Former chief strategist to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon has criticised Australia’s approach to an aggressive China, labelling it weak and saving his most blunt assessment for former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“People are going to be held accountable in the next 10 or 20 years about ‘what did you know about China?’, ‘how did you accommodate it?'” he said.
“They absolutely have to be confronted now. Turnbull has been way too much of an appeaser.”
In an exclusive interview with ABC’s Four Corners, Mr Bannon identified Australia as the “canary in the mineshaft” – a warning of the consequences of not standing up to China.
“Australia can show you when good and decent people kind of play by the rules, and the next thing they look around and many of the economic resources and economic assets of a country are owned by another country,” he said.
“China thinks of the United States and Australia in the same way. They think we’re tributary states.”
In a recent speech at the University of New South Wales, Mr Turnbull criticised protectionist trade policies and asserted Australia’s interest in pursuing an economic relationship with China, “consistent with our [Australia’s] objectives, standards and priorities”.
While crediting the Federal Government’s introduction of laws last year pushing back against Chinese political interference in Australia, Mr Bannon said Mr Turnbull’s recent statements were a backwards step.
“You have a much more robust debate in Australia than we’re having here in the United States. In the United States, we’re just starting that,” Mr Bannon said.
“It doesn’t really deal with political ideology. You have many progressives down there saying, ‘hey, were quite upset about this’. So I think… it’s going to play out very interestingly, and I think Australia is at the tip of the spear of this.”
Trump prepared to ‘go all the way’ with China
The Australia-China relationship has already been tested in recent months, with legislation introduced to crack down on foreign interference and the decision to shut the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, out of Australia’s 5G network on national security grounds.
The architect of Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential victory said confronting China was key to the President’s successful appeal to working-class and middle-class Americans.
“That’s where the anger came from. The working class and the middle class, particularly lower middle class say, ‘no, we believe America can return to its former glory’,” he said.
“The elites in our country, just like the elites in Australia, said the rise of China is inexorable. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. It’s part of the physical universe.
“You know what Trump said? ‘I don’t think so’.”
According to Mr Bannon, Mr Trump is prepared for significant further escalation in his confrontation with China, saying the President is prepared to go “all the way”.
“We’re in an economic war with China,” he said.
The US recently imposed a further $16 billion of tariffs on Chinese imports, which came on the back of $34 billion worth of tariffs implemented in July and an equivalent response from Beijing.
Accounting firm KPMG has warned further deterioration between the two countries into a full-blown trade war could trigger a global recession, with a contraction of Australia’s GDP of 2.4 per cent over five years.
According to Mr Bannon, Mr Trump is prepared for this eventuality in order to achieve a re-ordering of the global supply chain.
“Recessions come and go. I think workers understand and particularly people that back Donald Trump,” he said.
“They understand there could be some speed bumps on this and that’s what leadership’s about.”
This is an acknowledgement from Mr Trump’s backers that there could be a high price to pay for the President’s economic policies amongst his core constituency.
“I think Donald Trump, I think the country’s prepared to do what the country has to do. This is about bringing jobs back and high value-added jobs that bring worth and dignity to workers and they can actually have one income that maybe will support a family,” he said.
Australian working-class revolt
Mr Bannon has continued to campaign for Mr Trump’s economic nationalist message in the US and overseas, despite the relationship between the two men souring.
He played a key role in Britain’s Brexit campaign and has also forged links with right and left-wing nationalist groups across Europe. He now plans on bringing his crusade to Australia before the next federal election.
“There’s a lot of anger out there and I think that this anger can be harnessed,” he said.
He says Australia is ripe for the same working-class revolt.
“Australia is going to be a hotbed of populism. Just knowing that cussedness and grit of the Australian people,” he said.
Mr Bannon stepped down as executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News Network earlier this year.
Both Mr Bannon and Breitbart have been accused of stoking racial divisions in America.
But he rejects the idea his economic nationalist ideology is racist.
“The white workers in this country are not racist. The workers in this country are finally standing up for themselves,” he said.
“And it doesn’t matter how many liberal journalists come in here and say, ‘oh, this is a bunch of fascists, this is a bunch of Nazis, this is a bunch of racists’. This movement is not going to stop.”