Turnbull upset by leaked Trump phone call

Refugee Action Coalition protesters outside the offices of the Australian government's Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Sydney in April last year.
Refugee Action Coalition protesters outside the offices of the Australian government's Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Sydney in April last year.PHOTO: REUTERS

Aussie PM insists ties with US still strong despite leaked transcript of dispute over asylum-seeker deal

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed disappointment over the leak of a full transcript of his terse phone call with President Donald Trump, even while saying ties with the United States remain strong.
 

The Washington Post on Thursday published a conversation between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull in January in which they argued over a deal to send asylum seekers detained by Australia to the US. A call between Mr Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was also leaked.

"It's always better when these conversations remain confidential," Mr Turnbull said on Friday when asked by reporters whether he was concerned about the leak. He described his relationship with Mr Trump as "warm". "We are both adults," Mr Turnbull said. "I stand up for Australian interests, he stands up for America's interests."

The leak shows the potential pitfalls that world leaders - and particularly strong allies like Australia - face when dealing with the US President. Relations took a hit after initial reports of the conversation between Mr Turnbull and Mr Trump were broadcast earlier this year, hurting the perception of the US President among the Australian public.

White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said the leaks prevent Mr Trump from negotiating with foreign leaders and were "damaging to our national security".

In the transcript, Mr Trump called the asylum-seeker deal "stupid" and his call with Mr Turnbull "unpleasant" and "ridiculous". Mr Turnbull repeatedly explained Australia's policy, and urged Mr Trump to stick with the deal made by the Barack Obama government to accept refugees sent by Australia to remote Pacific island detention camps.

BOAT PEOPLE NOT WELCOME

The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat. We would rather take a not-very-attractive guy that helps you out than to take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat.

AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL, in the telephone call with US President Donald Trump.

But the transcript also exposed key inconsistencies in the Australian government's comments to the public on the deal, and undermined official assertions that it was not set up as a swop to take refugees from the US.

"We will take anyone that you want us to take," Mr Turnbull told Mr Trump during the call, adding: "The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat.

"We would rather take a not-very-attractive guy that helps you out than to take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat."

On Friday, Mr Turnbull played down his remarks that the Americans could take as few refugees as they wanted, even though the deal was meant to help transfer hundreds off Manus island in Papua New Guinea before the closure of the camp there in October.

A court ruling declaring that holding people on Manus was unconstitutional has meant Canberra is keen to remove the refugees.

Australia sends asylum seekers who try to enter the country by boat to camps on Nauru and Manus, with even those found to be refugees barred from resettling in Australia. The widely criticised policy was adopted following a surge in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Canberra defends its position, which includes turning boats back, saying it has prevented deaths at sea.

"It does not oblige you to take one person that you do not want," Mr Turnbull told Mr Trump during the call, in remarks criticised by refugee advocates as the Australian leader going through the motions.

Mr Turnbull on Friday said the deal "has always been subject to American vetting procedures, that's always been part of the arrangement".

The Human Rights Law Centre said it showed Mr Turnbull was "totally preoccupied with maintaining (its) facade". "The conversation makes it clear that Prime Minister Turnbull is rolling the dice with people's lives and mental health," Amnesty International added.

Mr Trump after the phone call grudgingly agreed to honour what he has called a "dumb deal", although it remains unclear how many refugees the US will accept.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline 'Turnbull upset by leaked Trump phone call'. Print Edition | Subscribe