Australians aren’t used to their political leaders being berated by U.S. presidents.
But word that President Trump blasted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the phone because of a refugee deal between the two nations bewildered this country of 25 million people which, in many ways, had long seen its closest military and diplomatic ally as a kind of benign big brother.
While experts say the alliance isn’t under threat, Trump’s tough talk could work in the prime minister’s favor — if the deal holds. The revelation that the U.S. president characterized his conversation with Turnbull as "the worst call by far” among four world leaders he spoke with Saturday, could generate some badly needed sympathy for the prime minister.
Australia has more at stake in U.S. immigration policy than many other developed countries. The agreement with the Obama administration to settle some 1,250 men, women and children in the United States — if they can pass security checks — is seen as vital to the political fortunes of the Liberal-National coalition government.
Turnbull and his cabinet is desperate to resolve the fate of the Iranians, Sir Lankans and others living in two detention camps that have caused Australia international embarrassment.
But Trump is regarded with suspicion by many Australians and the leader-to-leader tension could blunt opposition party attacks that Turnbull hasn’t done enough to challenge U.S. president’s immigration policies.
Lagging in the opinion polls, Turnbull’s domestic credibility wasn’t helped when he refused to join the international condemnation of Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S.
Turnbull wouldn’t confirm details of the call, but alluded to Trump’s hostility. "We have had very frank and forthright discussions in which of each of us has expressed our views,” he said in a radio interview after news of the conversation broke. "As Australia’s prime minister it is my job to stand up for Australia.”
Even figures in the opposition Labor Party conceded Turnbull was in a difficult position trying to convince the new president to uphold a promise made by the Obama administration. "I don’t believe Turnbull did the wrong thing,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Labor Government, told Sky News. "I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum.”
Other Australians hope the Trump presidency will lead to a more independent foreign policy. "Trump has rudely dismissed the Australian prime minister,” former foreign minister Bob Carr said in an email. "This is a damn healthy thing for Australia.”
[No ‘G’day, mate’: On call with Australian prime minister, Trump badgers and brags]
The president’s treatment of the prime minister, which was first reported in The Washington Post, was front page news across the country. Such hostility was genuinely shocking in a nation used to hearing sanitized versions of prime ministerial phone calls from official spokesmen. "Reporter drops sensational bombshell from 16,000 km away,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
On Monday, after his testy phone call with the president, Turnbull told reporters the new administration had promised to go ahead with the deal. The affirmation was greeted by Australians as evidence their close relationship with the U.S. would continue under Trump.
Less than two hours after the U.S. Embassy in Canberra told Australian reporters on Thursday that the White House had locked in the agreement, Trump tweeted that he "will study this dumb deal!” The comment appeared to place the deal in doubt, and was an example of how Trump’s apparently spontaneous tweets are creating havoc for American allies around the world.
In public, Turnbull essentially pretended the tweet didn’t exist. "I have a clear commitment from the president,” he said afterward. "It has been confirmed by his spokesman … we expect the deal and that commitment will continue.”
Experts said the critical tweet would send a tremor through Australian officials, which have become used to a close relationship with their American counterparts. "Trump is needlessly damaging trust within one of America’s closest alliances,” wrote Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, in an email.
Many Australians are wary of economic refugees arriving to take advantage of their generous social security system, a fear that has prompted political parties from both sides to house asylum-seekers who arrive in boats on two isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean, Nauru and Manus in Papua New Guinea.
Tough conditions in the camps have been condemned by dozens of human rights, medical and refugee organizations, but the policy remains popular with many ordinary Australians.
The government acknowledges it can’t leave the refugees there indefinitely, but has vowed not to allow them into Australia. Reneging on that promise would do Turnbull huge political damage.
As he continues negotiations with the Trump Administration, Turnbull’s professional background may be of use. As a young investment banker he was an adviser to Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man at the time and a friend of the Trump family.