As we get closer to the resumption of Parliament on Tuesday 7 Feb, many have increasingly wondered what issues the Turnbull government will prioritise in the New Year and how it will react to the new Trump government in the US. In today’s Herald Sun (see below), Terry McCrann suggests that Turnbull has offered few indications of the policies he intends to pursue actively and gives the impression that he is ill prepared to handle the new policies which Trump has indicated he intends to pursue in the US. This confirms, McCrann says, what he said back last April when he wrote that “Turnbull was a complete dud”. Perhaps Turnbull will make his position clearer in his promised major address on February 1.
As regards Australia’s foreign trade policy, it is pertinent that Trump has quickly confirmed what he repeatedly said during the election that the US will not be a participant in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement (Clinton said that too). The TPP was signed in February 2016 by only 12 countries after seven years of negotiations but has not come into effect because only Japan had ratified it before Trump confirmed his position. True, the agreement contained measures to lower both non-tariff and tariff barriers to trade and was presented by all member governments as conducive to increased trade and economic growth. True also is that, along with his decision to re-negotiate the North American Free Trade agreement and his threat to offset alleged subsidization of Chinese exports, Trump is therefore widely seen as a “protectionist” and a threat to international trade generally.
But it is in reality difficult to say to what extent this is or will be the case. There are certainly some analysts who dispute that there would have been net benefits from the TPP as agreed by only 12 countries and who see the current international treatment of Chinese trade more as a political policy aimed at modernise China and open up that country’s economy and social relationships. It is also possible that, as the supposed world leader in freeing up trade, the US has accepted trade agreements or trade policies which have not been favourable to it in net terms and which the Trump would be justified in changing.
Whatever, McCrann is right in saying that the TPP is dead, buried and cremated. It was futile for the Turnbull government to have Trade Minister Ciobo apparently attempting in Washington to revive the TPP by persuading Republicans to support such a policy. Surely our government would have decided before Trump took over that it would accept a US withdrawal from the TPP given that Trump had announced such a policy early in the US election campaign? Surely too it would have recognised that any attempt to have China take the place of the US, as Turnbull has seemed to suggest is a possibility, would be unrealistic given that China was not involved in the TPP negotiations and that Australia already has a “free” trade agreement with China?
What has quickly become clear is that Trump intends to pursue the same extended policy as Obama viz wherever possible, and wherever he judges it will benefit America, he will use his executive power to make decisions which reverse those made by Obama. Moreover, Trump is making these decisions as quickly as possible on the basis that he has an electoral mandate. It remains to be seen how far he can go with such an approach without experiencing legal challenges. But it seems likely that he will be able to reverse the many executive decisions made on environmental policy either by Obama himself or through his direction to the Environmental Protection Authority. Such reversals have important implications for Australian environmental policies and, judging by his handling of trade policy, Turnbull and his Cabinet will not have already considered them adequately, if at all.
As more is revealed about the background to Obama’s decisions in other areas, Trump is likely to implement more reversals. I have already mentioned that the now former head of CIA, John Brennan, had denied any connection between Islamic religion and militancy. This evening’s news reported that Trump has announced a policy of restricting immigration and access to the US for refugees and visa holders from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen ie countries with predominantly Muslim populations. Also reversed are the prayer arrangements apparently made at the White House for Muslims and some other religions (see article below from a conservative news organisation in the US on Obama Crushed After Trump Orders White House To Stop His Sickest tradition).
Many commentators have complained that Trump’s policies have created uncertainty that will have adverse effects for his government and there is no doubt that there are numerous groups strongly protesting and demonstrating against his decisions. The other side of that coin is that Obama created uncertainty about US policies, both foreign and domestic, through the many major changes he made over the eight years he was in office and which also had many adverse effects. Arguably, while most of the media did not support Trump’s proposals, they were all subjected to intense scrutiny during a long election campaign in a democracy and should now be accepted as legitimate. Interestingly, the NY Times has apologised for its treatment of the election campaign. Perhaps the opposition will now start to moderate to the norm in democracies.