Other issues struggle for air against Trump juggernaut – February 2017
With Donald Trump installed in the White House the transition of international – and national – politics to entertainment appears complete.
The level of uncertainty worldwide has clearly increased markedly and the ability of recognised experts in any field touching on politics, of the media and everyone else to sort substance from perceptions or to predict outcomes has decreased commensurately.
The US President’s garish ability to constantly capture attention has also made it almost impossible for any considered examination of the issues on which Mr Trump is focusing or on any other matters to which he has not directed his attention – including matters of national or domestic importance to Australia.
Federal Parliament will resume sitting on Tuesday 7 February after its summer break.
Parliament will sit for two weeks followed by a week break after which there will a single week of sitting (from Monday 27 February) during which the Senate will conduct Additional Estimates hearings. (The Senate does not conduct ordinary business during this week but holds intensive inquiries into the spending and priorities of individual agencies, during which senior public servants and Senate-based ministers can be questioned in detail by senators.)
Parliament resumes with political affairs everywhere – including Australia – dominated by the impact of the Trump presidency. The new US president has generated a new level of uncertainty about most areas of political and international affairs, including Australia’s relations with the US.
President Trump has created particular uncertainty about the status and likely fate of the deal negotiated between President Obama and Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull for the US to accept refugees held in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres and barred from entering Australia, announced in September. Details of the arrangement were never made public by either government and the fate of the arrangement has become increasingly murky over the last week, with a series of inconsistent and conflicting statements and background briefings to the media by different sections of the Australian and US government s and their agencies.
In this sense Australia’s domestic politics and national interest are hostage not just to Mr Trump’s unpredictability but to the rising tide of secrecy and political (ministerial) control over fundamental details of national policy, which escalated dramatically with refugee policy and “on-water” matters under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, but which has been steadily increasing since at least the latter days of the Hawke Government.
While the contradictory leaks and statements from the US Administration and Australian Government make it clear that the US President is hugely displeased with the asylum seeker deal, he has not yet scrapped it. But in the end this may not matter greatly: because of the secrecy surrounding the whole deal, the Australian Government will be able to claim it is still being honoured while the US president’s “extreme vetting” will mean that most asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island will be denied entry to the US.
The question arises also about just how different this outcome is to the trickle of Syrian refugees who have been allowed to enter Australia because of Australia’s immigration vetting, despite the Abbott Government’s September 2015 promise to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees. By contrast the Canadian Government which also promised resettlement at the same time has settled 25,000 refugees.
While the relationship between the US and Australia is clearly strained at the top level, statements of support for the US-Australian relationship from senior Republican and Democrat congressmen make clear this is not the whole story.
At a more mundane level, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten this week both delivered set-piece speeches to the National Press Club sketching their general approach and priorities to key domestic political issues for the start of 2017.
Mr Turnbull made a fresh pitch for the government’s embattled proposal to cut company tax and highlighted the Government’s proposed childcare reforms and their accompanying savings, saying discussions with the Senate crossbench have been “constructive”.
He also put heavy emphasis on the different approach to energy security and energy generation priorities of the Coalition and Labor, characterising Labor’s stronger emphasis on renewable energy as a recipe for higher energy charges. He argued the case for greater reliance on “clean coal” technologies.
Mr Shorten used his Press Club address to defend Labor's ambitious 2030 target for Australian renewable energy consumption of 50 per cent.
He sought to win back voters attracted to populist, nationalist parties such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team, arguing that Australian jobs will be his top economic priority in 2017.
He said that after promising in 2016 to crack down on abuses of the work visa system, Labor will focus on developing policies that improve skills, train locals and deliver more apprenticeships. “Everybody loses when people are brought in from overseas and exploited. Good employers, Australian companies who do the right thing – can't compete with Third-World labour costs and conditions. Local people, looking for work, miss out on jobs they could be doing,” he said.
To combat the drop in apprenticeships under the Coalition Mr Shorten re-committed to an election promise that “one in every 10 jobs, on every single priority infrastructure project, (will) go to an Australian apprentice”.
The year was already shaping as a fraught period in Australian politics but the installation of Donald Trump as President of the United States added a significant layer of complexity.
The Australian Government will often have to react to actions of the Trump administration on the world stage. But there will be bilateral issues, too. The to-ing and fro-ing over the refugee resettlement program negotiated with the Obama administration illustrated some of the difficulties and unpredictability of dealing with the new team.
Some academic and media commentators have speculated on the impact of the US running down its “soft political capital” – that influence that flows from respect and admiration.
The academic view, generally speaking, tends to focus on the likelihood of growing instability. The media been trying to be more down-to-earth.
Fairfax Media’s Peter Hartcher wrote: “The US has been the global talent magnet for a century. It reaped the best and brightest of the planet's scientists, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, professors, artists, chefs, traders and technicians. It drawn many of Australia's best, too.
“This been a source of incalculable strength to America. After less than a fortnight in power, Trump sown enough fear and loathing to enfeeble America's magnetic pull. Attraction is turning into repulsion.
“In other words, Australia's biggest competitor for the best talent on earth is in a bit of trouble. And when your main competitor is in trouble, what do you do? You drive home your advantage.
“Australia should take America's Trump trouble as a galvanising moment.
“Universities, corporations, industry associations, sports bodies, cultural institutions and governments should step up recruitment efforts to win the attention of an entire generation of ambitious and talented people who would normally have had their sights set on the US. And bring the best of them to Australia to top up our human capital.”
That will not happen overnight, nor will such an initiative from Australia be uncontested.
Meantime, the Liberal-Nationals Coalition, Labor and, even to some extent, the Greens seem to acknowledge the disconnect that developed between the “political class” and the voters. Their strategies to reconnect are less clear, however.
The major party leaders have sought to set out their objectives for the year ahead, but (necessarily) in such general terms that the voters may not have heard them over the other noise.
The parties will seek to reinforce their message when Parliament reassembles next week but the atmosphere in which it meets is not promising. As the BBC’s former Australian correspondent Nick Bryant (now based in the US) observed of Australia “as the country grown stronger, its politics have become nastier”.
The Coalition Government is defending a difficult – some would say precarious – parliamentary situation, an equally difficult task of budget repair and serious divisions within its ranks.
Labor seems to think that the political tide is in its favour, largely maintained a perception of unity and sees the return of Parliament as the return of its most important platform.