Friday, November 11, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Sucking up to Trump
How to handle the new US president?

This morning we were treated (if that is the right word) to the spectacle (which is definitely the right word) of current and former Liberal prime ministers dueling to see who most closely resembles Donald Trump.

Malcolm Turnbull said of Trump that people saw “a practical experienced businessmen who gets things done", “a deal maker", “not ideological, not a professional politician". Sound like anyone we know?

This was no accident. The night before, the PM had been less coy about the comparison:

I suppose as both being businessmen who found our way into politics somewhat later in life, we come to the problems of our own nations, and indeed world problems, with a pragmatic approach.

Tony Abbott was keen to tell us that Trump’s election proved that we shouldn’t focus on polls.

The UK election of last year, the Brexit vote of this year and the Trump vote this year are a good sign that we should not be ruled by polls because what we’ve seen in all three cases were people who weren’t up front with the pollsters because they saw the kind of excoriation that the non-politically correct were getting and obviously didn’t want to tell pollsters what they really thought.

On the question of his own removal – justified by Turnbull’s reference to the 30 polls Abbott had lost – the ex-PM would not be drawn.

All of this is a little unedifying – partly because it was not that long ago that Turnbull was sending out little winks and nudges about his own not-so-positive opinion of Trump. A month ago, after Abbott said that Trump’s policies were “reasonable enough”, Turnbull delivered the wry rebuke, “I’m sure Mr Abbott has carefully read all of Donald Trump’s policies before he made that comment.” Turnbull also (correctly) described some of Trump’s comments as “loathsome”.

You might also have come across this observation on Turnbull’s private views in a January column from Laurie Oakes: he “dreads the thought of either Trump, nuttily Right-wing and populist, or [Ted] Cruz, darling of Tea Party extremists, becoming president of the US”.

It is of course true that Australia will have to continue to interact with the United States and its president, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Turnbull talked to Trump on the phone, as obviously he should have, and has said positive things about our alliance with America. In this he is constrained by his position. Nevertheless, it seems to me not entirely wise for Turnbull to be so flowing in his newfound love for the president-elect. Trump won in the US, not in Australia. There is still a wide view of him here as a symptom of American weirdness. And why is Turnbull always rushing to defend views most of us are pretty confident he does not hold?

It is always important to remember that, while democracy might be the best system that exists, it does not “always get things right”. Poor candidates get elected. (David Remnick is eloquent on this point here.) Accepting that Trump has won and must be worked with does not mean we must suddenly stifle our well-reasoned opinions that he is a reckless, unpredictable narcissist with horrible views of women and minorities. Humans are excellent at adapting to changed circumstances, but that does not mean we have to abandon what we know to be true. That is certainly so for those of us in the media, who should resist the tendency to simply treat this as “business as usual”. It is also the case for those in politics.

This is why I prefer the response of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to that of Turnbull. Merkel responded to Trump’s victory by writing to him with a firm enunciation of the beliefs she believed should inform a leader:

Germany and America are bound by common values – democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.

Turnbull, to be fair, did indicate there were continued differences with Trump over the TPP free trade deal. But this was lost in the overall tone of his enthusiasm for Trump’s pragmatic business instincts. Bill Shorten went too far earlier in the year, as I wrote at the time, when he called Trump “barking mad”. But his comments this week struck the right balance:

The US alliance does not mean trading away our shared values, it means standing up for them. It is our responsibility to be the ally that America needs, not just the ally it wants.

And Paul Keating last night rightly raised the question of just how far we are prepared to follow America, “tagging along”, going “back to the prayer well of the sacrament of the alliance”.

One of the trends to notice in the parade of the prime ministers was the attempt by both Abbott and Turnbull to draw support for their own approaches from the American result. For Turnbull, it was a matter of being pragmatic, not ideological. For Abbott, the lesson to draw was the importance of advocating centre-right views.

In other words, we have here a political Rorschach test: everyone will draw whatever lessons they were already keen to learn. For some on the right, this will be an invitation to promote fears around immigration – as well as flat-out racism in some cases – to the centre of their agenda.

In this context, news that Barack Obama’s government is on the edge of announcing a deal with Turnbull to resettle the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island is very interesting. At a moral and substantive level, it will be a great thing. Turnbull will deserve praise for ending an horrific situation.

Recently, the Coalition has struggled to get as much traction with politicking on boats, presumably because the boats themselves have largely stopped. Out of sight, out of mind. Continued debate over the appalling conditions of the two offshore detention centres is often the only public reminder of this policy area. If the centres are emptied and closed, what happens next? It seems possible that by the time of the next election the issue will have faded from public consciousness.

But this will not automatically spell the end of the matter. Labor might do what it did after 2001, and slowly shift to the left, opening up the debate once more. Or the Coalition could shift to the right, as it seeks to follow wherever its voters’ anxieties have shifted to in the absence of boats.

The experience of the past decade in Australia tells us that major political issues – climate change, the GST, boats, even guns – never entirely go away. They just come back in different forms.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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