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.

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.