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What Turnbull Needs To Remember When He Meets Donald Trump

To prosper politically you don't need to turn your back on liberal, democratic and progressive values.

04/05/2017 7:13 AM AEST | Updated 04/05/2017 11:42 AM AEST

Travelling in Africa recently with an envoy of German chancellor Angela Merkel, I was struck by the differences that have emerged in the international response to suffering -- to the plight of millions of Syrians who have fled six devastating years of war, and now as famine rears its terrible head in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

Conspicuously, these differences have emerged along a fault-line on the conservative side of politics.

On one side of the divide, we see Merkel, a Lutheran pastor's daughter, whose government, at some political cost, has taken in more than one million refugees displaced by the war in Syria. She now plans to elevate African aid on the G20 agenda, understanding that if the need in Africa is not addressed soon the exodus into Europe will make the Syrian migration look like a drop in the ocean.

Similarly, British prime minister Theresa May, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, has resisted strong pressure from within her party and sections of the media to cut Britain's aid budget, even as she presides over the nation's withdrawal from the European Union, saying that not only is foreign aid morally right, it also makes good strategic sense.

Declaring that Britain would keep its aid spend at the exemplary level of 0.7 percent of national income -- more than 3 times Australia's commitment of 0.22 per cent -- May spoke of the children in Africa who have been educated because of British aid.

Theresa May and Donald Trump's treatment of aid is emblematic of where they want to lead their people. We need only look at whether the trend of cuts to aid is reversed in next week's federal budget to see which path Malcolm Turnbull intends to follow.

Her comments echoed the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said, "The British public are proud that our great nation hasn't turned its back on the world's poorest people".

But then there is Donald Trump, who rode a storm of populism to become president of the United States, says he will build a wall to keep people out, immediately banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and aims to cut the U.S. aid budget by 28 percent, which has alarmed humanitarian agencies around the world, while boosting military spending by $54 billion.

In these competing conservative narratives, compassion for the world's most vulnerable competes with a new populism, defined by nationalism, protection, self-interest and fear.

Malcolm Turnbull meets Trump for the first time today in New York. It promises to be a fascinating meeting. Turnbull will know that many Australians, in common with many Americans, regard Trump with an unprecedented level of disdain and distrust. He will want to be cautious about his commitments.

Trump, for his part, will know that Turnbull is by personal inclination a progressive centrist, but governs looking over his shoulder at the conservatives he leads.

As all Australians know, their first phone call did not go well when Trump fixated on his predecessor Barack Obama's "dumb deal" to accept refugees warehoused by Australia on Manus Island and Nauru. The call was frosty, but Trump and Turnbull were in fact in fierce agreement: neither of them wanted to take these refugees.

Many nations have been beset by crises of confidence in recent years, driven by turbulent economies, disquiet with growing inequality, terrorism, conflict over immigration and cultural diversity, and a loss of faith not just in politics but in institutions more generally.

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Politically, this opened up a space for a pendulum swing to the right and a tide of pessimism about liberal, democratic and progressive values. When Britain voted, narrowly, to quit Europe and when Trump was elected, but not by a majority, the swing appeared decisive.

But, an election season in European countries where migration, race and conflict over cultural and religious identity have loomed large, has seen a correction. Voters in the Netherlands resisted the siren call of populist reaction; in France, the National Front's Marine Le Pen trails the young Emmanuel Macron, who has campaigned as a centrist and modernist; and Merkel's support has rebounded in Germany, which goes to the polls in September.

Compassionate conservatism is bouncing back and I am cheering it on.

So when Malcolm Turnbull meets Donald Trump, he should not imagine he is encountering a representative of an inevitable and immovable new order, or that Trump's vaulting rise to power means that leaders seeking to prosper politically need to turn their backs on the liberal, democratic and progressive values that have nurtured social cohesion and driven human progress.

For me, nothing speaks louder about a leader's character or a country's than how it treats the most disadvantaged and vulnerable -- both at home and abroad. For many of us, it is the definition of what it is to be civilised and is a source of inspiration in a world momentarily short on inspiration.

Among conservatives in Britain, George Osborne, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and now editor of the London Evening Standard was one of the first to praise May's decision to hold the line on aid, tweeting:

In Australia, it was a Nationals MP, Andrew Broad, who spoke up recently for Australia to play a better part in a world teeming with refugees. "There are 60 million people on the move and 30 million of those are children," he said. "We're a prosperous country. We have an obligation to be good global citizens."

Theresa May and Donald Trump's treatment of aid is emblematic of where they want to lead their people. We need only look at whether the trend of cuts to aid is reversed in next week's federal budget to see which path Malcolm Turnbull intends to follow.

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