Nicholas Harrington

Three theories behind Trump’s Turnbull hang-ups


Approx Reading Time-10The phone call was terrible, and the deal even worse. Three theories about how Trump will handle Obama’s plans for Australia’s asylum seekers.



Late last year I began to wonder what was to become of the refugee resettlement deal that was struck between Obama and Turnbull in 2016. Trump’s position on (the marginally more benign notion of) Mexican immigration into the United States did not bode well for the prospects of the new president accepting a third-party’s unwanted refugees (from Muslim-majority nations). But, honestly, I found the deal astonishing in the first place. Philosophically I can rationalise that the final piece in a “stopping the boats agenda” might be ensuring that these poor souls never reached Australian soil but God, it was tacky and gross – the whole thing was a stain on our national standing. We received the umbrage of the international community (U.S. included) and contravened the UNHCR. But! But! Please, please don’t forget if you ever march against Trump that we’re the good guys… It’s really going to spoil the aesthetic of your protest placard if you need to add:

* for this statement of opposition to Trump’s domestic and foreign policies to remain coherent, please disregard the fact that my own government has demonstrated itself equally malign, xenophobic and dispassionate to refugees in particular and immigrants more broadly, although I never saw fit to protest at the time (maybe I never got the Facebook invite, I forget).

Yesterday, Australia received somewhat of an answer to the question. Trump tweeted this:

This tweet followed 24 hours of speculation that the phone-call between Trump and Turnbull had been less than affable; with Trump apparently commenting that it was “the worst” foreign leader chat he’d had so far. It’s unclear if this should be interpreted as a commentary on Malcolm’s phone-manner, or perhaps Turnbull’s political parsing of words as he tried to “finesse” Donald into doing what Barack had previously agreed to. Either way, I’d say the prospect of palming our refugees off onto a guy that just suspended all immigration from some of the countries that they are fleeing from, is bleak.

Let’s thought experiment the situation…

  1. Trump takes the refugees in a couple of months, after saying that they have been “extremely vetted”.
    The Democrats are unlikely to call him a hypocrite because that’s too callous even for them. Trump’s base will probably accept anything he says. The conservative #NeverTrumpers will likely side with the benefits of a robust American-Australian alliance. All things considered, Trump could do this. The question is: would he want to?
  1. Trump delays the process indefinitely while the refugees get “extremely vetted”.
    This is the EU-style “kick the can down the road” strategy. Literally, do nothing for four to eight years (like Obama did with Guantanamo). This is a low cost, low risk effort. It’s unlikely Australia would cause enough of a fuss to embarrass Trump into explaining what’s taking so long. Domestically, when the horrific conditions on Manus Island are revealed, and the hunger strikes and perhaps riots proceed, sufficient pressure might mount that we end up resettling them ourselves (presuming we have enough slacktivism left after all the Trumping, to ask our own government to do something worthwhile).
  1. Trump flat-out refuses to honor the deal made by the previous administration.
    Trump’s on somewhat of a roll cancelling Obama’s executive orders and deconstructing Barack’s signature healthcare legislation. It would fit form perfectly for Donald to reject the saddling of the other guy’s Australian arrangement. The Democrats and the Left would object vociferously in America, but only briefly, because the next morning’s outrage would snuff the fire; in Australia (on the condition that we remember we’re the good guys here absent any moral responsibility!) we might condemn and protest Trump’s uncharitable volte-face. Trump would appease his base – although no bonus points because the idea of taking someone else’s refugees(!?) would be doubtless mindboggling to those on the Trump-train.

My guess is that Trump will pursue either option two or three. If pressed, I’d suggest option two. I imagine Trump will start pushing back against the notion of taking them but still want to preserve the appearance of an amicable alliance – he’ll tie the whole process up in vetting and no one will get off Manus Island in a hurry.

So, my advice is that Australia do a Canada and be the bigger nation. Turnbull should come out boldly and say he understands and respects the American President’s position. Malcolm should announce a one-time amnesty for these refugees, process them as per protocol, and resettle them here. Indeed, if anyone wants to start a Facebook page suggesting that their neighbourhoods or communities would like to take a family or two, that might kick things along nicely. If the refugees are dispersed across a wide area in Australia there’s no risk of “ghetoization”. In addition, the lovely Facebook crew can start inviting them to backyard BBQs and play-dates with their kids so the traumatised foreigners can get a good handle on our language and cultural mores.

The boats have stopped coming now. Turnbull has boasted as much. So the argument is weak that a one-time amnesty would start the whole racket up again. The people smugglers will have a hard time selling the “Australian paradise” to anyone in Afghanistan for USD$5,000 anymore. We’ve shown our true colours and they know what we’re all about. Anyway, that’s a risk worth taking since four to eight years in Manus-Island-limbo is a coward’s act.


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  2. Rainer the cabbie said:

    Hi Nick

    Try this, I hope it works, should be mandatory reading for all:

    David Frum: How Trump Could Build American Autocracy – The Atlantic

    Headline is “How to build an Autocracy” The Atlantics march cover story, online, by David Frum.

    As to the poor souls who rot in offshore detention, no way any government can keep this deal going for much longer……or can they?

    Extraordinary times.

  3. Nicholas Harrington said:

    Hi Rainer,
    Thanks for the link. When I click through it crashes the application. Can you provide the headline, and I’ll Google ‘The Atlantic’ instead.
    Your option ‘four’ is certainly a possibility, and one I didn’t consider. Reflecting on it, I wonder if this wouldn’t be too much like actual work for an Australian government to contemplate. Their laziness and ineptitude might make ‘languishing and waiting’ more likely?
    Also – I think there are legal ramifications to bringing them ‘onshore’… Asylum seekers may be entitled to forms of representation not available to them in Manus (although I acknowledge I’m not well versed in this…). This in turn might make arbitrary denial decisions more problematic. All in all – easier to let them rot, or outsource the ‘dilemma’, nay?

  4. Rainer the cabbie said:

    Option four would be to take them all for “onshore vetting”, find them unsuitable and deport them. That’ll be ok with the Australian leadership, as long as they are not stuck with them when Papua New Guinea finally pulls the plug.

    Nice of you to throw yourself into the debate , not that there weren’t heaps of people and groups who fought for a long time to end this barbarian method we call offshore detention. But you are right, no mass demonstrations as the left are just a bunch of slack arses preferring to be outraged over a chardy or two, as opposed to doing something. Hopefully these days are over as a Trumpian wake up call has been delivered.

    If I may recommend a long read on what can happen in the years to follow, a quiet realistic piece:

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