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Mungo MacCallum: Turnbull, Trump, TPP and 'alternative' facts'

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"No TPP" was probably the most popular sign at the Democrats Convention. (Image via ‏@mtracey)

The Trans Pacific Partnership is not worth pursuing by anyone serious — which leaves Turnbull and Ciobo, still clinging, not even to a straw, but to the open waters of internationalism. Mungo MacCallum reports.

PERHAPS EMBOLDENED by the Trumpery of alternative facts, Malcolm Turnbull spent most of last week spruiking an alternate Trans Pacific Partnership.

Unwilling to admit the reality — that The Donald had killed off the idea with a stroke of the pen and, in any case, its abolition had been bipartisan American policy for many months, our prime minister continued to fantasise that it could still be the cornerstone of the new strategic and economic alliance he craved for Australia.

Bullshit, of course, sheer wishful thinking. But his persistence was baffling to the point of derangement.

First, he tried to pre-empt Trump by pushing for Australia to ratify the deal. If he were serious, he could have done so months ago but, in any case, there was little point. Until both Japan and the USA ratified (and admittedly Shinzo Abe rushed to do so in a similar panic move) the TPP could not go ahead, so why bother?

Then he suggested that, perhaps, pressed by more serious Republicans, Trump could perhaps reconsider. This is highly unlikely, but even if it came about, the consequences would not be good for Australia.

The main criticism of the TPP, as far as it could be ascertained through leaks from WikiLeaks (the details were kept secret from all except the major corporations which designed the drafts), was that it gave the USA too much power. In particular, it allowed enhanced property rights for Americans (the antithesis of free trade, one might have thought) and it set up a system by which aggrieved private companies could sue sovereign governments if they felt like it. Both big free kicks for Wall Street. But Trump while no fan of Wall Street, complains that the TPP is not favourable enough to America. He wants even more favours and advantages.

At its best, the TPP was never all that promising. The only real selling point was that it might give our farmers (well, some of them) a toehold into the American market. In spite of the ritual palaver about jobs and growth, serious analysts such as the World Bank estimate the overall net worth of the TPP at less than one quarter of one percentage point — not per year, but forever. And Turnbull and Scott Morrison refused to let our own most responsible agency, the Productivity Commission, even consider the deal. So if the original version would have been something of a fizzer, a revised Trump version of a TPP would be a disaster for Australia, not some kind of redemption.

So Turnbull, absurdly, turned to threats: if Washington would not play ball with Canberra, perhaps Beijing would; perhaps China could become the centrepiece of a new TPP. Quite apart from the fact that China would not have the remotest interest in picking up the pieces of a failed American agenda, the whole concept of the TPP was to cement USA supremacy and contain China — part of the increasingly shaky American pivot to Asia.

When no one took any notice of this nonsense, the latest tactic was to say that, well, perhaps America was out, but we could still save the rest of the TPP. The indefatigably optimistic Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo, spoke of a “twelve minus one” TPP.

Not even the Government’s staunchest conservative allies bought this idea: in The Australian both Greg Sheridan and Judith Sloan, to name but two, derided it as farcical. And in case there was any lingering doubt, Japan (yes, the Japan which had ratified the original TPP) and Canada both declared that a TPP without America was a meaningless idea. So, with three of the big boys out, the concept of a “twelve minus three,” with probably more dominoes to fall, is not worth pursuing by anyone serious — which leaves Turnbull and Ciobo, still clinging, not even to a straw, but to the open waters of internationalism.

It has been a major set back, so Turnbull, never one to admit the obvious, instead rounded on Bill Shorten and the Labor opposition, branding them as protectionists and men of the last century, simply because they had faced fact that the TPP was dead, defunct, fallen off the twig — an ex-TPP. All of which suggests that despite all the clear signals from Washington that the grand alliance was never going to happen, the Government has no plan B — only denial, obfuscation, bluff and bluster.

It was not an auspicious prelude to Turnbull’s big Wednesday address, in which he orated to the National Press Club (and anyone else who will listen) about his ideas for the year, the parliament, ahead. Apart from no TPP, no national economic plan promising corporate tax cuts for all and never, ever negative gearing to help ameliorate the housing crisis, not much has been foreshadowed, apart from the endless threats to our security and still more reasons to impose draconian measures to restrict our liberties in order to protect us from all being murdered in the streets. Not such exciting times for 2017.

The overall picture is that of a government caught well and truly with its pants down, although it was repeatedly warned that both its belt and braces were in urgent need of repair. The expectation – at least the hope – was that Trump would lose and, if by some chance he won, he could be persuaded to act like a moderate; that his radical rhetoric would be constrained by wiser heads. But it has not been so and it is time to accept that perhaps he actually meant what he said, however rash and reckless it may be.

So when Trump moves to inaugurate trade wars and, more alarmingly, his incoming State Secretary, tyrannosaurus Rex Tillerson, threatens a blockade on the artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea, perhaps it is time to start taking Trumpery seriously. Alternative facts may be comforting, but they will neither pay the rent nor safeguard our interests. 

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

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