The call between the White House and Canberra, we now know, lasted 25 minutes, before U.S. President Donald Trump hung on up on the leader of one of his nation’s closest allies. The conservative Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, then went to the media to inform his electorate that the new U.S. commander-in-chief would honour a deal made by the previous administration to resettle 1,250 refugees currently in off-shore detention camps on the Nauru and Manus islands in the South Pacific Sea.
Trump denies abruptly ending the call with Turnbull, but there was no denying the tweet he sent out on February 2, denouncing the Obama administration deal to take “thousands of illegal immigrants” from Australia as “dumb”. The Washington Post reported the U.S. president told his Australian supplicant that it was his “worst call by far,” and accused Turnbull of trying to send him the “next Boston bombers”.
With the 1,250 refugees left in limbo in facilities widely derided as inhumane—none of whom are “illegal” under international refugee conventions—Turnbull was left wearing a stinking shade of yolk. But this affair is something of a surprise. He and Trump, after all, have so much in common.
Both independently wealthy business leaders, the pair have tied themselves in knots to block asylum seekers entering the country to appease an electorate fearful of terrorist attacks; both have placed human beings into exile and existential hell on prison islands. They’re Machiavellian power grabbers made for each other.
A former lawyer, merchant banker and venture capitalist, the 62-year-old Turnbull would have much personally to chew over with the 70-year-old Trump. While they would probably never be chums, there is common ground: Turnbull has about him a more genteel whiff of Trump triumphalism, cutting his cloth to suit the populist epoch.
Normally poker-faced, and a smoother orator and more adroit political operative than Trump, Turnbull is known to sway with the popular political winds. He had been seen as a social progressive on issues such as multiculturalism, same-sex marriage, climate change and Indigenous rights — until his politics swung to the right to appease conservatives in his Liberal-National party following his ousting of right-wing Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015.
Once a proponent of a market-based emissions trading scheme while serving in opposition, Turnbull as prime minister has now embraced coal—just as Trump promises to revive jobs in this fossil fuel-burning industry. A one-time Australian Republican Movement leader, Turnbull recently curbed his desire for Australia to cut ties with England until after Queen Elizabeth’s reign, bending to the British royal family’s renewed popularity. Turnbull also unsuccessfully pushed for a contentious minimum $160-million plebiscite to have the people rather than Parliament decide on gay marriage equality, to appease his party’s conservative religious right, despite earlier having appeared as a special guest at the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Trump, too, is hard to pin down on his policy and philosophy, and has supported the Democrats in the past.
And then there’s the matter of the refugees, the bone of contention between Turnbull and Trump. While Trump has blocked refugees, immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., Australia’s response has hardly been more sympathetic: a ban on any asylum-seeker making it to the mainland by boat, in a policy supported by the two major political parties. Abbott’s mantra was to “stop the boats”, spoken in a staccato fashion akin to Trump’s repetitive locutions — even though 15,897 people displaced by conflicts in Syria and Iraq were officially allowed to arrive under humanitarian programs between July 2015 and January 2017.
Whether boats have been stopped has never been proven: push backs and tow-backs into dangerous international waters are never revealed under secretive “on-water matters” as part of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Asylum seekers may not be being stopped at all, but may rather be heading to other countries instead of Australia—while the UNHCR reports that record numbers are dying at sea elsewhere.
Turnbull, too, has failed to fully denounce and decouple the falsely conflated notions of Muslims and terrorism of the sort promulgated by sections of his own party and the right-wing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, saying only that such statements were “counter-productive.”
The pair could also discuss their mutual insensitivity toward their country’s Indigenous people. Turnbull recently was caught in a public spat with Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine over the fighter’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, just as Turnbull outright rejected calls to move the Australia Day national holiday to a day other than Jan. 26, the date the British planted a flag in the colony of New South Wales—a day which many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians conflate with genocide. Early discussions of formal Aboriginal constitutional recognition continue to bypass a separate treaty with Indigenous Australians.
On Indigenous issues, Trump has at least been consistent: in 1993, he testified before a House subcommittee that the mafia was running rampant on Native American casinos. More recently, a group of Trump’s advisors lobbied to upend more than a century of protection of tribal land by pushing to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations. He has vowed to restart construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been much-protested by Indigenous Americans.
Certainly, Trump and Turnbull have strong established geopolitical and trade reasons to get along, even where America seems to get the best part of the deal: Australia hosts a surveillance network of secretive U.S. bases, part of a longstanding military alliance that puts U.S. troops on the ground in the Northern Territory capital of Darwin and points mutually beneficial radars and telescopes into space from the North West Cape. And trade-wise, Trump’s withdrawal from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in favour of protectionism leaves Australia scrambling for new trade deals, with China at the ready to fill the void, a Chinese enterprise having already signed a controversial 99-year lease on Darwin Port. A switch from U.S. to China as a preferred trading partner is arguably in neither Australia nor America’s long-term strategic economic, military or democratic interest.
Australians are debating how far Turnbull should pursue a détente with Trump, given the diminishing popularity of both leaders. But Trump’s follow-up tweet early Friday morning, which thanked the Australian prime minister for “for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about,” did little to allay Australians’ anger over the disrespect laid bare to its leader, or their collective anxiety over their place in the world. Nor did White House spokesman Sean Spicer help when he incorrectly referred to the Australian leader as “Prime Minister Trunbull”—two days in a row.
So perhaps an olive branch is needed, and might begin thus: “Hey, President Trump. Malcolm here. We’re both men of the world who’ve amassed vast fortunes through our wits. I’m keen on power, too, so much so that I donated $A1.75 million to my own party, for a gig that pays $A507,338. …Oh. … Bad deal?”
It might be best for Turnbull, however, to leave out that his wealth was self-made and hard-earned, having been abandoned by his mother and raised by his single dad. Trump, who got a fiscal leg-up from his own father, might hang up again.
Steve Dow is a Sydney-based profile and culture writer, and regular contributor to The Saturday Paper and Guardian Australia.