News National Malcolm Turnbull is walking a political tightrope on terror

Malcolm Turnbull is walking a political tightrope on terror

Turnbull Trump
The full transcript of the infamous phone call between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump has been leaked. Photo: AAP
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Strategic experts see the visiting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis as the two grown-ups in the Trump administration.

But not even their mellifluous tones can mask the pickle such an unpredictable president has landed the Australian government in.

Take Donald Trump’s tossing aside of the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement deal and walking away from the Paris agreement on climate change – at a joint news conference on Monday, Mr Tillerson was asked whether it sent the message to Australia that “America first” was really “America the selfish and go-it-alone”.

The slow-talking Mr Tillerson tried to have his cake and eat it in his answer. Climate change as an issue is still important to the President, he said. Mr Trump wants to engage on it but he judges the Paris pact was not in his country’s interest, he said. Same with the trade agreement.

This was raw meat for the conservatives in the Turnbull government. Already smarting from the budget dragging the Coalition closer to Labor on key issues, they are agitating for Malcolm Turnbull to follow Mr Trump out the door.

None more outspoken than Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly. He sees any attempt to curb carbon pollution as an unnecessary political folly pushing up electricity prices.

Apparently combatting climate change is the rest of the world’s problem.

Not content with the success in forcing the Prime Minister to back off any sort of price on carbon, Mr Kelly and his mates now want a complete capitulation. The fact that power prices have risen despite the repeal of the carbon tax is lost on them.

It has taken the Liberals four years in government to try and come up with an energy policy. Everything hangs on the chief scientist’s report on Friday. The signs aren’t good.

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson insists climate change is still a concern for Donald Trump. Photo: AAP

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a curt reply to a reporter from the New York Times whose question amounted to “how the hell can you work with Trump?”

She ignored his provocation about Mr Trump being a bully who insulted the mayor of London after the latest terror attack but her answer pushed the limits of diplomacy.

She said she understood that Twitter, Mr Trump’s favourite medium, “has a maximum of 140 characters so we deal with the President, with his cabinet and with the US admiration on what they do, what they achieve, what their strategies are”.

Good luck with that. From her answer she knows she’ll need it.

Mr Trump, of course, is something of a hero for the more rabid right in Australia. His call for a ban on people from several Muslim countries entering America was topped by Senator Pauline Hanson on Sunday as the atrocity in London was still unfolding.

Ms Hanson ramped up her call for a ban on all Muslim immigration and mocked the London police’s ‘Run, Hide Tell’ message, turning it into a meme to attack the government for ignoring her.

Tony Abbott chimed in with the extraordinary claim that Islamophobia is not as bad as Islamic terrorists because “Islamophobia never killed anyone”.

Tell that to the two men killed last week in Portland, Oregon, as they intervened to stop a hateful rant aimed at two Muslim women.

Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop are now talking about “Islamic terrorism” to appease their hard right critics for being soft on this brand of terrorism. Of course, it doesn’t solve the problem but runs the risk of making it worse by scapegoating all Muslims.

The PM credits the thwarting of 12 terrorist plots since the threat level was raised in 2014 to the co-operation of the Muslim community.

Mr Turnbull’s language is strong but specific: the London attacks are the work “of cowardly crazed criminals” and “is a corruption, a disease, within Islam”.

Mr Turnbull may be walking a political tightrope but unlike his naysayers he hasn’t lost his balance on this issue.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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