SYDNEY — Australians are used to seeing their relationship with American presidents as pals across the Pacific whose worldviews mesh and whose major disagreements are too few to count. That was, however, before Donald Trump picked up the phone.
Word that President Trump blasted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a call last Saturday because of a refugee deal between the two nations bewildered this country of 25 million people that, in many ways, had long seen its closest military and diplomatic ally as a kind of benign big brother.
While experts say the alliance isn’t under threat, Trump’s tough talk could work in the prime minister’s favor — if the deal holds. The revelation that the U.S. president characterized his conversation with Turnbull as “the worst call by far” among four world leaders he spoke with Saturday could generate some badly needed sympathy for the prime minister.
It also could provide a reality check for future policies by Australia — which has stood by America’s side in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also is increasingly engaged as a political and trade partner with Asia.
“It forces us to drop romantic notions of the alliance and now be more realistic,” said a former Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, speaking at a forum in Singapore, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Thursday.
Australia has more at stake in U.S. immigration policy than many other developed countries. The agreement with the Obama administration to settle some 1,250 men, women and children in the United States — if they can pass security checks — is seen as vital to the political fortunes of the Liberal-National Coalition government.
Turnbull and his cabinet are desperate to resolve the fate of the Iranians, Sri Lankans and others living in two detention camps that have caused Australia international embarrassment.
But Trump is regarded with suspicion by many Australians, and the leader-to-leader tension could blunt opposition party attacks that Turnbull hasn’t done enough to challenge the U.S. president’s immigration policies.
Turnbull has been lagging in opinion polls, and his domestic credibility wasn’t helped when he refused to join the international condemnation of Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.
Turnbull wouldn’t confirm details of the call, but he alluded to Trump’s hostility. “We have had very frank and forthright discussions in which of each of us has expressed our views,” he said in a radio interview after news of the conversation broke. “As Australia’s prime minister, it is my job to stand up for Australia.”
Even figures in the opposition Labor Party conceded that Turnbull was in a difficult position trying to persuade the new president to uphold a promise made by the Obama administration. “I don’t believe Turnbull did the wrong thing,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Labor government, told Sky News. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum.”
Later, Turnbull tried to counter reports that Trump had abruptly ended the call. Turnbull told Sydney radio station 2GB that Trump had not hung up on him. He said the conversation had ended “courteously.”
Other Australians hope the Trump presidency will prompt their country to adopt a more independent foreign policy. “Trump has rudely dismissed the Australian prime minister,” Carr said in an email. “This is a damn healthy thing for Australia.”
The president’s treatment of the prime minister, which was first reported in The Washington Post, was front-page news across Australia. Such hostility was genuinely shocking in a nation used to hearing sanitized versions of prime ministerial phone calls from official spokesmen. “Reporter drops sensational bombshell from 16,000 km away,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
On Monday, after his testy phone call with the president, Turnbull told reporters the new administration had promised to go ahead with the deal. The affirmation was greeted by Australians as evidence their close relationship with the United States would continue under Trump.
Less than two hours after the U.S. Embassy in Canberra told Australian reporters on Thursday that the White House had locked in the agreement, Trump tweeted that he “will study this dumb deal!” The comment appeared to place the deal in doubt and showed how Trump’s apparently spontaneous tweets are creating havoc for American allies around the world.
In public, Turnbull essentially pretended the tweet didn’t exist. “I have a clear commitment from the president,” he said afterward. “It has been confirmed by his spokesman. . . . We expect the deal and that commitment will continue.”
Experts said the critical tweet would alarm Australian officials, who have become used to a close relationship with their American counterparts. “Trump is needlessly damaging trust within one of America’s closest alliances,” wrote Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, in an email.
Many Australians are wary of economic refugees arriving to take advantage of their generous social security system. That fear has prompted political parties from both sides to house asylum seekers who arrive in boats at two isolated camps on Pacific islands — in the nation of Nauru and on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea.
Tough conditions in the camps have been condemned by dozens of human rights, medical and refugee organizations, but the policy remains popular with many ordinary Australians.
The government acknowledges it cannot leave the refugees there indefinitely, but it has vowed not to allow them into Australia. Reneging on that promise would do Turnbull huge political damage.
As he continues negotiations with the Trump administration, Turnbull’s professional background may be of use. As a young investment banker, he was an adviser to Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man at the time and a friend of the Trump family.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.