Bringing Nauru and Manus refugees to Australia is a win-win, if the PM is bold enough

By Dennis Altman | 05 Feb 17
Demonstrator at London's anti-Trump rally

Not since the Whitlam government have relations with the United States been as tense as they are following Malcolm Turnbull’s phone call with President Trump. It appears that the Prime Minister’s refusal to distance himself from Trumps policies, as the leaders of other countries allied to the United States, such as Canada, Germany and New Zealand have done, is linked to the United States agreeing to accept at least some of the roughly 2000 asylum seekers currently interned on Nauru and Manus Island.

The tensions during the Whitlam government centred on the integration of Australia into American defence and intelligence strategy. Since then successive governments have increased our strategic and military links with the US, and stressed the centrality of the American alliance to Australian foreign and defence policy.

Despite periods of unease with American adventurism, this has been a tenable position as long as Australian governments could point to shared values and commitment to developing global order. It is easy to exaggerate talk of a rules based international system, and to point to the abuses of power by American Administrations in which we have too often been implicated. But a United States which no longer feels restrained by some commitment to protect basic rights takes us back to the worst days of the second Bush Administration. Donald Trump seems to be echoing Karl Rove’s famous saying that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”.

Trump seems oblivious to the complexities of global politics, and unconcerned if he destroys the fragile bonds that allow for international cooperation.

During his campaign Trump seemed to repudiate the legacy of interventionism, with talk of “America first”, and his inconsistent appeals to both build American military power and withdraw from foreign entanglements. But even less than his Republican predecessors he seems oblivious to the complexities of global politics, and unconcerned if he destroys the fragile bonds that allow for international cooperation.

The agreement to transfer detainees to the United States is now an albatross around the Australian government’s neck. It is likely to be implemented slowly and grudgingly, with no guarantees about how many people will eventually be admitted to the United States. Every person admitted will be held against Turnbull in any future discussions by a President who hates the deal and will do all he can to renege on it.

There are those in government who appear to accept Trump’s view of refugees and asylum seekers, and boast of their tough mindedness on “border protection”. Treasurer Scott Morrison, former Minister for Immigration, supported Trump, gushing to one of his radio interviewers: “We are the envy of the world when it comes to strong border protection policies”.

Morrison’s talk may play well in Trump’s America, in Nigel Farrage’s Britain, in Marine le Pen’s France. But it does not improve our standing in countries in our part of the world, whose cooperation in building a genuine regional solution to increasing numbers of refugees is essential to Australia.

The agreement to transfer detainees to the United States is now an albatross around the Australian government’s neck.

Currently our government is campaigning for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council against two western European states, and our treatment of asylum seekers is a major issue in the campaign. A realist might object that winning a seat on the Council is largely symbolic, far less important than maintaining close ties to the United States. But Australia has real strategic interests in the creation of global order, however fragile and incomplete its institutions may be.

There are strong moral arguments for Australia to support human rights but there are equally compelling pragmatic arguments for making the global environment safer and supporting sustainable development. As Michael Sheldrick wrote in a commentary on the latest Defence White Paper: “Eradicating poverty, raising healthcare standards and providing access to education among developing countries in our region are not just about providing humanitarian aid; they are critical to promoting and protecting our national interests.”

Of course it’s an over simplification to suggest that better development will necessarily enhance security, but a great deal of the uncertainty of the contemporary world is closely related to massive inequalities, resulting in political instability and the attraction of extremist ideologies.

Trump’s narcissistic belligerence threatens far more than agreements about refugees and trade. His rhetoric undermines the global consensus on the need to combat climate change, and support for the rules of international law. Criticising Trump is unlikely to change his mind; nor, sadly, is reasoned discussion. Conciliating Trump by abandoning commitments to human rights and greater global equality may have short term gains, but it will slowly undermine the creation of a global order on which our security ultimately depends.

Popular support for the centrality of the alliance with the United States rests upon shared values, and these values are in part shaped by the language of our leaders. Angela Merkel has been clear that Germany’s alliance with the United States demands respect for “the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.” If our leaders remain silent we risk losing confidence in these values themselves, and surrendering to the ignorance and prejudice that animates the Trump Administration.

Ultimately this argument is about a small number of people who risked their lives in the belief that Australia would provide sanctuary and a better life. In admitting them, Australia could demonstrate basic humanity, close the camps and remove an irritation from its alliance with the United States. It’s a win-win for a PM bold enough to challenge the dominant rhetoric of both major parties.