Turnbull's sycophancy towards Trump no 'Love Actually'

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Malcolm Turnbull at Coral Sea Commemorative Dinner (screen shot via abc.net.au).

There is an assumption that the wealth of Turnbull and Trump equates to good leadership, but in reality neither has the intellectual range or fortitude to do better than the gory flattery they offered up in New York, writes Ingrid Matthews.

REMEMBER that scene in Love Actually where Hugh Grant, playing the British Prime Minister, busts a sleazy U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton) harassing his love interest Natalie (Martine McCutcheon)?

And at the subsequent joint press conference, Thornton mouths the usual platitudes about special relationships, but Grant channels his possessive anger into a speech calling out the U.S. as an abusive partner.

Britain cheers, on film and in real life. Who wouldn’t want a bit of that speech in our leaders’ response to a sleazy U.S. President?

Predictably, there was no deviating from the platitudes when Malcolm Turnbull met Donald Trump in New York. These two great friends who lead two great countries – if their words are to be believed – met aboard the USS Intrepid, moored on the Mahicantuck (Hudson River) on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The scheduled meeting was delayed for three hours and shrunk to 30 minutes so Trump could stay on in Washington and celebrate a bill passing the House of Representatives. The bill destroys health care affordability for around 24 million Americans, including veterans with pre-existing conditions like PTSD caused by undeclared wars and illegal invasions, but whatever — details. Given Trump's "Muslim bans" have been struck down by six federal courts and the baffling refusal of the Mexican President to pay for an imaginary wall, Trump was keen to trumpet a bill not yet made into law as proof that he can deliver on campaign promises.

The promise-keeping thing was dutifully amplified, with headline after headline shouting "repeal and replace". This implicitly trolls low-income Trump voters who will lose health insurance, ignoring the obscenely wealthy men who hate universal health care and backed Trump into office.

That the solidarity of conservative whiteness knows no bounds was on display when Turnbull met Trump, too: 

“Congratulations on your vote today. ... Big day … I know the feeling. We have only 29 seats in a Senate of 76 so you need a lot of work to get legislation through.”

This starts out with those predictable platitudes. Turnbull then switches to basic one-syllable language, to mirror Trump’s response. The errors in our prime minister’s shabby sycophancy arise in citing two numbers in one sentence to a man who would struggle to halve 76 without a calculator — and who does not do the work of negotiating bills through Congress.

In addition, the Republicans have a majority in both houses, the bill has not passed the U.S. Senate and everything is a pissing contest to Trump. So by mentioning his own low Senate numbers, Turnbull made himself sound like a loser and befuddled the U.S. President, who reacts to key words rather than responding to fully formed ideas — because he has no listening skills.

What is the cost of this twaddle? Turnbull flew halfway around the world only to cool his heels while Trump danced on the future graves of millions of Americans. Neither man had to do anything beyond waking up and pulling on a pair of matching socks for the meeting to be reported as a success. The generous American and Australian public paid for the travel, and for the staff who organise everything.

Like that scene from Love Actually, the speeches write themselves: “Today we affirm the strong friendship between our two great countries … ”.

The whole thing was a hideous embarrassment, but there is a serious, hidden cost. What is the actual substance of the Australia-U.S. alliance? Consider these two very recent events.

On Good Friday (14 April) this year, the U.S. dropped a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) – the biggest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal – on Afghanistan. Around the world, this was breathlessly reported as the "first" time the MOAB had been used "in combat". But the USA never declared war on Afghanistan — and using disproportionate force is a war crime.

Trump, who received five deferments during the Vietnam draft, said:

“ We are so proud of our military, it was another successful event.”

When asked if the bomb "sent a message" to North Korea, Trump said:

“I don't know if this sends a message. It doesn't make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of …”

Which to me sounds like a message that matters a lot.

Ten days later, for Anzac Day 2017, Malcolm Turnbull visited Iraq and Afghanistan. He donned a flak jacket, met Australian troops, handed out medals.

