It’s a measure of Malcolm Turnbull’s precarious position and lacklustre performance that some are calling his now-public conversation with a newly elected Donald Trump the PM’s “finest hour”.
It wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
To be sure, Turnbull comes across as the adult in the January 28 phone chat, but that’s not hard given Trump’s almost childlike petulance and ignorance.
One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts probably would have scored a few points too if he’d been on the other end of the phone with Trump.
After all, the President was newly elected and had spent the day talking to a host of world leaders on a range of issues when he took Turnbull’s call just after 5pm.
It had been a long day in Washington, and it was only just beginning in Canberra.
So it shouldn’t surprise that Trump wasn’t across the detail of the refugee exchange deal brokered a year earlier with the Obama administration.
Under the deal, the Obama administration agreed to accept 1250 refugees if Australia resettled a number of US-held asylum seekers from Central America.
It was always a political face-saving exercise rather than a genuine re-settlement program to assist downtrodden refugees, and the January 28 conversation proves it again and again.
Throughout the phone chat, detailed in full for the first time thanks to a leak to The Washington Post, the Australian PM tries to steer Trump back to what seems to be his central point: even if you don’t take a single refugee, say you’ll honour the deal and we can all get on with things.
It’s implicit in this exchange:
Trump: Suppose I vet them and I do not take any?
Turnbull: That is the point I have been trying to make.
It’s political pragmatism at its worst, which might be excusable if it wasn’t ultimately playing with the lives of thousands.
The short, sharp exchange comes late in the 25-minute conversation.
But it’s another one just moments earlier that provides the conversation’s real moment of clarity – and it’s inestimably sad.
“Why haven’t you let them out?” Trump asks Turnbull. “Why have you not let them into your society?”
It’s a fair question, asked by many Australians on behalf of thousands of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru who they believe have been illegally detained. Turnbull’s reply is both distressing and appalling.
“It is not because they are bad people,” says Turnbull. “It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product.
“So we said ‘if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize winning genius, we will not let you in’.”
And right there, all is revealed. As my good, ol’ dad used to say: “The sauce is out of the bottle.”
In that moment, Turnbull is finally admitting to the most powerful man in the world – indeed, the world itself – that Australia persecutes good people, reducing them to “product”, in order to punish the bad.
It’s at this point that Trump finally gets it. Turnbull is finally talking his language.
“That is a good idea,” the President says. “We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”
Maybe he’s right about that. Trump wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans. Turnbull and his colleagues have already built a moat to keep out good people of many nations. What’s the difference?
If this was the PM’s finest hour, I’d hate to see his worst.