As Australian leaders prepared for the arrival of US Vice President Mike Pence on Friday evening for a two-day visit at the end of his Asia tour, one thing is for certain: He is no Donald Trump.
By all accounts, when the conservative former Indiana governor and congressman does his meet-and-greet with politicians and business leaders over the weekend, he’ll be measured in his speeches and won’t go off-script.
Mr Trump, on the other hand, is universally known for his unpredictability, blunt talk, questionable knowledge of history and obsessive use of Twitter.
Importantly, Mr Pence projects a polite Midwestern humility and is expected to turn on the charm and be the peacemaker when he meets Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
In recent weeks, US President Donald Trump has been making nice with the leaders of China and Japan after ruffling their feathers during last year’s election campaign.
But it’s down to Mr Pence to make up with Mr Turnbull on Mr Trump’s behalf after their notorious phone call in January, when the US president blasted the Australian prime minister over an asylum seeker deal during the leaders’ first phone call.
The robust discussion left a cloud over Australia’s famously tight-knit relationship with the US.
While key issues like North Korea, Syria, trade and Australia’s plan to send asylum seeker refugees to the US will be on the table for discussion, observers believe Mr Pence’s main role is to facilitate a detente between Trump and Turnbull.
“Obviously, Australians were really shocked by the nature of the phone call between Mr Turnbull and Mr Trump,” said Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove.
“In a way it shouldn’t have been surprising, perhaps, that Donald Trump has a poor telephone manner. But given that Australia regards itself as America’s most reliable ally we wouldn’t ordinarily expect that the president of the United States would treat our prime minister with disrespect,” he said.
The timing of Mr Pence’s Australian visit comes against a backdrop of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and increasing tensions between the US and Russia over the Syrian war.
There’s also been plenty of confusion about regional trade after Mr Trump scratched plans for the US to sign off on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which included Australia, Japan and 10 other countries, saying it would lead to US job losses.
Instrument of reassurance
Mr Fullilove said Mr Pence’s role is to be an “instrument of reassurance” as he meets with Trade Minister Steve Ciobio to discuss the TPP and other investment opportunities.
“On Syria, we don’t really know what his strategy is,” he said.
“We know he was prepared to authorise a cruise missile strike to deter the use of chemical weapons but that’s not the same as a strategy to end the Syrian war.
“So we don’t know what the approach is there or if it has implications for us, so I’m sure they’ll [Mr Turnbull and his senior ministers] will want insights from Mr Pence into Trump’s thinking.
“We’ll be talking about a range of issues but obviously top of the agenda will be regional security. North Korea is going to be right at the top of the agenda,” Mr Turnbull told the Seven Network on Friday.
Whilst both Mr Trump and Mr Pence are married with adult children, there are other obvious differences between the two US Republican leaders, notably their wives’ occupations, previous talk-show genres and family history.
Mr Pence and his wife, Karen, a former elementary school teacher, have been married since 1985 and have three adult children. The couple’s son, Michael, is serving as an officer in the US Marines. One of their two daughters, Charlotte, is a recent college graduate and filmmaker, while the younger Audrey is a college senior.
Mr Pence was raised in a devout Catholic family, but he became an evangelical Christian.
Mr Pence’s late father, Edward, served in the US Army during the Korean War and was awarded the Bronze Star on April 15, 1953. The vice president displays in his office his father’s Bronze Star, accommodation letter and a photograph of his father receiving his decoration.
- Before serving in Congress, Mr Pence was a conservative radio and television talk show host in Indiana. His shows were not known for a combative style that marked conservative talk radio during the era – Pence liked to call himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” Karen Pence is a longtime advocate of art therapy, the use of art in mental health treatment and forms of rehabilitation, and will be attending art therapy events throughout the trip. She will attend such an event in Sydney.
— with AAP