Australia- United States relations and the Trump Administration

Australia’s foreign policy is currently in a precarious position. It is in a delicate position at the best of times, firstly having to balance many competing interests and nations in a complex South-East Asian region. There is also the issue of maintaining deep ties in trade between the United States and China, the two most powerful nations in the world who have in many ways opposite interests. The election of Donald Trump and his subsequent rhetoric on several issues, particularly on international trade and security arrangements as well as his positions on institutions such as the United Nations and NATO has caused many nations around the world to re-evaluate their relations with the United States. Australia is no exception to this speculation, despite being historically tied closely with the US. Since the election, there have been widespread calls for Australia’s government to closely re-evaluate the relationship with the United States.

These potential differences have become much more clear in recent days, in a temperamental phone conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The call, scheduled for an hour, ended after just 25 minutes. According to the Washington Post, the main point of contention between the two leaders during the call was a refugee deal brokered at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This deal involved 1250 refugees being taken in by America that are currently being held in Australia. Though neither Trump nor Turnbull would elaborate on the allegations, the report gives an indication that some of the norms of the Australian-US partnership may no longer be a given.

Aside from this conversation, there have been other indications that Australia is willing to part with the United States on key issues, such as international trade. Just days after inauguration, Trump signed an executive order to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal. In keeping with Trump’s promise for an ‘America First’ approach to trade, Trump appears to be reviewing all of America’s trade deals. By contrast, Turnbull is pushing hard to keep the TPP alive, willing to re-negotiate the deal even with America’s withdrawl. He has reached out to key nations such as China and Japan in order to salvage a deal, despite indications that a United States withdrawal would lead to the TPP being scrapped altogether. Reaching out to China is another move which will likely cause a clash with the Trump administration, given the administration’s trade policies toward China.

These disagreements suggest that Turnbull is heading toward a foreign policy agenda which, while still valuing the United States as a close ally, is willing to disagree and clash on issues. There is, of course, a long history of deep economic and security ties between the two nations. Despite Trump’s early actions, this is unlikely to fundamentally change. It is likely that unlike previous American administrations, the Trump administration will have to be dealt with on an issue-to-issue basis. Unlike his predecessors, Trump does not agree with every aspect of the world order as it currently stands. This is particularly true on the issue of trade and to a lesser extent to security arrangements. There will inevitably be conflicts as Australia, as with every other nation, comes to terms with the Trump administration and its approach to governance.

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Racial Discrimination Act, 18c and the free speech debate

The debate around the Racial Discrimination Act, specifically section 18c, has been a hotly debated topic in Australian politics for an extensive period of time. The issue has once again come into the spotlight in recent weeks as backbench Coalition senators have again raised the issue, citing 18c specifically as having a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech. Section 18c, among other things, declares unlawful ‘offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. One recent case in particular has re-energised conservative members of the Coalition in repealing Section 18c. The case in question involves a former employee at the University of Queensland Technology suing the university and students at the school. The incident in question occurred in 2013, when the employee removed students from a computer lab designated for Indigenous students. The students then took to Facebook to complain about the incident. The posts made by the students were deemed racially offensive by the employee and sought damages totalling nearly $250,000. Three years later, the case is still yet to be resolved.

Supporters of the law argue that Section 18c is a necessary component of the Racial Discrimination Act, on grounds of alleviating racial abuse and discrimination and as a way of curtailing hateful speech towards minorities. On the issue of potentially curtailing free speech, advocates for 18c cite the following provision, 18d, as a counter-argument against these concerns. 18d states that ‘18c does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith’. For supporters of the current legislation, the combination of both Section 18c and 18d of the Racial Discrimination Act strike the balance between protecting minorities against racial vilification and maintaining freedom of speech.

