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Issue #1790      August 16, 2017

Turnbull vs Trump:

The real significance of that phone call

Last week Iranian asylum seeker Hamed Shimshiripour died on Manus Island. He had left the foetid, notoriously dangerous asylum seeker camp and there are indications he was murdered. Mr Shimshiripour was suffering from mental illness, now common among Australia’s detainees on Manus Island and Nauru.

The recent phone conversation between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump demonstrated that the outlook for detainees is very bleak indeed, as long as he and Turnbull retain office.

The conversation at times resembled a weird Clarke and Dawe satire, with Trump baffled by Australia’s asylum seeker policy and Turnbull struggling to persuade him the United States should accept for resettlement some asylum seekers currently held by Australia.

Turnbull and former President Obama had previously reached an agreement to that effect, on condition that Australia accepted a number of US prisoners from South America.

Trump, as always belligerent, protested that the deal would cause him political damage. In the ensuing discussion the two leaders treated the asylum seekers as pawns in a cynical contest for political advantage.

Trump protested that the deal certainly wouldn’t benefit the US, and that the asylum seekers must be “bad characters” because they had, after all, been imprisoned on Manus and Nauru. At no stage did Turnbull contradict Trump when he referred to the detainees as prisoners.

Trump maintained that the asylum seekers were probably as bad as the gangsters who’d been imprisoned in Cuba but were accepted into the US by the Carter administration and subsequently wrought havoc in Miami. He even compared the asylum seekers with those responsible for the World Trade Centre attack.

When Turnbull defended the character of the asylum seekers Trump asked: “Why haven’t you let them out? Why haven’t you let them into your society?”

Turnbull’s phony argument that the asylum seekers had to be imprisoned because it was the only way to save the lives of others who might also try to arrive by boat was a key issue.

Turnbull replied:

“… It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble Prize winning genius, we will not let you in.”

Trump expressed grudging admiration for the policy, declaring: “That is a good idea, we should do that too.” In a rare tacit admission of moral failure, he added “You are worse than I am”, to which Turnbull replied stiffly “That is our experience”.

Turnbull abandons detainees

At this point Turnbull abandoned Australia’s detainees to continued indefinite detention, declaring:

“[The agreement] does not oblige you to take one person that you do not want. ... it is in the mutual interest of the United States to say: ‘Yes, we can conform with that deal – we are not obliged to take anybody we do not want, we will go through extreme vetting’, and that way you are seen to show the respect that a trusted ally expects and deserves.

“We will then hold up our end of the bargain by taking in our country 31 [inaudible] that you need to move on from.”

But Trump still insisted that by merely authorising the vetting of Australia’s detainees he would suffer irreparable political damage. He was particularly incensed about the numbers involved, stating:

“Malcolm, why is this so important? I do not understand. This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person who does not want to let people into the country. And now I am agreeing to take 2,000 people and I agree I can vet them, but that puts me in a bad position. It makes me look so bad and I have only been here for a week.”

When Turnbull told him the number was “only 1,250”, Trump agreed with the utmost reluctance to abide by the deal, saying “Look, I spoke to Putin, Merkel, Abe of Japan, to France today and this was my most unpleasant call because I will be honest with you, I hate taking these people. I guarantee they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who will go out to work for the local milk people.”

Brushing aside Turnbull’s objections, he observed, “Well, maybe you should let them out of prison. I am doing this because Obama made a bad deal.” Adding an insult or two to bolster his case, he stated, “...You have brokered many a stupid deal in business and I respect you but I guarantee that you [brokered] many a stupid deal. This deal will make me look terrible”.

Appearing to have misunderstood Turnbull’s concession that the US need not take any of Australia’s asylum seekers if they didn’t want to, Trump asked: “Suppose I vet them closely and we do not agree to take any?” His question sparked the following bizarre exchange.

Turnbull: “That is the point I have been trying to make.”

Trump: “How does that help you?”

Turnbull: “Well, we assume we act in good faith.”

Trump: “Does anybody know who these people are? Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they going to become the Boston bomber in five years? Or two years? Who are these people?”

Turnbull: “Let me explain ... the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane with a tourist visa then they would be here.”

Trump: “Malcolm, but they arrived on a boat?”

Turnbull: “Correct, we have stopped the boats.”

Confused by the conversation’s absurdity, Trump then returned to familiar ground, protesting that the US was becoming a dumping ground for the world’s undesirables.

We’ll accept anyone

At that point, in an astonishing attempt to avoid total rejection of the deal, Turnbull implied that Australia would abandon its right to vet the character and status of prisoners held by the US, who were to be sent to settle in Australia as part of the deal. He declared that any prisoner would be accepted regardless of their character.

He stated: “Basically, we are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States. We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take. So we would rather take a not very attractive guy that helps you out than take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.”

Astonished, Trump asked: “What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats? No, I know, they come from certain regions. I get it.”

Turnbull denied this and in a long discourse again attempted to explain the government’s asylum seeker policy. But his efforts were in vain.

Wearied by the discussion, Trump attempted to finish it with a comparison that would have stung Turnbull. He remarked: “As far as I am concerned, Malcolm, that is enough. I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”

Turnbull took the insult in servile silence. When Trump refused to discuss other matters, muttering “This is crazy”, Turnbull humbly declared: “Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us”, and the discussion ended.

The conversation must surely be one of the most ignominious for any Prime Minister in Australia’s history.

Trump is generally regarded as bombastic, ignorant and block-headed, and Turnbull as sophisticated and wily. But Trump got an overwhelmingly favourable agreement because of Turnbull’s dogmatic and often incoherent defence of an indefensible policy, under which the government punishes one group of innocent people in order (so it is said) to protect another group, rather than seeking to protect both.

As a result of the deal, Australia is now obliged to accept for resettlement as many prisoners as the US wants to send us, regardless of their character or intentions, in return for having the US merely vet the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island without necessarily accepting any of them.

The conversation demonstrated that when the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy is carried to its logical conclusion, it is as ludicrous as it is cruel. And in practice it’s very cruel indeed.

The UN has warned that the policy will deter other nations from accepting asylum seekers held by Australia. Like Trump, they will tend to assume that the asylum seekers are predominantly criminals or terrorists or even assume sub-human.

It’s so easy to stigmatise a distinct group of people, and that’s what’s now happening with the desperate, terrified and innocent people we’ve dumped in the hell-hole detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Next article – Fear and loathing in Turkey

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