The Trump Australia Thing

platonictrumpTrump being incompetent, some sort of strategy or some third thing? I assume it is plain incompetence. “Ally” makes no sense to Trump in a national sense – it only makes sense in a personal sense – but let me go through some different ways of looking at it.

Plain incompetence

Trump is marginalising US allies through his policies and rhetoric. However, currently the Australian government has been slow in its criticism of Trump. Given Australia’s own draconian immigration policies (targetted at refugees arriving by boat), the Australian government is less inclined to attack Trump’s recent ban on people from various middle-eastern countries. On top of this, Australia foreign policy has been closely allied to US foreign policy since World War 2. Australia (unlike the UK) even joined the US in the Vietnam War.

For little obvious benefit, Trump has basically humiliated a close ally and made it easier for Australian critics of Trump to drive a wedge between Australia and Trump.


Alt-Foreign Policy

It may have been more intentional.

Malcolm Turnbull is the leader of a right-leaning government but he is very much on the left of the party which he is leading. His views on global warming and marriage equality put him much closer to Trump’s opponents than Trump’s base. Turnbull is the kind of right-leaning politician that the alt-right hate with a deep abiding passion.

Turnbull is also, as they say, embattled. In the wings is Tony Abbot, the ex-PM ousted by Turnbull in a party-room coup. Abbot is a more aggressively right-wing politician and would probably head further to the right given an opportunity like Trump. Beyond Abbot are the more overtly Trumpian fringes of Turnbull’s own coalition. Politicians such as Cory Bernardi have been vocal in their support of Trump. And beyond them are the far-right fringes of Australian parliamentary politics such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.

Humiliating Turnbull does help the Australian Labor Party but it also helps the Australian Right in its current active struggle against the Australian centre-right. Consequently, assuming Bannon was aware of all that, I can see him pushing Trump to do this intentionally.

Plain ignorance

There is a slightly jokey explanation going around that maybe Trump got confused because Turnbull is head of the Liberal Party. Funny but we all know we can’t rule that out.

Mind you Turnbull is also literally a republican.

The Deal isn’t a Good One?

Trump maybe has a point. The deal involves resettling refugees currently held by Australia offshore. For mainly grandstanding reasons Australian governments (both Liberal and Labor) have vowed that people who attempt to arrive by boat can never be settled in Australia. That policy has ended up as a shambles with a thousand-plus people effectively held by Australia but with nowhere to go.

It is an inhumane mess of Australia’s own making. The late deal with the Obama administration would have resulted in a swap of refugees. As the refugees being processed by the US hadn’t attempted to arrive by Indonesian fishing boat, Australia could take them in without loss of face. The US would, from its perspective, swap one lot of refugees for another.

While the deal helps Australia, it is somewhat neutral for the US. Trump may be genuinely looking at the deal and wondering why the US would agree to it.


Trump has been sabre rattling about China and China has been testing international patience with shenanigans in the South China Sea. From a US perspective, it’s military presence in the region is strongly bolstered by military co-operation from Australia.

However, Australia’s economic ties to China are currently very strong both in demand for Australian mineral resources and in terms of economic investment between the two countries.

You can slot this either into the plain incompetence model or the better deal model.

Incompetence is implied because a rift between the US and Australia reduces Australian willingness to upset China even further.

Alternatively, the US government might want to make use of the refugee deal to ensure a clearer anti-China stance from Australia.

Nah, it’s just plain incompetence

I think, on balance, it is all just plain incompetence.




  1. JJ

    Ah, thanks for explaining the purpose of the refugee swap! I had been trying (and failing) to figure out the point of that.


  2. Mark

    The deal is a decent one for the US in that they solve a problem for Australia at fairly limited cost to themselves (they’re just swapping some people around after all) and in return they receive some future goodwill.
    I suspect it’s the last part that has Trump’s brain squeaking “Does Not Compute” – he doesn’t understand the concept of building relationships for the future (cf all the subbies he’s screwed over in the past). This is going to make international politics a bit of a brain teaser for him.


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