When Foreign Minister, and sometime Acting Prime Minister Julie Bishop pointed out that President Donald Trump’s spurning of the Iran deal would cause the North Koreans to wonder whether he might do the same to any agreement they might reach, it seemed little more than a zephyr in a diplomatic teacup.
And when she praised the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as ‘a very, very, very logical man’ that too could be seen as an ordinary, if somewhat overblown, compliment between diplomatic chums.
But these are not ordinary days. The United States of Donald Trump is not an ordinary place, his administration about as un-ordinary as it gets. In fact, former PM Kevin Rudd put it bluntly on Q&A when he said, “Trump is nuts!’
So the careful words of our current chief diplomat have to be taken very seriously, parsed and translated into the language of the street.
So here’s what they really mean: ‘We put up with a lot from this clown in the White House. We watched aghast but in silence as he nixed the Trans Pacific Partnership. We looked the other way when he offended his European Allies. We buttoned our lip when he pulled out of the Paris agreement on Climate Change. We said not a word when he cosied up to Putin.
‘But this time it’s serious. Because once you give notice that your word as a nation can no longer be trusted, then agreements – like ANZUS - aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.’
Of course, ANZUS only requires its signatories to consult about coming to each other’s aid in time of peril, as we did to America after the attack by Al Qaeda on New York’s Twin Towers. Then we followed up by joining their forces in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban who had given them sanctuary. (And we’re still there in a totally unwinnable war).
But Trump is almost certainly blissfully unaware of our response. Even if he were, he wouldn’t care much because he wasn’t even President at the time. And what have we done for him lately? Why, that refugee thing that Turnbull laid on him. ‘This is a stupid deal,’ he cried. ‘This deal will make me look stupid.’
That really hit home; especially when the bloke Julie Bishop called ‘very, very, very logical,’ recently called his president ‘a f---ing moron’. You can be sure Donald won’t miss that!
But, you say, words are just words, so what’s all the fuss?
Another former Foreign Minister, Bill Hayden, answers thus: ‘In foreign affairs, words are bullets.’ And Julie Bishop knows perfectly well her bullets will wound Donald in his most vulnerable organ: his ego. So, here’s the thing. She no longer cares. She’s reached the end of her diplomatic tether.
This is a big deal. The American Alliance has been one of the sacred cows of Australian politics since World War II. But Donald Trump has shown just how careful we have to be in putting all our eggs in a basket lined with the stars and stripes.
In all my experience of Canberra watching since I spent four years as press secretary to a Deputy Prime Minister, only one leading pollie, Paul Keating, has been prepared to challenge the orthodoxy with his call to find our security ‘in Asia not from Asia’. I wouldn’t go that far. But I have long thought - like our mates in New Zealand - that ‘fierce independence’ is a pretty good way to conduct ourselves in this ever-changing world. And at last I’m no longer alone.
And for that, Donald, I salute you.
Robert Macklin has carved out a unique place among Australia’s literary biographers and historians. He has won numerous literary prizes including the 2009 Blake Dawson award for business literature with Peter Thompson for their classic THE BIG FELLA – the Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton. His Kevin Rudd: The Biography was shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year; and he has won three Critics Circle Awards for his military biographies and histories. He has completed a lecture tour of three Chinese universities based on his works and is presently writing a history of Australia/China relations over the last 200 years.Queensland born, he has been a journalist at the highest level, a confidant and biographer of two Australian prime ministers; a documentary filmmaker in 32 countries of Asia and the Pacific; and is also political columnist and commentator in the nation’s capital. He presently divides his writing time on fiction, non-fiction and screenplays between Canberra and Tuross Head on the NSW South Coast.You can follow Robert Macklin's excellent commentary at CityNews
Dragon and Kangaroo by Robert Macklin is a fascinating story of the Chinese presence in and influence on this country - our intertwined history from colonial times to today. Chinese 'presence' in Australia extends from well before the time of Captain Cook - trading with northern Australia long before Europeans came here - right through to the present day, with Chinese activities ranging from being the main customer for our iron ore, to their very extensive intelligence operations here. Robert Macklin, has traced a new history of the two nations. Macklin's engrossing narrative reaches from pre-colonial times, to John Macarthur's 'coolie' shepherds, the only Chinese bushranger, Sam Pu, and the multiple atrocities committed against the Chinese in the gold rush; through to the 20th century, where the two Australians - 'Morrison of Peking' and William Donald - played a significant role in the downfall of the last Chinese emperor and the creation of the first republic, before World War II and decades of Cold War brinkmanship; to our current economic bonds and Australia's role in the dangerous geopolitics of the South China Sea.