Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull adopts a war footing

Malcolm Turnbull has put his prime ministership on a war footing. It worked for a similarly besieged Liberal PM 16 years ago, and it’s definitely worth a shot now. The image of a helmet-wearing, Kevlar-vested Australian leader scurrying out of an RAAF Hercules in Kabul was the perfect visual accompaniment. It nicely reinforced his conflation of migrant workers visas and citizenship with fighting terrorists and national security just five days earlier.

Turnbull’s Anzac Day visit to the 270 Australian troops who are part of Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan was straight out of John Howard’s playbook. And like his predecessor, the PM was just as resolute in writing a blank cheque to Australia’s American ally. After discussing the situation with the United States secretary of defence, James Mattis, and mission commander General John Nicholson, as well as the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, he said: “There is no doubt that in both theatres there is going to need to be a long-term commitment.”

The US military has been engaged in Afghanistan for 16 years and while it has morphed into a support and training mission it is no light touch. There are 8000 American boots on the ground. While Donald Trump is slowly adjusting to the realities of office, ditching his campaign rhetoric critical of allies and others for the number of “dud deals” costing Washington dearly, Turnbull is taking no chances. He assured Mattis at his Kabul meeting that Australia would consider further support. He later told the media, “As it evolves we’ll be looking at that.”

No doubt this sort of message will be music to President Trump’s ears. Tony Abbott chimed in, saying if the Americans want more help “we should be disposed to do it”. It certainly continues the century-old tradition of our two nations being brothers in arms.

But there is push-back in Australia. Former prime minister Paul Keating is urging Canberra to forge a more independent foreign and security policy. He says we should not be seen as a client state of the US. He believes it won’t damage our alliance and points to the precedents of Canada and Britain not always being at Washington’s beck and call.

There is wariness in the federal opposition, too. While Labor agrees with Turnbull that our national interest, especially in the fight against international terrorism, will demand overseas deployments, the Trump factor is a worrying unknown. Bill Shorten is disinclined to make future commitments sight unseen. A recent poll for The Australia Institute found 60 per cent of voters feel the new president is a negative outcome for the world overall. And just under half said that, following Trump’s election, Australia should be more independent on military and security matters. So the Labor leader’s hesitation is widely shared by his fellow citizens. Anxiety over what sort of wild ride the mercurial Trump will take us and the world on is far from allayed by his first 100 days in the job.

But there are hopeful signs. Keating is impressed by the way Trump has forged a relationship with China’s president Xi Jinping, especially in regard to North Korea. Turnbull, too, has found the visit of Vice-President Mike Pence and the attitude of Defence Secretary Mattis encouraging in that the new administration is not as isolationist as Trump seemed to be foreshadowing during the campaign.

Turnbull will be able to test some of these impressions when he meets Trump in New York next week. Our embassy in Washington alerted the prime minister that a formal invitation was coming to join the president aboard the World War II aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid, which is now a museum. The two leaders will mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. That battle, repelling the Japanese invaders, seared into the Australian psyche our complete dependence on the US for our security. Its domestic political potency has been exploited by prime ministers of both sides since.

When the invitation hadn’t formally arrived there were concerns Trump had changed his mind. After all, his bruising phone conversation with Turnbull in February made international headlines. The Australian prime minister denied the president hung up on him. Trump, not so gracious, described the encounter as the worst call he had that day with other world leaders. The cause of his ire was the “dumb deal” the Obama administration had made to take 1250 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island detention camps.

There was relief in Canberra when White House spokesman Sean Spicer not only announced the meeting but got the prime minister’s name right. Not “Trumble” this time. Spicer noted that the two leaders will commemorate the battle where “the United States joined with Australia to halt the advance of enemy forces”. He said: “The president looks forward to meeting the prime minister and to strengthening the enduring bonds, deep friendship and close alliance between the United States and Australia.”

Pence, when he was in Sydney, put the refugee “swap” deal completely in the context of the alliance. “The decision to go forward can rightly be seen as a reflection of the enormous importance of the historic alliance between the United States and Australia.” He noted, however, that it didn’t mean the administration “admired the deal”.

For the refugees illegally holed up on Manus Island, their release can’t come soon enough. In true form going all the way back to “children overboard” in 2001, they have become gun fodder in the politics of stopping the boats. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has doubled down on his claims that asylum seekers had lured a five-year-old boy into the centre for the purpose of sexually assaulting him. This “incident”, he insists, triggered angry locals to storm the detention centre and fire shots into it.

Those claims are denied by the Manus police chief and have shocked Australian diplomats in Port Moresby for their lack of credibility. Dutton was careful in his Sky News interview to say he had classified information from “the commissioner of Australian Border Force and my department”. Not the Department of Foreign Affairs. The record of his department is appalling, as is that of his Liberal predecessors in the portfolio.

In the dying days of the Howard government, Kevin Andrews wrongly accused an Indian doctor, Muhamed Haneef, of aiding terrorists. That led to substantial damages being awarded to Haneef for unconscionable treatment that included the longest period in detention without charge in Australian history. That episode didn’t save the Howard government, but it was in line with that prime minister’s record of exploiting xenophobia. It sits very uncomfortably with Turnbull’s personal history and, if the polls are any indication, this contradiction is doing him no favours.

Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says Turnbull had a winning card but he’s never played it. That card, in his view, is Turnbull’s reputation as a moderate Liberal. If he didn’t play it when expectations were in the stratosphere after seizing the leadership, it’s probably too late now. The fact is he keeps going in the opposite direction. But it hasn’t won him any plaudits from conservatives in his government and a poll of the polls over the past nine months has the Coalition on average seven points behind Labor. The optimists on the government’s backbench are now looking for the budget to be a much-needed circuit breaker. Ironically, the prime minister will be out of the country for much of the second-last week before it is delivered on May 9. That leaves the main selling job to the treasurer Scott Morrison. The wisdom is that the run-up to the budget is the premium opportunity to pitch it. The prime minister and treasurer can set parameters and foster confidence that a credible fiscal plan is being hatched. Well, that’s the theory.

The very public bunfight between ministers over housing affordability hasn’t inspired confidence. Eight days ago, just before Turnbull flew to the Middle East, he gave a Facebook interview to News Corp’s Miranda Devine. She asked him if the treasurer was framing housing affordability as the centrepiece of the budget. The prime minister replied, tersely: “I’ve read that in the press but I don’t think that’s a fair description. I mean the focus of the budget is and has to be firstly driving continued strong economic growth. You know that is the tide that we have to ensure lifts all boats.”

Fine, except Newspoll has found 54 per cent accept Labor’s argument on reducing tax breaks for investors. That has been ruled out for fear of further alienating grumpy, wealthy Liberals still whining over Morrison’s crackdown on their superannuation tax breaks. The same poll also found increasing support – 61 per cent – for leaving welfare payments alone. It’s an excruciating challenge, as 70 per cent believe reducing spending is the way to repair the budget. Spending on what is the question.

Labor is expecting Morrison to raise taxes, Turnbull to spend on infrastructure and the tax cuts for corporate Australia to be left in place. That would suit the opposition just fine.

Turnbull may have to wear his Kevlar into parliament to survive that battle.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Turnbull in the trenches". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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