POLITICS

How Donald Trump Destabilised Australia's Prime Minister With One Phone Call

Malcolm Turnbull is now in a serious jam.

02/02/2017 2:07 PM AEDT | Updated 03/02/2017 9:59 AM AEDT

SYDNEY -- President Donald Trump reportedly eviscerated Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on their short phone call last week, and in the process, seriously rocked the administration of a man who holds government by just one seat.

In the dying days of Barack Obama's presidency, Australia and the United States agreed to a deal to essentially swap refugees. In exchange for an as-yet-undisclosed number of refugees from Central America, Australia would send refugees from their Pacific Ocean immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island to the United States.

Australia's policy of mandatory detention for unauthorised immigration arrivals has drawn outrage worldwide, with reports from the detention facilities -- deaths, sickness, injury, sexual assault, protests, even refugees self-immolating and attempting suicide -- becoming a millstone around the government's neck in recent years.

Turnbull trumpeted the refugee deal as a win, helping to settle some of the thousands of refugees and detainees on the islands in a new country (Australia's hard-line immigration policy means boat arrivals will "never settle in Australia").

Many of the refugees and detainees come from Middle Eastern countries, fleeing war and persecution. With Trump's previously announced plans to ban Muslim immigration to America, and the recent executive order further restricting travel for people from seven countries -- including Iran, where many of those refugees are from -- there were fears the deal may be in jeopardy.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump told Turnbull the refugee swap was "the worst deal ever" and "I don't want these people" during their conversation, meant to last an hour, which ended with Trump hanging up after just 25 minutes. Trump reportedly said the refugees may include the "next Boston bombers".

The President then threw a second punch with a late night tweet, which landed with a thud Thursday afternoon in Australia.

Turnbull has maintained publicly that Trump confirmed the U.S. would honour Obama's agreement during their phone call, but in statements this week, the White House stated Trump is "still considering" the deal.

In farcical scenes earlier this week, press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to confirm the deal was still firmly on, before another White House source told Australia's ABC the swap was not locked in. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported a follow-up written statement from the White House reiterated Trump had not decided on the deal yet.

In radio interviews not long after the President's tweet, Turnbull stood his ground, declaring as far as he knew the deal was still on, and reports the call had ended badly were false.

It caps off a truly bad week for the Australian Prime Minister, who was widely criticised at home for being one of the few western leaders to not publicly oppose Trump's travel restrictions on those Middle Eastern countries.

While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau none-too-subtly tweeted "Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength", British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said "we do not agree with this kind of approach" and leaders from Scotland, Sweden, Germany and France spoke of their disapproval, Turnbull stayed silent.

"I am not about to run a commentary on other countries' practices," Turnbull said when asked for his response to the executive order.

"It's not my job as Prime Minister of Australia to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries."

Criticism of Turnbull's response was swift. Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten came out strongly, calling Trump's plan "appalling" and that it "ought to be ended as soon as possible." Constituents started joking that he had "no spine". Cartoonists even portrayed him as a puppet being controlled by Trump.

Turnbull had previously boasted of his phone call with Trump being "constructive" where the pair "acknowledged the already strong and deep relationship between the United States and Australia and committed to making it stronger still".

"We also discussed the resettlement arrangement of refugees from Nauru and Manus, which had been entered into with the previous administration, and I thank President Trump for his commitment to honour that existing agreement," Turnbull said.

And therein lies the rub, perhaps linking together the threads of the blistering phone call and the confusion over the refugee deal.

Politicos and journalists have theorised that Turnbull's silence on the travel restrictions was perhaps a tribute, or a price to pay, to Trump to honour the refugee swap deal.

For non-Australian readers, it cannot be understated how politically damaging the refugee and detention situation has become for Turnbull and his government, with shocking stories of injury, sickness and scandal coming to light seemingly every week. This week, for example, reports have emerged the government is refusing to fly a pregnant refugee on Nauru, suffering preeclampsia and who needs an emergency Cesarean section, to Australia for medical treatment.

But Australia has built its world-infamous hard-line immigration policy on the edict that people who arrive by boat will "never settle in Australia". Last October, the government even put up a formal law codifying that warning. The government wants the refugees off Nauru and Manus, but they can't send them home, and they won't bring them to Australia. It is only through deals such as this swap with the U.S., and other similar arrangements with countries like Cambodia (which have since proven unsuccessful) that Australia's issues on Nauru and Manus Island will begin to ease.

It is why Turnbull had to basically grin and bear the tongue-lashing from the new president, and why he has kept mum on the travel restrictions. Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition holds a one-seat majority in the Australian parliament, and while once wildly popular, his poll numbers are falling; if an election were held today, Turnbull's party would lose, according to polling agencies. After loudly trumpeting the deal with Obama as a big win, he couldn't back down.

And therefore he couldn't speak out, either.

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