Heads of state have not been shy to denounce the travel moratorium on seven majority-Muslim countries instigated via executive order by President Trump late on Friday night. Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault have publicly opined against it, as has the UK's PM Theresa May – fresh from a White House visit with Trump – and even the UK foreign minister (and one-man insult factory) Boris Johnson, who criticized the executive order as “divisive and wrong”. Of course, within each of those countries, leaders of right-wing, populist parties have come out to express the opposite, declaring their admiration for Trump’s decision, with some like Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ far-right Party for Freedom, tweeting:
“Well done @POTUS, it's the only way to stay safe + free. I would do the same.”
But one country is different. In Australia both the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the right-wing leader of the populist One Nation party Pauline Hanson are in total agreement. Turnbull stayed silent for as long as he could manage, before merely stating: “It’s not my job as Prime Minister of Australia to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries.” Pauline Hanson on the other hand was more verbose, and even critical of Trump’s plan – critical that it only includes seven countries:
"President Trump's protections against Islamic Extremism are a good start but I would go further & include Afghanistan & Saudi Arabia."
It may surprise the world to know that Australia's government supports Trump’s discriminatory executive order, but Turnbull is, in fact, remaining consistent with Australia’s long history of aggressive immigration control. As one Australian journalist writing for Junkee ashamedly quips: “We were enacting Donald Trump’s policies back when he was still hosting beauty pageants.”
On Sunday January 29th, Turnbull and Trump had a 25-minute phone call. In a statement, the White House said: “Both leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the US-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.” Australia’s foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop briefed the press on the call, saying: “We share a common view on many issues so we will continue to work very closely with the Trump administration... The very best days of the Australia-US relationship lie ahead.”
It’s almost hard to hear the collective ‘Nooooo!’ of left-wing Australians over the percussive drumming of Turnbull’s cabinet smacking their lips against Trump’s behind, but it is worth questioning whether Australia’s response is the leadership trying to curry favor with the new president, or whether it’s Trump who actually admires Australia’s hardline immigration tactics.
Australia has a thing about boats, and what they call “boat people” – people without verified refugee status who pay people smugglers to sail them to Australian shores across dangerous waters – 420 asylum seekers died at sea in 2012, but since 2014 zero have died because there has been a drop off in boat arrivals. Before Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister was Tony Abbott, who won the nation’s top seat using the campaign slogan: ‘Stop the Boats’. In 2013, Abbott introduced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, which put the military in control of asylum operations. Former prime minister John Howard famously used 9/11 as political fuel to lock down borders and tow boats full of asylum seekers back into international waters (which the current administration still does); Australia’s offshore asylum-seeker detention centers, where people are locked up for years awaiting processing, have been condemned by Amnesty International as “open-air prisons”, and found by the UN to breach international law; current immigration minister Peter Dutton is spearheading legislation to put a lifetime ban on “boat people” ever entering Australia, even by legal channels once they're resettled elsewhere. So it’s perhaps no wonder President Trump and the Turnbull government self-report that their phone conversation was productive.
For some context to Australia's refugee "problem", in 2013, under the United Nations Refugee Program, Australia took in the second largest number of refugees for resettlement in the world (13,200) after the USA (66,200), with Canada ranked third (12,200). Per capita Australia takes a high amount, but it is far from being inundated – if course that depends on who you ask. But consider this: Australia is roughly the same land-size as the U.S. but has a population of 24,641,662 million versus the U.S.’s 325,481,821. The Australian government website states: “The number of people arriving unauthorised by boat in Australia is small in comparison to the numbers arriving in other parts of the world such as Europe. Similarly, the number of asylum claims lodged in Australia is small in comparison to the USA and Europe.” As a percentage of Australia’s migration program, asylum seekers arriving by boat make up less than 1.5% of new migrants.
The outline of Australia, to scale, superimposed onto North America.
Australia's struggle with refugees is more of a psychological threat than the physical invasion the political rhetoric suggests. Like many countries, right-wing populism and nationalist fear has been growing for decades. The Trump phenomenon has been encouraging to political figures like Senator Pauline Hanson, whose entry speech into Australian politics in 1996 included this line: “I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians." After 9/11 her focus expanded to include Muslims, and her 2016 maiden speech in the Senate echoed her sentiments from the 1990s: "We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own," she said, and called to ban Muslim migration.
Prime Minster Turnbull does not sit nearly in the same league as Hanson when it comes to all-out racial discrimination, but his government crafts policies to appease the anxiousness of conservative voters who are petrified of Muslim terrorists, despite living in a country that has seen just one death at the hands of a 15-year-old radical Islamic terrorist.
Australia’s constituency profile is quite similar to the U.S. – in capital cities along the east and west coast the sentiment is majority left-wing liberal, but people in smaller cities and rural areas, and older demographics, make up the conservative portion. It's the liberals in urban centers who are currently raising a confused eyebrow at the ‘detainee swap deal’ that Trump and Turnbull confirmed in their phone call on Sunday. The initial agreement was made with the Obama administration and is, to everyone’s surprise, being upheld by Trump. It will see hundreds of Indonesian asylum seekers in Australian offshore detention centers be re-settled in the U.S, while Australia will take in refugees from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that are held in US-assisted camps in Costa Rica. The total amount of asylum seekers on both sides of the swap is estimated to be 1,800. The logic of the swap has yet to be explained – what’s the difference for either country between settling Indonesians or Central Americans? And considering his 120-day moratorium on all incoming refugees, why would Trump uphold the deal? It's confusing to all who are watching the bizarre swap unfold, and most of all to those in the detention camps awaiting resettlement. It's also troubling to see two nations look up to one another, in mutual admiration of their separatist policies.
Then-US President Barack Obama listens while Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks. The refugee swap deal was originally orchestrated between Turnbull and Obama, and is being honored by Trump.