• John McDonnell

Australia US relations back on track – we hope


Scott Morrison (left) at the G7 summit some distance from US President Biden (2nd from right)

There is at least a glimmer of hope that Australian and American leaders are talking again. President Biden and Scott Morrison had a teleconference last week as part of the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance events.


Relations between US presidents and Australian prime ministers have been fraught for the last seven years.


When Tony Abbott visited Barack Obama in early 2014, according to the then ambassador Kim Beazley, he amazed the president by asking him what Australia could do to help the US, as opposed to asking for a favour. He also gave President Obama a beautiful custom-built surfboard, which the president uses to this day when he goes on holiday in Hawaii.


Obama repaid Abbott by giving him a gratuitous serve over global warming and the Barrier Reef when he attended the G20 leaders’ summit in Brisbane, later that year. This was a sop to progressive forces in Australia and was undoubtedly a catalyst for Turnbull’s leadership coup against Abbott in September 2015.


A year after Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott as prime minister, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The first phone call between the two leaders was marked by hostility.


Turnbull demanded that Trump honour the agreement he had reached with President Obama that America would resettle 1500 asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island. Trump wanted to ban immigration by all Muslims to the United States. He agreed to honour the arrangement but did so with ill grace.


Turnbull used his background as a businessman to establish cordial relations with Trump and was so successful in this that he was asked by the Europeans to become an intermediary responsible for persuading Trump to become a strong supporter of multilateralism.


When Scott Morrison became PM following the sacking of Turnbull, Trump rolled out the red carpet for him. This was probably the closest the leaders of the two countries had been since the days of George W Bush and John Howard.


It may also explain why the relationship between President Biden and Scott Morrison has been lukewarm. When Morrison attended the G7 meeting in Cornwall, in the UK in June, he was hoping for a one-on-one with the president. He was rebuffed. Even his photo-op was usurped by Boris Johnson.


When Mr Morrison tried to buy some of the surplus Pfizer vaccine held in stocks in the US, he was told he couldn’t have any. Recently it was noted that the two leaders had not discussed the withdrawal from Afghanistan, in which both countries were involved.


There has been speculation about why the Australian prime minister is ‘persona non grata’ with the US administration. There are suggestions that it is because he is a conservative, or that it is because of his position on climate change, or that Biden thinks he is a closet Trump supporter.


We are now assured that none of this speculation matters and that relations between the leaders are back on an even keel.


The proof of this will be found in the Ausmin talks to be held soon in Washington. These will involve foreign minister Marise Payne and defence minister Peter Dutton and their counterparts. Australia will want the US to demonstrate its commitment to a stronger presence in the Indo-Pacific region now that it has left Afghanistan. If US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, make such a commitment, it will be a sign that things are back on track.