Brief thoughts on the incredible shrinking US refugee deal

The Washington Post reported last night that Malcolm Turnbull's Saturday phone call with Donald Trump was, contrary to initial reports, a huge disaster. Trump hates the refugee-swap deal, under which the US will resettle refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru and Australia will take refugees from Central America. If anyone was unsure about the reporting, he helpfully tweeted a few hours later about the "dumb deal". Lots of freaking out has ensued, particularly from Americans. Scattered comments, before I leave for the morning to work (which at the moment, depressingly enough, means reading more about refugees.)

1. The key to thinking about this is to realise that Australians, on the whole, do not care what happens to these refugees. Obviously a sizeable and passionate minority do, but taken together we have demonstrated over the years total political indifference to their plight. The refugee swap was announced in November last year. Before that, the Turnbull government did not have any plan to get them out of the offshore detention centres and settle them somewhere else. At the July 2016 election the government's effective policy was just to let them languish indefinitely, and it won re-election. It's true Turnbull was only just re-elected, but the Labor opposition also did not have any policy to get people out of detention.

2. So this is not really that big a problem for Turnbull or the government. There's an immediate headache in dealing with the fallout in a way that doesn't make the government look embarrassed or powerless. And probably Turnbull really would prefer the deal to get people off Manus, if only to silence the (presumably increasingly desperate) voice of his conscience. But it doesn't really matter, and pieces like this which suggest that it's politically urgent for the government to find somewhere to settle the refugees are pure wishful thinking. If anything, the reverse is true. The Labor Party does and will continue to find it more difficult to hold to a strict "they're not coming to Australia" line the longer people are still in the offshore centres. If and when they crack, the Turnbull and the Liberals can make huge political hay.

3. The further upshot is that the US-Australia relationship is almost certainly not going to be meaningfully affected. (Stay calm, American journalists.) Turnbull will no doubt be personally irritated by the way Trump treated him, and about the short-term political problem he now faces. But the basis of the relationship is a long-standing, bipartisan view that Australia's neighbours in Asia are untrustworthy at best and that we need to keep the US onside to stay secure. Think about this what you will. But this refugee deal is so peripheral to the driving motivation of the relationship that Australia is not going to be thrown by it. In the mid-2000s, there was a joke that (then-PM) John Howard should be renamed 'Bonsai': because he's just a little Bush. The relationship can get a lot more humiliating and even short-term counterproductive before anyone in Australian foreign policy will seriously reconsider it.

4. Caveat: one thing contained in Trump's general rage about the 'illegal immigrants' included in this arrangement is a specific complaint that the US doesn't get anything from the deal. A highly transactional approach to foreign policy on America's part would call into doubt how useful the alliance really is for security-in-Asia purposes. Is Trump really going to authorise military action that will protect Australia, if he doesn't think there's anything in it for the US? But on this front I'd expect policymakers to be watching Trump's actions with respect to NATO much more closely than his decision about this refugee deal.

5. One thing we're learning is the limits of diplo-talk and White House communications efforts. This phone call was originally written up on Saturday quite positively. The headline that Trump had agreed to honour the refugee deal came out, suppressing the full story that he was extremely begrudgingly agreeing to honour a deal that he hates. The 25-minute length of the call was reported without mentioning that it had been intended to last an hour. Clearly neither party wanted the true nature of the discussion to become public. But it did, because when things this starkly out of the ordinary are happening, staffers leak them. The same thing appears to have happened with Trump's call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, which five days later is being reported as significantly more heated than it initially appeared. Assuming that starkly out of the ordinary things continue to happen, that means we're either going to keep seeing these kind of leaks or that fewer and fewer people are going to be privy to the details of these kinds of calls and meetings. The latter is a pretty scary prospect.

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