Convoluted route awaits refugees in US-Australia swap deal

Sydney Letter: Post-Trump, what happens next for deal cut with Obama is uncertain

If the election of Donald Trump as US president is the gunshot that was heard around the world, it was perhaps heard more clearly in Australia than a lot of other places.

Trump took to Twitter to denounce a New York Times report that the transition period was not going well. He said he had “taken calls from many foreign leaders”, specifically naming Australia, among others.

What he didn’t mention was that Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had got Trump’s personal mobile number through a convoluted route.

Australian golfer Greg Norman – an old golfing buddy of the president-elect – gave it to Australia’s ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, who gave it to Turnbull, who called Trump. It’s hardly the making of a special relationship.


Alliance rethink

Opposition Labor senator Penny Wong says a Trump presidency should force a rethink of the 65-year-old US-Australia military alliance.

The minister for veterans’ affairs, Dan Teehan, vociferously objected to this, saying “Australia has always had a bipartisan approach to national security, especially when it comes to the US alliance”.

This is not true, though. Labor opposed Australia’s participation in the Iraq War, a move that went against the mood of the times in 2003, but looks a lot wiser now.

Not that the opposition is above taking a trick from Trump’s playbook. The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, is moving his party in the direction of the anti-globalisation, economic nationalism that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign.

This could affect thousands of Irish people on the 457 visa system, which allows doctors, nurses, engineers and other skilled workers to stay in Australia for four years. “What we need to do here is prioritise Australian jobs first,” said Shorten.

This prompted Turnbull to call Shorten “a rank opportunist”. “Mr Shorten’s hypocrisy on the subject of foreign workers is breathtaking,” he said.

“The highest number of 457 visas were granted when he was the employment minister.”

But the Liberal-National government is already tightening the 457 rules. As of November 19th, someone on a 457 visa will be forced to leave Australia within 60 days instead of 90 if they lose their jobs.

Detention centres

Of more immediate concern to the Australian government is that the fate of 1,800 refugees being held in offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island looks set to fall prey to Trump’s election win.

Under an agreement reached with the Obama administration, the refugees – who were told they would never be allowed to settle in Australia – were to be accepted by the US in return for Australia taking US-bound refugees from camps in Costa Rica.

The swap deal, bizarre as it was, had the potential of making Australia’s refugee issue – and the international condemnation that comes with it – go away. But given that most of those detained in the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus are from Muslim countries, it is unlikely Trump will want to hold up the US side of the bargain.

‘Firestorm’ of opposition

Mark Krikorian, director of the US-based Center for Immigration Studies, said the proposal would lead to a “firestorm” of opposition.

“It’s so difficult to justify,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I don’t expect any Republicans will defend it.

“I can’t see a lot of Democrats defending it either. My sense is that when the word gets out on this, it’ll be dead on arrival.”

Though the Republican party and Australia’s conservative government should be natural bedmates, a confluence of economic protectionism, a potentially strained military alliance and unwanted refugees are likely to stretch the bounds of friendship.

At least Turnbull has Trump’s mobile number now.