The desire to eliminate racial discrimination and vilification is, of course, a noble and worthy goal. No sensible person would argue otherwise. However, the current manner in which Section 18c is written, as well as cases such as the aforementioned case, can at times cause unintended consequences and potentially stifles discussion on sensitive issues. In particular, the terms ‘offend and insult’ within the wording of 18c can be stifling. Acting New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Ronald Sackville AO argues that this wording requires amendment. He cites Section 2A of the Racial Discrimination Act as being a legal safeguard against racially hateful actions. Section 18c and 18d, he argues, are vague and subjective in their wording, making establishing an objective and consistent legal standard for what is permissible and what isn’t permissible impossible. As a result, he argues, free speech is compromised, as there isn’t currently an objective standard to what could be considered as insulting or offensive.   Although the issue of amending the law is primarily favoured by right-leaning politicians and commentators, support for amendment can also be found among the Left, for this reason. Prominent progressive lawyers and commentators such as Julian Burnside, David Marr and Phillip Adams all support reform of the legislation on grounds of it stifling freedom of speech.

The issue of the Racial Discrimination Act and 18c in particular will likely not be a priority for the Coalition in the near future, with Malcolm Turnbull ruling out any amendment for the time being. The Act is a source of discontent for many backbenchers within the Government, however, and the broader debate of free speech and racially sensitive issues is one which will not go away. When the time comes that the Racial Discrimination Act is put forth for amendment, a mature, nuanced and comprehensive debate is required. A complex, sensitive piece of legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act requires careful examination of all the potential legal ramifications and precedents.

A Few Thoughts: Federal Election 2016

Australia’s recent federal election was a very tightly contested one, more so than most polling, commentary and voters expected. As of the time of writing this post, a full week and a half after Australians went to the polls on July 2nd, the vote still has not been fully finalised, with a few seats still in the balance. Though Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition have been effectively returned to power, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten yesterday conceding defeat,  their position is a lot more precarious than it was. This is due to having lost a host of seats to the opposition Labor Party as well as to a variety of independents and minor party candidates, such as those of the Nick Xenophon Team.

As a result of the significantly reduced majority in the Lower House, as well as the further increase of crossbenchers in the Senate, most of whom differ significantly ideologically from the Coalition, passing legislation could be a tall order. In particular, passing key budget measures and reducing the budget deficit will prove to be difficult. Unlike the Coalition, much of the crossbench is economically protectionist on issues such as free trade, which will make passing legislation related to these issues difficult for the government. Other key economic measures which Turnbull has championed, including cuts to the company tax rate and changes to superannuation, look set to be either blocked entirely or severely compromised by the Senate opposition and crossbench.

The result also leaves Turnbull in somewhat of a precarious position as leader of the Liberal Party. Though the election has been won, the majority in the House of Representatives is almost wiped out. As a result, prominent conservatives, both within and outside the Liberal party have been questioning Turnbull’s leadership. Leading conservative commentators including Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean have called on Turnbull to resign, with Bolt claiming that the result proved he was not fit to lead the party and that he had abandoned the party’s conservative voting base.

The election results, though not to the same degree as in the United States and in Europe, highlight somewhat of a disruption the usual political culture in Australia. Crossbenchers and minor parties are steadily gaining influence and seats in Parliament. Overall, there is a slow yet noticeable shift from a traditional two-party system similar to those of the United States and the United Kingdom, with the rise of parties such as the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Both the NXT and One Nation espouse economic protectionism, more so than both the Liberal Party and the Labor opposition, with both parties being sceptical of free trade agreements. Both parties also show scepticism towards immigration, particularly One Nation, which argues in its party manifesto against multiculturalism and high levels of immigration, instead arguing for an approach which emphasises assimilation and nationalism. This policy approach from One Nation reflects similar nationalist movements such as those in Europe as well as in America through Republican nominee Donald Trump and his ‘America First’ approach to issues of trade and immigration.

The election results and composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate suggest that the upcoming three years of Parliament will be similar to the preceding three. Given the composition of the Senate in particular, significant reform will again likely prove difficult, with Prime Minister Turnbull needing to do much work with crossbench and opposition Senators in order to pass contentious legislation. However, given that Turnbull in his relatively short time as Prime Minister has already suggested then abandoned several key policies, including tax reform and superannuation reform, it remains to be seen whether Turnbull is able to achieve this.

What are the chances of an Australian Donald Trump?

Throughout the Western world, traditional politics is being shaken up in ways not seen for several decades. The current US Presidential race is a prime example of this, with Donald Trump taking the presumptive Republican nomination and self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders contending with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Both Trump and Sanders have run on platforms which challenge conventional positions on free trade, immigration and foreign policy interventionism within both the Republican and Democratic parties. In Europe, mainstream political parties and institutions are also being challenged. Populist candidates and parties from both the left and right of the political spectrum are winning more of the vote than they have for decades. This is reflected both in the rise of new political parties, as well as several nations, including the United Kingdom and Greece holding referendums on whether to remain within the European Union or to leave.

