Mungo MacCallum: Turnbull, Trump and the sacrament of the U.S. alliance

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Mungo MacCallum analyses the miring of Turnbull to the U.S. alliance in light of the shifting priorities of Donald Trump.

SO WITH A SINGLE bound across the Pacific, Trumpery has come to Australia — or at least to our elected leaders, which is the troubling bit.

Last week Malcolm Turnbull was inveighing against the elites — yes, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, the multimillionaire lord of Wentworth, Mr Harbourside Mansion himself.

His complaint that the “elitist” ABC was talking about Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – the ABC, not the manic Murdoch press which has spent relentless months on the same subject until Turnbull was forced to throw a chunk of raw meat to his right wing predators in the form of an inquiry – and the forthcoming dismemberment of the unlucky Gillian Triggs, who has been designated as official blood sacrifice.

Belting the elites, however hypocritical and misguided, is Trump demagoguery 101 — something Turnbull had previously eschewed. He is still not quaffing bubbly with Pauline Hanson just yet, but the cracks in his urbane façade are starting to show.

And if Malcolm Turnbull leads, can Bill Shorten be far behind? Indeed not — in fact, he shows signs of pushing to the front. First there was the renewed onslaught on 457 visas — the dodge to allow employers to recruit workers from overseas if none are immediately available in Australia. It was originally seen as a device to secure the mining boom at a time of near full employment but, of course, those balmy days are long gone.

Now increasingly it is used as a short cut, as a way of union busting and in too many cases as blatant exploitation, as we have seen most dramatically in the case of the 7-Eleven scandals. It is certainly time that it was revisited and tidied up, but Shorten’s demand for a universal crackdown is all too reminiscent of The Donald: foreigners taking our jobs, and no doubt they will be marrying our daughters next. Drug addicts, rapists, terrorists. However, Shorten denies it, the taint of xenophobia is, once again, a sign that he too is prepared to drink with Hanson when it is convenient.

But there is rather more than opportunism in the suggestion that American alliance – the sacrament of ANZUS, as Paul Keating recently described it – needs a rethink. And this time, while the ascension of Trump may have been the catalyst, the idea itself has been brewing for a long time and not only among the left.

While ANZUS might be the cornerstone of Australia’s defence, it is not infallible or inviolable. The commitment to mutual defence, to the idea that an attack on Australia will immediately provoke a retaliation by the United States, is all very well in theory, but the hard fact is that Washington will only act if it is in its own interests. Even conservative commentators are prepared to admit this uncomfortable truth.

Their remedy is, of course, to bind our great and powerful ally ever more closely to the Australian cause; thus we have the spy bases of Pine Gap and Nurrungar, the facility at Exmouth Gulf and in the last year, the deployment of American troops to Darwin — a move that caused some consternation in the Pentagon when it was realised that the port on which they relied was to be sold to the Chinese. The idea was that the U.S. would always defend its own installations and with any luck would defend the rest of Australia in the process. The contrary argument was that the U.S. assets would become targets and the rest of the country would become collateral damage.

But of course politicians of either side must never, under any circumstances, question such arrangements. To do so, as Gough Whitlam once did, will result in swift and terrible retribution. The correct response is what was once called “tickle my tummy;” swear eternal fealty to whoever is in charge of the White House, however flaky the current occupant may be. And so it was that  Malcolm Turnbull fell on his knees to worship The Donald, to kiss his feet, even if he suspected they were of clay.

That is just the way it always was, is, and will forever be. And it followed automatically with a diatribe against Shorten and Labor daring to even mention that this timeless verity could, over time, occasionally be reviewed; that what was seen as unshakeable and bipartisan policy more than 50 years ago, may not be necessarily appropriate in 2016 — and even more so in 2017 in the age of Trumpery.

Despite what Turnbull is saying, Shorten is not in any way threatening the American alliance per se; he is hardly modelling himself as the maverick Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte. But he is arguing that stronger and more positive links with Asia could enhance Australia’s position and even a modicum of (dare one say it?) independence. This, of course, has long been the stance of previous Labor leaders, notably Whitlam and Keating — and it has even been canvassed by former Liberal leaders, Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson among them.

It is hardly a radical idea but it is an unthinkable one within the long-standing Australian political paradigm. But not – and certainly not any more – within the American one. Trump has expressed something like contempt for alliances. He has said he will tear up treaties, re-examine NATO and, in our own region, rejig defence alliances with Japan and South Korea.

He may, as Turnbull fervently hopes, make Australia the exception: that our long service (or subservience) to America, our traditional English (American) speaking white Christian traditions, will guide us through the upheaval. But there is no guarantee — the world has changed and Trumpery is on the march. And if a hard-line, unilateral nationalism is to be the foundation of the incoming president’s approach, as he repeatedly promised in his election rants, Australia might suddenly find itself in a new and vulnerable space in the midst of our not always friendly Asian neighbours.

For some time, through various administrations, we have sought to relate to them and, at times, placate them but always under the umbrella of the stars and stripes. Shorten has at least realised that it might be wise to consider taking out some insurance. Turnbull, so far, is sticking to the script that America, like death and taxes, will always be with us ... until the last Trump sounds. The problem is that this might not be long. The first Trump is already reverberating around the world.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who for many years worked in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations'. It is republished with permission.

Labor urging Australia to re-evaluate the U.S. alliance drew criticism from the PM (source: @InsidersABC).

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