Opinion

Chris Wallace
Scott Morrison faces Trump test

For 10 years the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Abbott–Turnbull wars roiled and now this week, suddenly, all was quiet. With parliament not sitting, Scott Morrison, unassailed at the top of his Liberal–National Coalition government, was serene in command. His one election promise – tax cuts – realised, there’s nothing much for the prime minister to do but pray in thanks for his incredibly good fortune.

After all, Malcolm Turnbull won the 2016 federal election by one seat and was branded a dunce. Morrison won the 2019 federal election by two seats and was hailed a genius. But Morrison’s good fortune will be our national reckoning.

Remember this quiet week. It is the origin moment of the biggest test of national character Australia has faced in 50 years. Some may have sensed it, others deduced it. But before 2020 arrives, anyone with contemporary historical perspective will know, understand and have had to take a position on the United States and its president. The choices are appeasement or action, with little scope to hover in between. The action demanded goes well beyond the crude open or closed borders conversation Australia has been mired in for the past two decades.

This week, Donald Trump went full, naked racist. His Sunday Twitter attack on four female Democratic Party congresswomen of colour, elaborated on at a White House press conference, tilted the ballast of the anglophone democracies awfully towards outright white supremacism.

Trump lambasted the four congresswomen – Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib – to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”. He kept up the attack for days. On Tuesday, he doubled down on Twitter that these congresswomen “hate our country”, then dared Republicans in congress not to back him in the ensuing affray. It is what revolutionaries always do – intensify the conflict, polarise the community and savour the ensuing chaos. No matter that three of the four women were born in the US and all are US citizens.

The US president made another announcement this week – a full state dinner for Scott Morrison during his scheduled visit to America later this year. Morrison is Trump’s new favourite international leader – more Trumpist even than many of the current congressional Trump enablers. As a long-time exponent of prosperity-gospel religiosity – to which Trump himself is a Johnny-come-lately – Morrison is an Identikit American Trump supporter, except for his Australian citizenship.

Australia’s prime minister is in the process of being publicly joined at the hip to Trump, an out-and-loud white supremacist. In a world where governments and peoples tend to be conflated, the prime minister has created a dynamic in which Australia and Australians risk being perceived as racists by association in the eyes of the world. And Trump, with his appalling treatment of people crossing the US–Mexican border, can point to Australia as the inspiration for his policy of deterrence.

In Australia’s northern waters, our troops this week joined American and Japanese forces to “invade” Stanage Bay in Queensland, as part of the Talisman Sabre war games. It marked the largest beach invasion since World War II and was yet another very public example of Australia’s deep military relationship with the US. Nearby, a Chinese warship watched on as 34,000-plus troops played out their exercises, all fighting to expel the forces of “Team Red”.

Meanwhile, the Australian Federal Police’s investigation of the ABC’s Afghan Files was again in the news, as it was revealed the federal police asked to fingerprint journalist Dan Oakes and producer Sam Clark. AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin, who this week announced his retirement, told 7.30 he doesn’t believe recent federal police raids on journalists were intended to scare the media. “I don’t believe that this was intimidation,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s what we were attempting to do.” And yet Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has refused to walk back his threats that the journalists involved may be charged. It is clear the Morrison government is taking a leaf out of Trump’s book, launching its own war on the media.

For some, Morrison’s cosying up to Trump is appalling. Conversely, to those Australians who began walking down what is now the Trump path when then prime minister John Howard in the late 1990s laid down its broad parameters, this is a logical development.

There is undeniably an element that subscribes to the latter view, but is this really what most Australians voted for when they returned the Morrison government by such a slim majority at the May election? An intimate, international, very public association with the English-speaking world’s leading, and increasingly aggressive, white supremacist?

Reporting on the state dinner to be laid on by Trump for Morrison later this year, the Indian English-language broadsheet New Indian Express noted that “Morrison and Trump’s political careers have both been built on strong opposition to illegal immigration. During his time as Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection between 2013 and 2014, Morrison was the architect of Operation Sovereign Borders – Australia’s military-led border protection operation. In a post on Twitter late in June, Trump praised Australia’s stance on illegal immigration, declaring that ‘much can be learned’.”

Meanwhile, the alt-right media outlet Breitbart gushed about the “historic invitation”. “Mr Morrison enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to visit Washington DC, praising the US president as a strong leader who will always ‘follow through on what he says’.”

The Trump–Morrison love-in, in other words, is officially on and everyone, from India to the alt-right, plainly sees it for what it is.

Although it all came together this week, for some time Morrison has been laying ego crumbs in the political forest for Trump. He was “Trump-eting his tax plan” (The Courier-Mail), flagging his “Trump-style economic plan” (Guardian Australia) and employing a “Donald Trump-style plan to boost the mining industry” (The West Australian) on June 23-24, for example. Trump, for his part, pumped up Morrison’s tyres for the world media at last month’s G20 summit over the Coalition’s surprise election win.

Meanwhile, the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, has toiled on in the political quietude of the post-election, post-tax cut legislation period, talking Newstart and infrastructure and wage stagnation – all vital issues – and what to do about them.

There is no public sign Albanese is aware of the forces converging around race and migration, with potentially dire consequences for Australia, in this developing Trump–Morrison axis. But he is no dope. When it registers, the response will be interesting.

Albanese has three choices. First, he could straddle the barbed-wire fence on the issue, with consequential abrasion of Labor’s political gonads.

Second, he could plump for one side of the binary, either supporting softish borders or aligning himself with Morrison-style hard borders – either way, losing the bloc of voters who oppose whichever position is chosen, making another election loss more likely.

Third, he could attempt something deeper, better and more likely to lance border protection as a consistent winner for Morrison and his Coalition government: a national mediation on the issue, with everyone heard, acknowledged and brought along together in an agreed, jointly crafted national solution. On first consideration this might seem naive to the point of visceral rejection. But perhaps a policy combining hard borders with humane, insourced – rather than outsourced – care of the asylum seekers concerned, for example, isn’t so unattainable.

Whatever the policy, the old workarounds are not going to cut it in this emerging, supercharged, internationally networked axis of Trump-fellow-travelling anglophone democracies.

Were Bob Hawke alive and 30 years younger, he would have given this a crack. Albanese needs to think about channelling Labor’s old messiah before Morrison and his international pals take the nation to a very terrible Trumpesque place.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Morrison’s Trump stake". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a historian at the Australian National University and formerly a longstanding member of the Canberra Press Gallery.