Considering this trend, it’s worth examining the possibility of a similar populist movement in Australia, including the likelihood of an anti-establishment candidate becoming the Australian Prime Minister. It is tempting to assume that Australia will soon follow a similar path, with an outsider candidate in the mould of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn or Marine Le Pen becoming a significant political force in Australia. I argue, however, that a significant, organised populist movement is unlikely to arise in Australia in the near future.

One reason why a populist candidate is unlikely to rise in Australian politics, at least in the near future, is Australia’s economic stability relative to the United States and Europe. Australia is fortunate to have experienced a record 25 years of continued economic growth. Unlike the United States and Europe, Australia managed to stave off recession in 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis. Unemployment for the most part has remained relatively low. The recession and subsequent economic instability for a large proportion of people in these parts of the world are a major driver of the ongoing push toward populist movements.

Closely related to this is the issue of immigration. High levels of immigration, especially of unskilled migrants, have been a major catalyst for populist movements in Europe and the United States. Particularly for the working classes, these demographics feel that policies of mass immigration have left them behind economically and isolated them in society. As a result, they have turned to candidates such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom’s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and Marine Le Pen of France’s Front Nationale. Australia, in contrast to the United States and Europe, has tight immigration rules which are targeted to bring in people with skills which are needed in Australia. This system is one that some political parties in Europe, such as the United Kingdom’s UKIP party, wish to emulate. This, in addition to Australia’s tough policies on asylum seekers arriving by boat, shared by both the Liberal and Labor parties, have helped to alleviate Australians’ worries on these issues in comparison to Americans and Europeans.

It is important to note that Australia is not entirely free of populist and anti-establishment politics. The election of several senators from micro parties, usually based on one or a small number of issues during the 2013 election, as well as the continual rise of the Greens on the political left show are evidence of a growing populist element within Australian politics. However, unlike in Europe or the United States, the overall movement is disorganised and disparate, ultimately leading it to have relatively little influence over the governance of the nation. This is particularly true of Australia’s far-right, in stark contrast to the surging popularity of equivalent parties throughout Europe. A change in conditions, such as a recession could prove to be a catalyst in the future for an equivalent of a Donald Trump to arise in Australia. The overall global economic outlook in the near future is not overly positive and Australia is likely to be affected to some degree. Despite this, I am sceptical, at least in the near future, that a broad populist or anti-establishment movement will take hold in Australia to the extent of the United States or Europe.

The 2016 Federal Election and Double Dissolution

A double dissolution election, scheduled for July 2 was effectively triggered last night after the senate voted down the government’s bill by 36 votes to 34 to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). As the legislation was blocked, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is now in the position to dissolve Parliament and call an election, in order to break the deadlock in the Senate. Officially, the Government cannot call for a double dissolution before the budget is passed down on May 3 and still serve a full three-year term in the next cycle. All indications are, however, that the July 2 election will be officially called after the budget is passed down. Malcolm Turnbull all but confirmed this to be the case on Tuesday morning.

While rare, double dissolution elections are not unprecedented in Australian politics, having occurred on six separate occasions. The last one of these was back in 1987, with the Hawke government being returned to power. By far the most high-profile example of the double dissolution government, however, was the one called by Malcolm Fraser back in 1975 following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam from office.

Calling an early election is a bold strategy from the Government and carries both benefits and risks in terms of their chances of retaining office for a second term. On the one hand, calling an early election will give Labor and the opposition parties less time to prepare for the election. Calling an early election can also reset the political debate and narrative, which has been going against the incumbent government of late. Polls have shown the gap between Liberal and Labor virtually closing, while Turnbull himself has become significantly less popular as Prime Minister than when he first took over 7 months ago. The decline has been a slow, steady one, as I noted in a previous blog piece outlining the issues facing the Turnbull government back in February.