Turnbull said:

“Australian men and women [are] defending our values, defending our liberties, keeping us safe.”

To parse this, we must believe that the Australian Defence Force are defending Australia by being in a sovereign country on which our ally just dropped a 10,000-kilogram bomb designed 14 years ago "for Saddam" – the sovereign leader of another country, which we also invaded – in breach of international law.

And so to the 3 May 2017 meeting in New York, where the only item of substance was an off-hand reply to a question on "the refugee deal". This deal involves Australia accepting an unspecified number of Central American migrants and America "extreme-vetting" an unspecified number of refugees currently held by Australia in offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru.

Trump said:

“That’s all worked out. That has been worked out for a long time.”

The questions moved on to the previous Trump-Turnbull communication about this deal. Trump said:

“We had a great telephone call. You guys exaggerated that call. That was a big exaggeration. We're not babies. That was a little bit of fake news.”

Turnbull said:

“That's exactly right.”

He agreed that reports of an acrimonious phone call were a big exaggeration and a little bit of "fake news". Made-up? Reported but did not, in fact, happen? Who agrees to a pair of contradictory claims?

The fake news gibberish is textbook off-script Trump, who is consistently inconsistent. Turnbull, in contrast, stayed on script.

He proclaimed in that grating gravitas he puts on for speeches:

“We are reminded of how the stability and prosperity of our region over so many decades has been secured and is secure today by the United States.” 

Few countries have done more to destabilise any region than the U.S., but to say this to an American President who claims North Korea is a "problem" to be "solved" in the context of dropping a MOAB is not only dishonest but irresponsible.

These miserable displays of irresponsible dishonesty have purpose. The West invests massive resources into glorifying its own violence while branding itself as civilised and heroic, as stable and prosperous. And without regime change, this is unavoidable. No man with the positional privilege of Trump or Turnbull has the courage or creativity to redress the moral bankruptcy of our nations and our national stories.

Trump might be commander-in-chief and Turnbull recently returned from Afghanistan but who mentioned the MOAB? Who noted that the acceptable solemnity of commemorating war explicitly glorifies both past and future military violence and exclusively praises men? Nobody did. Nobody ever does. It is wholly acceptable to praise men for extreme acts of violence – killing people, destroying homes, raping – a thing men routinely do in war, as long as these acts of violence are not mentioned. 

Could Turnbull have handled the occasion differently? In theory, yes. Turnbull is presumed to be smart and statesmanlike but the only evidence is his wealth. The same assumption – that wealth equals intelligence/good leadership – was made by those who suggested waiting to see how bad a president Trump would be. Either way, neither Turnbull nor Trump has the intellectual range or fortitude to do better than the gory flattery they offered up in New York.

But differently, it has been done. Here is Paul Keating describing his meeting with President Bush Senior just nine days into the prime ministership (Keating, O’Brien, 2015, p480).  

KOB: You could have played it safe, gone through the motions, and seen him off back to America with no risk of bad press. 

PJK: I wasn’t going to let a U.S. president visit without doing my best to gain something for Australia … American policy in the Pacific had essentially been run by the U.S. Navy since 1945 … I was seeking to try to draw the U.S. into greater engagement with Asia, not through the navy but through direct White House interest … I made it an intellectual event rather than a golf game with a bit of formal chat tacked on … I argued that we could stitch together a very pretty piece of foreign policy, with Australia playing a critical part as a middle power with a foot in the American camp and a foot in Asia. Bush was interested, and when he excused himself for a toilet break, [National Security Advisor] Brett Scowcroft said to me, "Prime Minister, you have articulated a policy for the United States in the Pacific that we haven’t articulated for ourselves …"

This is no rom-com, but it could make you weep.  

Ingrid Matthews lectures in law at the University of Western Sydney. You can follow Ingrid on Twitter @iMusing or her blog Ecomuse.

Prime Minister Turnbull thanks President Trump at gala dinner (source via @Feeney4Batman).

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