Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Trump awards Morrison metal of honour

Scott Morrison is back on Australian soil with the ramifications of his seven-day Trumpfest romp still to play out. He returns with an accolade from the United States president still ringing in his ears. No “man of steel”, this Aussie leader is a “man of titanium”. And in case his compliment wasn’t clear, Trump clarified: “Titanium’s much tougher than steel.”

That relegates George W. Bush’s “man of steel” epithet for John Howard to also-ran status. Though one wit has noticed that steel is heavier than titanium. Could Trump be implying Morrison is a lightweight by comparison? His critics would like to think so. Trump’s gushing praise of Morrison at times sounded corny, as did Morrison’s “hundred years of mateship” toast at the open-air White House state dinner.

The big question after the star treatment was what did Trump want in return? Seasoned White House observers say there is no doubt Trump wanted his flattery reciprocated or even pre-empted. Here, Morrison succeeded with flying colours.

Morrison did show he could be diplomatically light on his feet. He needed to be, especially during one of the more extraordinary Oval Office picture opportunities. The usual format is for the media to crowd into the room to ask a couple of questions and then within, at most, 10 minutes be ushered out. Trump took questions for 27 minutes.

In what was at times rambling incoherence, the president threatened nuclear war on Iran, then thought better of it. Morrison praised Trump for taking a “measured and calibrated approach”. Later Morrison insisted Australia wouldn’t be assigning more of its military beyond the ship and surveillance plane already committed if there were an escalation.

Trump also opened the way for a quick resolution of his trade war with China, before ruling it out. He declared China was a “threat to the world”. The Australian prime minister appeared to grimace at times but he retained composure and said Australia has a “comprehensive, strategic partnership with China” and “we work well with China”. Though he did support the president’s view that the Asian giant had reached a whole new level as a big economy. “We’ve all got to get on the same page with how the [trading] rules work,” Morrison said.

Had the prime minister left it there it would have made China, some of his colleagues, business leaders and the Labor Party much happier. But in a major speech in Chicago on Tuesday Morrison sang more enthusiastically from the president’s hymn sheet. He described China as a “newly developed economy” and as such the rules that apply more leniently to developing economies on climate and trade should no longer apply.

Trump says that under these rules Beijing has taken “$500 billion a year” from America and “more than that”. Trump told the United Nations the Chinese were “gaming the system”. He says his predecessors have allowed “China to steal our intellectual property and property rights”. He says they are using this money to expand their military and their influence throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the world.

Morrison didn’t spell it out as clearly in his speech in Chicago. But his agreement with the thrust of Trump’s argument, made just a day after what by any measure was a “love-in” at the White House, was condemned by Labor’s Anthony Albanese.

Albanese says it was hard to see how the address could help resolve tensions between Washington and Beijing. Further, he said it was a “new Australian policy” about the “characterisation of the economy of China”. He said “the fact is that the per capita income of China is substantially less than developed nations like Australia and the United States”. He accused Morrison of “loudhailer” diplomacy. There was vehement agreement from the Chinese embassy in Canberra. In The Sydney Morning Herald, high-level visiting delegation member Professor Chen Hong accused Australia of playing a “pioneering role in an anti-China campaign”.

Western Australia’s Labor premier, Mark McGowan, didn’t see Morrison’s remarks as being in his state’s or Australia’s national interest. He says that last year WA “exported $81 billion worth of product to China and imported $4.7 billion”. He said that unlike the US, which has a trade deficit with China, we have a huge trade surplus. On the other hand, McGowan pointed out that the US has a trade surplus with Australia yet “we’re not saying let’s apply tariffs on the USA”. McGowan said we need to say to China “we’re friends … and not do the bidding of any other country around us”. No doubt the premier – like some of his high-powered exporter constituents – doesn’t want China’s willingness or ability to keep buying our commodities and services to be damaged.

Labor insiders are convinced Morrison was carried away by the Trump treatment. One seasoned Liberal MP believes it’s simpler than that. He says Morrison sees in Trump a model for the sort of politics that could deliver him a more handsome victory at the next election. It’s not hard to observe parallels at the opening of Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt’s new cardboard recycling factory in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Many who rallied for Trump at the event were white nationalists feeling marginalised and either fearful for their jobs or without employment. Just like Pauline Hanson’s voters. Morrison did well attracting second preferences from regional voters feeling similarly ignored and job insecure. He now wants to win back their first preferences.

So there were no apologies from a visiting Australian prime minister throwing himself wholeheartedly into a Trump re-election event. Aping Trump’s campaign slogan, an excited Morrison yelled, “... making jobs great again!” He said to a cheering crowd of red-baseball-capped Trump supporters: “The president and I are here today because we believe in jobs” and “people don’t get jobs [without] a strong economy”. It was a message that a campaigning Morrison would be happy to see replayed in regional Queensland, no matter where it was originally delivered.

Never mind that a Democrat may also believe in miracles and win the 2020 presidential election. That result would certainly disappoint Anthony Pratt. He is an avowed Trump supporter and, like his hero, has a brilliant knack of minimising the tax he pays and maximising government subsidies. Australian Taxation Office records show Pratt Consolidated Holdings paid tax of $18.8 million on an income totalling $10.5 billion over four years. That’s tax on total income of 0.2 per cent in the years 2013-14 to 2016-17. Furthermore, Pratt Holdings is also registered in Bermuda, which is on the European Union’s tax haven blacklist.

Trump’s business-friendly tax policies are credited by Pratt as a major reason for his US expansion. According to Reuters, Pratt credits Trump’s cut in the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 21 per cent for a $US100 million boost to his company. It comes on top of full depreciation of capital spending in one year, rather than being spread over many. These reforms have plunged the US budget a trillion dollars into the red. Similar tax cuts were rejected in Australia. Our senate saw the essential unfairness in making ordinary taxpayers shoulder the burden of this generosity and undermining the ability to more adequately fund the likes of schools, hospitals, policing, infrastructure and other government services.

Morrison’s Trump cheerleading in Ohio, and China-baiting in Chicago, came in lieu of attending the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Australia, like the US, was not invited to speak. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, wanted people to come up with plans to do more than was promised in Paris four years ago. That certainly isn’t on the Australian government’s agenda.

Morrison was unimpressed by the passionate speech of the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg at the summit. He thought it lacked context, though he didn’t spell out what that meant. The correct context, the one he gives to his own daughters, Morrison said, would save them from anxiety about the future of the planet.

Morrison got his chance to speak to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Australian time, when he defended his government’s climate policies and unveiled a commitment to help save our oceans from plastics. But in a way that is “commercially sustainable”. Based on the government’s record, that means enriching the private sector, getting other taxpayers to subsidise big business by way of concessions and incentives. No doubt Trump would be impressed.

But as is often the way, an unforeseen setback overshadowed the early part of the trip. Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal reported the White House declined Morrison’s request to have his “mentor”, Hillsong Church pastor Brian Houston, attend the state dinner. A testy Morrison didn’t deny it but described the story in repeated questioning from journalists as “gossip”.

Houston tweeted the story was “false” and “fake news” but The New Daily revealed New South Wales police are still investigating Houston over his handling of his late father’s sexual abuse of children. Just who at the White House or State Department leaked the story and why is as intriguing as Trump’s effusive duchessing of the Australian prime minister.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Morrison receives metal of honour". Subscribe here.

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