Re-election for the Turnbull government is no mere formality, however. While Turnbull is favoured considerably as preferred Prime Minister over his Labor counterpart Bill Shorten, polls show that the two parties are neck-and-neck in terms of favourability. Importantly, the trend of the polls, especially in recent weeks and months, is favourable towards Labor. Turnbull has largely failed to deliver on his promises of a reform, policy-based agenda since taking over. In order to reverse this trend, the federal budget due in a fortnight will have to show ambition and vision. Any mis-steps, such as perceived unfairness of the budget or a lack of clarity about the purpose and goals of the budget, and Labor will inevitably pounce, damaging the Coalition’s re-election chances.

Despite these issues, the Coalition should still be considered the favourites for retaining government come July 2. On measures such as the overall economy, taxation and debt, Turnbull is more trusted by voters than Shorten. Crucially, Turnbull still has a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister. Though voters are less enthusiastic about Turnbull than in previous months, the electorate still has not warmed to Shorten as a potential Prime Minister. There is also the possibility of a hung parliament to consider, with neither Liberal or Labor having a clear majority to govern. The tie between Liberal and Labor in terms of preferred party is one reason to suggest this might be the case. Another reason, particularly given the election will likely be a double dissolution, will be the probable increase in crossbench senators from the likes of the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, taking crucial numbers in the senate away from the major parties. In any case, the election will be a tightly contested one, a scenario thought virtually impossible just a few short months ago.

Turnbull’s Troubles: Why Re-Election is No Longer a Formality

In recent weeks, Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition Government has had its share of struggles. Numerous things have gone against the Government, from ministerial troubles to policy agenda setbacks. Not so long ago, it appeared that re-election for the Turnbull Government was a mere formality. Fresh from a successful leadership ballot which saw Malcolm Turnbull become the new leader of the Liberal Party and therefore the new Prime Minister, Turnbull initially enjoyed a great deal of popularity, particularly in contrast to Labor leader Bill Shorten, who was struggling with near-record low approval ratings. Yet this initial wave of popularity now seems a distant memory, with Newspoll recently polling the Coalition and Labor at 50/50 on a two party preferred basis.

For all the talk of a fresh, policy-based outlook toward governance, the Coalition so far been found wanting. This lack of policy leadership has been exemplified by the ongoing debate around Labor’s recently introduced policy regarding negative gearing, as well as in the broader debate of taxation and fiscal policy. In terms of taxation policy, Turnbull and the Coalition have ceded ground to Labor. Having put forth few ideas apart from recently rejecting a GST rise after a prolonged silence on the subject, Labor have taken the policy initiative on this front. Labor Treasurer Chris Bowen, by contrast, has released several significant policies, including changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and superannuation concession tightening among other measures. Malcolm Turnbull has responded to the negative gearing measure by arguing that it would be a ‘wrecking ball’ for house prices and would hurt ‘mum and dad’ investors trying to get ahead. Yet his own Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, went on television arguing the opposite, before retracting her statements shortly after, a gaffe which highlights the lack of a consistent narrative from the government on this issue.

Other setbacks, such as the resignation of ministers, have also not helped the image of the Coalition. Only a few weeks ago, Stuart Robert, then the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs among other portfolios, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had attended a signing ceremony between Australian company Nimrod Resources and a Chinese firm. A conflict of interest arose after it came to light that the chairman of Nimrod Resources, Paul Marks, was a prominent donor to the Liberal Party. This resignation followed the resignation of two other frontbenchers, Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, forcing Malcolm Turnbull into a second cabinet reshuffle only a few months into his time as Prime Minister.

In the government’s favour is the fact that there are still several months before an election has to be called. Turnbull also stills holds a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister and the Coalition is still, albeit narrowly, the preferred party of government over Labor in most polls. For this to continue, however, Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party will have to reverse this state of affairs, and quickly. A consistent and significant policy agenda will need to be developed in order to effectively counter the policy measures being put forth by Labor. The upcoming federal Budget will prove to be crucial in this regard. Turnbull will need to be bold and differentiate himself significantly from Labor as well as from the Abbott leadership which he successfully challenged. Unpopular budgetary measures were, after all, the reason Abbott was challenged and ultimately overthrown as leader. A repeat budgetary performance from Turnbull in current circumstances may well cost him the election, an almost unthinkable proposition when he took over as Prime Minister only a few months ago.