing.

But whether it dies or not, and although Turnbull has ruled this out, there will surely be a price – a massive quid pro quo request from Trump in the near future. And Turnbull has already paid a price: in spite of all the spin and bravado, it is clear that he decided to grovel for advantage while others spoke against the unconscionable executive direction arbitrarily banning refugees from selected countries, which will do nothing to endear him to an electorate that has seen enough of his pusillanimity already.

Turnbull may believe silence is golden, but even gold has its drawbacks: as King Midas, discovered, it can be hard to stomach. Turnbull may not yet be ready for Bleich’s hottest place in hell, but he is definitely starting to frizzle uncomfortably.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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