Well, now we know where Malcolm Turnbull stands. Faced with a situation in which his senior ministers have not merely praised Donald Trump’s racist and authoritarian policies, but have actually claimed credit for them, the prime minister has chosen to remain silent. Silence, in this case, is guilt: guilt that will not wash off.
Perhaps this isn’t news. We’ve known for a long time that Turnbull was the prisoner of his party’s right wing, unable or unwilling to alter the direction that Tony Abbott had given it. But there’s something uniquely illuminating about the Trump question. Precisely because it’s not about policy, with all its messy detail, it reveals something about fundamental values. And the values of Turnbull’s opponents are not pretty.
It’s surely no coincidence that when Australia’s major parties split, it’s usually got something to do with foreign affairs: think conscription, Communism, Vietnam. The Liberal Party isn’t at that stage yet, but there’s a real tension there, with pro- and anti-Trump members looking at each other with blank incomprehension. And the prime minister stuck in the middle, like a kangaroo in the headlights.
Turnbull might say, I suppose, that his caution this week wasn’t about values but was driven by a specific policy issue, namely the refugee swap with the United States. (Which looks as if it might be in jeopardy regardless, but we’ll let that pass.) But that just shows how totemic that question has become, and how deeply the right of his party is committed to demonising refugees. For them it’s not about conservative values, and certainly not about freedom: it’s about doubling down on the dark path that John Howard pioneered with Tampa.
There’s a deep irony here. By 2015, government under Abbott had become so dysfunctional that Turnbull – whose whole career, if it meant anything, meant opposition to all Howard stood for – was able to win support for his leadership bid by promising a return to the Howard era.
Promise kept, but to no avail: no matter how closely he sticks to their policies or repeats their slogans, the right still hates Turnbull with a passion. Its hatred is tribal; it knows that at heart he is not one of them, and it fears, however remote the prospect might seem, that one day he will escape their grip.
For Turnbull, appeasement is a dead end. He will be used and discarded; his only possible route to success is to crash through or crash. Instead, he has discarded everything that gave him popular appeal in the first place. A prime minister who keeps a Peter Dutton in his cabinet cannot credibly claim to be a liberal of any sort. It’s as simple as that.
Yet now, however deeply entrenched the Howard doctrine seems to be, Australians give every impression of being genuinely outraged at Trump. Again, foreign affairs is important, because it reflects something of ourselves back to us.
We see protests, we see people with functioning consciences. We see barbarism being opposed, not treated as something uncontroversial. And it strikes us that perhaps we, too, don’t want to be barbarians.
Once, for a brief moment, we had that here. In August 2001, when the Tampa came over the horizon, the reaction was not very different to what Trump has aroused in the US. Commentators of all stripes, including such right-wingers as Greg Sheridan and Paul Kelly, railed against Howard’s opportunism and brutality. There were protests, there were lawsuits, there was outrage even deep within the Liberal Party. And (especially for those of us who travelled overseas at the time) there was a sense that for once the eyes of the world were upon us, and not in a good way.
But Howard stood firm; the tabloids and the gods of talkback radio rallied behind him, Kim Beazley’s Labor Party rolled over and did his bidding, and he won – narrowly – the subsequent election. And consciences that for a time had worked normally went silent again.
America is a much bigger country, with more lawyers, with more of a tradition of civil disobedience, and without our particular demons about the threat from the alien north. So we can hope that the same thing will not happen there: that the protests and the resistance will continue, and the US will show that this time, at least, it will not drag the world back to the 1930s.
And perhaps some echo of that resistance will one day reach the lost souls in our own concentration camps in the Pacific.