Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull at the United Nations General Assembly

Malcolm Turnbull could not have been more enthused after hearing Barack Obama’s last speech to the United Nations General Assembly. His response captured the bind he is in, confronting the political divide in his own government and nation back home. The parallels with the US presidential election are disturbingly familiar.

The prime minister told his pack of travelling Australian journalists that the outgoing president gave a “powerful and impassioned defence of liberal democracy”. Integral to this, and getting a loud cheer from the Australian government leader, is “open markets, free trade”. He said the president spelled out the dead end of protectionism: “We must not allow fear of open markets – fear of the world, in fact – to take us backwards into poverty.”

Turnbull said Obama “summed it up beautifully, I think, when he said, ‘Countries that seek to build a wall imprison only themselves’ ”. The Obama speech was a thinly veiled attack on the populist, xenophobic world view promoted by the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. It was remarkable for that and as sure an indicator as any that this liberal, first black president fears not only for his legacy but also for his nation should Trump triumph.

Turnbull came very close to showing his druthers for the presidential election when he accepted the description of himself as “an old friend of Hillary Clinton”. He also said, “I have no doubt the American people will make a very wise choice in November.” But even his old friend Clinton has been forced to match Trump’s protectionist rejection of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Australia is now hoping Obama can persuade congress in the lame-duck period after the presidential election to ratify the deal. While it is not an unalloyed blessing for Australia – there are lingering concerns about copyright and pharmaceuticals – it does have its benefits.

One of them can be seen in strategic terms, though denied publicly, of counterbalancing if not encircling a newly assertive China. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has met key people in both the Clinton and Trump camps to press Australia’s interests. She came away from the Trump discussion saying she was confident his aides valued our alliance. How that fits in with Trump’s apparent desire for a fortress America rather than an internationally engaged one is open to nervous speculation.

But putting up the shutters is not unique to Trump. He has plugged into the same sort of mood that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union. “Brexit” has become the new shorthand for the triumph of the little people over the elites. Exacerbating the anger was the feeling that open borders were allowing immigrants and refugees to overrun the place. Sound familiar? Pauline Hanson’s first speech in the senate last week just as brazenly stirred these sentiments. She called for all Muslim immigration to be banned. Her colleague, Malcolm Roberts, urged Australia to follow the example and “Aus-exit” the “unelected swill” that is the United Nations.

It was in the context of this week’s UN General Assembly that Turnbull was crunched between the demands from President Obama that rich nations do more for refugees and demands from Hanson and her fellow travellers that we do a lot less. The prime minister went for rhetorical flourishes, hoping that no one would notice. He was only invited to Obama’s special summit if he was prepared to come and put something on the table.

Labor’s Bill Shorten didn’t miss. He described Turnbull’s offer of raising the humanitarian intake to 18,750 a year from 2018-19 as “a hoax”. Turnbull, Shorten said, was merely locking in a reduction to the program instigated by Tony Abbott in 2012-13. Abbott cut Labor’s 20,000 to 13,750. To his small credit, Turnbull is making permanent a higher number that his predecessor intended as a one-off. But unremarked and unaddressed was the issue of almost 2000 people held in indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru.

The Greens’ Nick McKim describes this as a humanitarian crisis created in Australia’s name: “We cannot address the humanitarian crises of the world by creating new ones, but that is exactly what Mr Turnbull is doing.” Shorten wonders if the other announcement from Turnbull, to take an unspecified number of Central American refugees from holding camps in Costa Rica, is laying the groundwork for a people swap with the United States. It would be better than the enduring hiatus that continues a policy of cruelty on Manus and Nauru as a deterrent to asylum seekers. But the government was quick to rule it out.

The contrast between Canada and Australia couldn’t be starker. Canada is led by the charismatic Justin Trudeau. He has the enormous benefit of having a governing party that actually celebrates him and is behind him. Canada has taken 30,000 Syrian refugees since November. Australia has yet to come close to the 12,000 Tony Abbott signed up to last September. And while doing this, Trudeau’s popularity has soared. His explanation: “Canadians understand that immigration, that people fleeing for their lives ... is what created Canada.” He says refugees are a source of strength for the country. There can be little doubt that if Canadians do understand this, it is in large measure because their leader reinforces the message and they trust him. He is certainly making positive use of his prolonged honeymoon.

Turnbull’s honeymoon was short-lived, stymied by the imperative of keeping onside the National Party hardliners that make up the Coalition, as well as the conservatives in his own party. The price he paid was considerable, as the last election showed. But there has been no let-up for him. A case in point is the outspoken chief whip of the Nationals, George Christensen. He’s being paid more than $13,000 extra a year to keep backbenchers in line but has free licence to crack the whip at the government. He echoed Pauline Hanson’s Muslim immigration ban, refining it to a ban on migrants from countries where Muslim extremism has a hold. He calls that a “more nuanced approach”. 

It seems like appeasement of Hanson, although in his case it’s less appeasement and more furious agreement, not only on this but most things. Christensen was able to persuade Hanson of this before the election. He asked her not to run a candidate against him in his seat of Dawson. She didn’t, and the swing against him was kept to 4 per cent. Some in Labor believe his motives are less pure. They believe it is all about currying favour with One Nation to attract its preferences next time – a strategy that the LNP in Queensland would not be all that averse to, especially as Hanson says she will run candidates in all seats at the next state election.

Christensen says he’s never seen One Nation as the bogyman that others paint it to be. He will continue to push his anti-Muslim immigration views. He told The Conversation: “If we are to stop bleeding to the right, we need to tackle an issue like that.” Again, it looks more like an embrace than a tackle. The Essential Poll this week found this stance was very fertile political ground. Forty-nine per cent of Australians support the call for a Muslim immigration ban. That represented 60 per cent of Coalition voters, 40 per cent of Labor voters and 34 per cent of Greens voters. The reasons given were their failure to integrate and the threat of terrorism.

If ever leadership was needed it is now, before these corrosive views are allowed to destroy the multicultural cohesive society Australia has become. Turnbull calls it the most successful one in the world. He claimed in New York that this success is built on strong borders and the government being seen to be in charge of who comes and the circumstances under which they come. Sounds like John Howard in 2001. No attempt to redefine or enlighten. No Trudeau-like vision. Shorten made an attempt on Wednesday: “There are millions of Muslims right across the world who live in Western societies, who contribute to our quality and standard of living, and you give in to the crazies and the fundamentalists if all you do is accept their arguments and repeat them ourselves.”

At the UN, Turnbull committed Australia to an additional $130 million over the next three years to support “peace-building and assistance to refugees, forcibly displaced communities and host countries”. For context: that’s $40 million less than the cost of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Labor has begun hardening its attacks on the plebiscite and making a series of priority comparisons. An example: the plebiscite instead of a $50 million grant to save the Arrium steelworks. These priorities, Labor says, were foisted on a hapless Turnbull as he tried to keep “his puppetmasters in the hard right of the Liberal Party happy”.

Here, public opinion seems to be buying Shorten’s argument. The Essential Poll found 53 per cent of people believe the issue should be settled by a vote of the parliament if the senate blocks the non-binding opinion poll. That almost certainly won’t happen, at least not in the short term. Although Cory Bernardi and his urgers, such as columnist Andrew Bolt, are suspicious Turnbull might try it on before this term is out.

He might, but before then he has to tackle other really big issues, such as budget repair. Capitulating to the populist, xenophobic right won’t be much help there either.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Christensen charity".

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Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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