Malcolm Turnbull’s opponents, including those reflexively opposed to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies, would be hard put to take exception to the substance of a leaked conversation with US President Donald Trump soon after January’s presidential inauguration.
In an early round of congratulatory phone calls from world leaders Turnbull broached an agreement reached with the previous Obama administration for the US to take 1,250 such refugees in exchange for an Australian undertaking to resettle displaced people from Central America.
The latter “understanding” has not been publicised as far as I know, but it was integral to the quid pro quo that enabled an agreement to be reached by the Turnbull government to relocate asylum seekers stranded on Manus Island and Nauru.
The incarceration of would-be refugees, economic or otherwise, who have arrived by boat on Australia’s shores is the running sore of Australian politics.
The Turnbull government has maintained a steadfast “stop the boats” policy, which was instituted by Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott, to widespread international condemnation and persistent domestic criticism.
The Labor opposition supports such a policy, while seeking to convey the impression it would apply it more humanely. In reality, there is virtually no difference between the two sides of politics.
When Washington Post published leaked details of a fractious conversation between Turnbull and Trump earlier this year, an impression given then was that Australia’s prime minister was treated disrespectfully, and indeed had yielded ground to a bombastic president.
What the now-leaked full transcript shows is that far from yielding, Turnbull held his ground as he patiently – and courteously – sought to explain the complexities of Australian asylum-seeker policy to a cantankerous president who had himself been elected on a “stop the illegals” platform.
A fair judgement is that Turnbull set out Australia’s position in a manner that would not have been out of a place in a barrister’s deposition to an interlocutor who had little clue about the complexities of Australian immigration policy, and seemed to care less.
Typifying the dysfunction of a conversation between two men who appeared locked in a cycle of mutual incomprehension are the following extracts.
Trump: Does anybody know who these people are? Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they going to become the Boston bomber in five years? Or two years? Who are these people?
Turnbull: Let me explain. We know exactly who they are. They have been on Nauru or Manus for over three years and the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.
Trump: Malcolm, but they arrived on a boat.
Turnbull: The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat.
Trump: What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats? No, I know, they come from certain regions. I get it.
Turnbull: The problem with the boats is that you are basically outsourcing your immigration program to people smugglers, and also you get thousands of people drowning at sea.
And so the conversation continued like a Beckett play, with Trump venting about the bad deal struck by his predecessor.
What emerges from these exchanges is that the US president was either inadequately briefed or had not absorbed what he had been told about a refugee deal leftover from the previous administration.
What it also reveals is that once fixated on a point of view, namely that he was talking about the broader problem of unauthorised immigration not the more specific issue of asylum seekers being brought to Australia by people smugglers, it was difficult for Trump to comprehend the distinction.
In Trump’s first weeks in office, it may have been unreasonable to expect him to be across these sorts of issues. But the transcript reflects some of the challenges America’s allies face in dealing with an administration whose chief executive knows less than he should about issues that come across his desk, and perhaps more to the point is not a good listener.
Authors: Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University