Trump boosts new treaty with Mexico and Canada; Boris Johnson’s leadership pitch. By Hamish McDonald.

Australia pledges $5m in disaster aid relief

Indonesian president Joko Widodo speaks to the media after visiting earthquake and tsunami-ravaged Palu in central Sulawesi on Wednesday.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo speaks to the media after visiting earthquake and tsunami-ravaged Palu in central Sulawesi on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Tatan Syuflana

We’re fortunate to live in a largely inert land. Around us, from Sumatra to New Zealand, are islands of volcanoes and earthquakes.

Eight days ago, off the western coast of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, a massive earthquake hit, collapsing many houses. Authorities issued a tsunami warning, then repealed it. Then came the oceanic shock wave, funnelled and amplified in the long gulf leading into the low-lying city of Palu, home to some 300,000 people. The six-metre wave hit at enormous speed. The earth turned liquid, removing the underpinnings of even large buildings.

By Thursday, searchers had found more than 1400 bodies. But that was just in Palu city. Donggala, a city of about the same size, and outlying villages had barely been searched. Some survivors raided shops, petrol stations and ATMs for supplies and funds, then held up aid convoys coming in along the tenuous highway from Makassar. Indonesian soldiers and police arrived. Heavy lifting equipment was lacking. Palu’s airport reopened for evacuation and supply flights, sometimes interrupted by desperate people running onto the runway.

It was not until Monday morning that the Indonesian government said it was open to international assistance in this disaster, in contrast with the Lombok earthquake in August. Scott Morrison had rung President Joko Widodo last Saturday night, asking what was needed. By Wednesday, Canberra had allocated $5 million, including 50 medical staff. Many other countries and charities also announced contributions.

As mass burials continued and hungry survivors pressed for supplies, Jakarta came in for criticism through graffiti on ruins. It emerged that a system of tsunami warning buoys, set up after the 2004 disaster that killed about 120,000 people in Aceh, had been inactive for the past six years due to lack of maintenance funds. This could have repercussions, with Indonesian elections in April.

Along with super-cyclones hitting the region, seismic catastrophes also suggest the need for better preparedness of equipment and supplies to deal with the aftermath. The annual rotation of United States marines in Darwin is routinely said to be practice with Australia for disaster relief, not containing China. It was not a popular move with Indonesia’s suspicious military when it started in 2012. Occasions such as this would be a chance to show it was meant to help, not interfere.

Trump pumps up NAFTA reboot

The North American Free Trade Agreement is dead. Really. The United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement is not just the old model with a paint job and few new accessories. “It’s not NAFTA redone, it’s a brand-new deal,” Trump assured everyone on Monday.

It’s obviously another amazing achievement, up there with the denuclearisation deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who’s now saying he won’t give up his nukes until sanctions are lifted. We’ve been here before.

“If you say so, Donald,” sums up the reaction of the Mexicans and Canadians, after they wriggled out of major damage from the president’s determination to rip up the 25-year-old agreement, which he’s called “the worst trade deal ever made”.

Actually, trade experts said, the proposed new USMCA is cosmetic surgery on a body that remains largely the same. The adjustments for digital, intellectual property and financial innovations since NAFTA was signed were in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump withdrew the US from in his first week in office.

Faced with being left on the outer after Trump achieved agreement with Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s outgoing president, in August, Canada’s Justin Trudeau conceded marginally greater access for US dairy farmers. But he’s kept access for Canadian car-makers to the US market, saving some 250,000 jobs, and kept an investment dispute-settling tribunal Trump wanted dumped.

By getting a bigger input to car-making for high-wage countries, Trump is hoping to draw employment to US autoworkers from Mexico, where wages are one third of US levels. But this will make cars more expensive for US consumers, and US-made cars even less competitive elsewhere. And despite getting the Canadians and Mexicans into “the biggest trade deal in the United States’ history”, Trump keeps tariffs he slapped on their steel and aluminium to persuade them to negotiate.

Boris’s pencil sketch

Across the Atlantic there was another leader dearly wishing she could also rework a big trade partnership and leave things much as they are, while persuading her base that it really was a big new deal.

Theresa May went into this week’s Conservative Party conference with her Brexit plan announced at her official Chequers residence midyear largely bereft of support. It would have Britain staying in the European Union’s customs zone for goods trade, with London then free to write its own rules for services, people movement and investment.

Several of her ministers, including her foreign minister Boris Johnson, quit soon after. At least 50 of her 315 Tory MPs belonging to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group are opposed. At a meeting with May in Salzburg on September 20, EU leaders said it was impractical anyway.

The major sticking point is the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. May is vaguely hoping for virtual customs controls. The EU suggested retaining Northern Ireland within the common market, and moving the customs border to the Irish Sea. Ulster unionists on whom May depends for parliamentary support, vehemently reject this. The issue could reignite the Troubles.

Johnson went to the Tory conference arguing for a “Super Canada” free trade agreement after Brexit, a deal from the outside similar to the one recently negotiated by Ottawa. On Tuesday he spoke to 1500 supporters of a “hard” Brexit at a fringe event, declaring “Chequers is a cheat” that would escalate “the sense of mistrust” about politicians. “If we get it wrong – if we bottle Brexit now – believe me, the people of this country will find it hard to forgive,” he said. “… this is not what we voted for. This is an outrage. This is not taking back control: this is forfeiting control.”

Johnson’s speech was also a leadership pitch. “If I have a function here today it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief, and to invite you to feel realistic and justified confidence in what we can do,” he said.

Conservatives should take the fight to the Opposition. “We won’t get anywhere by metaphorically acquiring beards and string vests and allotments, but by systematically pointing out the damage they would do.” This was an Identikit image of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose neo-socialism frightens Tories even more than soft Brexit. But much as they love Johnson’s iconoclasm, many Tories think he’s a loser, too, and worry that a leadership contest could bring about early elections.

This is what Corbyn would like. He ended Labour’s party conference a week earlier by announcing Labour would also vote against the Chequers plan. His party straddled the fence on Brexit, declaring it’s open to a second referendum that would give voters the choice of soft or hard Brexit, or no Brexit at all.

The timetable for Brexit taking effect on March 29 came down to less than six months, with no plan decided. Disaster scenarios had trucks banking up at Channel ports, food and medicines running short, even aircraft unable to fly. The British Treasury sees all options between leaving the EU with no deal and a Chequers-type soft exit cutting the size of the economy.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Australia pledges $5m in disaster aid relief".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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