Australia fears for future of its own special relationship with US

Turnbull denies rift over phone call: ‘I’ve enjoyed my dealings with President Trump’

Malcolm Turnbull: The Australian prime minister’s phone conversation with Donald Trump at the weekend was  “the worst call” of the day, the US president reportedly told Turnbull. Photograph: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Malcolm Turnbull: The Australian prime minister’s phone conversation with Donald Trump at the weekend was “the worst call” of the day, the US president reportedly told Turnbull. Photograph: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

 

Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was one of the first world leaders to call Donald Trump when he won the US presidential election in November. Turnbull got Trump’s mobile number from Australian golfer Greg Norman.

The president and prime minister had a more official and formal conversation last Saturday evening (Sunday morning in Australia) that was due to last an hour but ended after 25 minutes, according to a story broken by the Washington Post.

Turnbull denied Trump ended the call abruptly. “The report that the president hung up is not correct. The call ended courteously. These calls generally, naturally, remain confidential,” he said.

Speaking on Sydney’s 2GB radio – a favoured outlet for Australia’s conservative politicians – the prime minister addressed the issue of a refugee swap deal made last year with the Obama administration: “The president committed to honour the refugee resettlement deal.”

But Trump had already used his favoured outlet, Twitter, to say: “Do you believe it? The Obama administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Offshore detention

The people Trump called “thousands of illegal immigrants” are in fact 1,250 refugees being held in offshore detention on Manus Island (which is part of Papua New Guinea) and Nauru (an independent Micronesian nation with a population of 10,000). They were sent to the islands after arriving in Australian waters by boat. Most of the refugees are from Iran, one of the countries banned from US immigration last week.

Under the agreement, the refugees were to be accepted by the US in return for Australia taking US-bound refugees from camps in Costa Rica. Trump allegedly told Turnbull it was “the worst deal ever”, that he was “going to get killed” politically, and that Australia was seeking to export the “next Boston bombers”.

Speculation was rife in Australia’s capital, Canberra, that Trump’s controversial adviser Steve Bannon – who was with the president at the time – leaked details of the call so that if Trump eventually accepts the refugee deal, it will look like he is doing so grudgingly.

Australia, as with many countries, likes to think it has a “special relationship” with the US. It has more claim to this than most due to the 65-year-old Anzus military alliance. (New Zealand, the “nz’ in Anzus, was suspended from it in 1986 after declaring itself a nuclear-free zone.)

With Trump’s often-stated policy of America first, some are now wondering if the special relationship with Australia is doomed. During their conversation, Trump reportedly told Turnbull he had spoken with four other world leaders that day – including Russian president Vladimir Putin – and that “this was the worst call by far”.

Alliance rock-solid

Turnbull dismissed any notion of a rift. “It’s my job to stand up for Australia,” he said. “I’ve dealt with many people over the years, and I’ve enjoyed my dealings with President Trump. The alliance is absolutely rock-solid, it is so strong . . . It will continue and strengthen during my time as prime minister and, I’m sure, President Trump’s time.”

If nothing else, the leak proved a handy distraction after Turnbull revealed on Wednesday night that he had donated 1.75 million Australian dollars (€1.24 million) to his own Liberal Party in last year’s election, which he won but which saw his majority fall from 30 seats to two.

“He couldn’t rely on the power of his arguments or his policies to win the election, he had to buy it,” said the opposition Labor Party’s finance spokesman, Jim Chalmers. “I think the Australian people will be shocked by this admission. It stinks.”

The Australian people were shocked, for a few hours. But then the Trump card got played and the circus moved on.