Finding Compassion in the Australian-US Special Relationship

Many Australians living in the US and back home, were shocked by reports of an angry conversation between President Trump and our Prime Minister Turnbull about refugees. How could we Australia, the US’s closest ally, be getting into a fight with the new US President in his first week in office? Over the last 3 weeks, I’ve answered numerous questions from my American colleagues and entrepreneurs about the issue and I realize how poorly it has been understood.

Firstly, you need to appreciate that Australia has a very special relationship with the United States. This is not political rhetoric — it is a deliberate, rock solid, strategic alliance. Ever since Australia established its own national government (when we federated in 1901), we have joined the US in every single armed conflict that it has entered into. That’s World Wars I and II, Gulf Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Kosovo Wars and the current ISIS conflict. The US will be in more conflicts — and we will be there beside them. Australia is typically there before the US arrives and we almost always stay until the US leaves. We are the only country to have made this level of commitment. Not the UK. Not Canada. Not New Zealand. Not Japan. Australia. We are the only one.

Jason Reed/Reuters Soldiers watched President Obama speak to American Marines and Australian troops

It is a policy that has often caused considerable political damage for successive generations of Australian Prime Ministers — and yet remarkably, and without exception, they have stayed the course over 116 years. And while most citizens of the US and Australia may not fully appreciate the closeness of our relationship: our military men and women do. We have served shoulder to shoulder with each other, we fondly greet each other on and off the battle field, in and out of uniform. It is a tie that has been forged over generations, in trenches, in the baking sun, in dust, and in blood.

So we are genuinely shocked when we learn that a new US President is describing conversations with the Australian Prime Minister as being “the worst call by far”, when we hear reports of these calls being abruptly terminated, and when angry tweets from the US head of state describes part of our diplomatic relationship as “dumb”.

And on this point: shame on both the White House and the US media for not properly describing the underlying issue. In the refugee resettlement deal the two leaders were discussing (that President Obama and Prime Minister Turnball had previously agreed), Australia would send up to 1,250 asylum seekers to be resettled in the US, and in exchange the US would send the same number to be resettled in Australia.

The logic behind this deal is that genuine asylum seekers who are fleeing appalling conditions and victimization just want to be somewhere safe. Whether that’s the US or Australia, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if you truly fear for your life and those of your children. But if you are a criminal, cartel member or terrorist looking to establish operations with your associates, thinking you are entering the US and then being shipped off to another country is actually a very big problem. The refugee exchange is intended to act as a deterrent and thwart those with nefarious intent. Additionally, each receiving country is entitled to subject the refugee to their own (and if they choose “extreme”) vetting procedures before the exchange occurs. Far from being ‘dumb’, it’s actually very sensible.

In terms of net outcomes, the only real difference for each country (other than the security benefits) is the demographic of the refugees exchanged: Australia would receive from the US a group of refugees largely from Central America (and mostly Christian), and the US would receive a group of refugees from a mix of Africa, the Middle-East, the Mediterranean and Asian regions (and likely a comparably broad mix of faiths). No doubt there would be a higher percentage of Muslims in the group being sent to the US than in the group being sent to Australia. But then again, if the US wanted to increase the percentage of Muslim refugees going to Australia, Australians wouldn’t really care. We don’t care about the refugees’ religion — we care about their legitimacy, we care about their security risk, and we care about whether they would be contributing members of Australian society. Australia is proudly a cultural melting point of nationalities, faiths and languages.

For a time, I was mystified by the President’s accusation that Australia was (as part of this refugee deal) trying to send America the “next Boston bombers”. The President was referring to the appalling killing of 3 people and injuring of 260 more by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev who deployed two shrapnel bombs during the 2013 Boston Marathon. The two brothers were naturalized US citizens but born in Kyrgyzstan to Chechnyan parents who emigrated as asylum seekers to the US. The family were Muslim.

As there are good security reasons for the refugee exchange, and the number of refugees the US would consequently hold is no greater, then the President’s comment can only be seen as an objection to the faith of the refugees likely to be received by the US. Either that, or the President’s aides have been grossly negligent in briefing him on the detail of the treaty.

When our friends and family come to visit us in New York, we often take them to see the Statue of Liberty. As we journey in the ferry across the harbor, I whisper Emma Lazarus’ words to my American daughter and hope their tendrils of compassion are woven into her soul:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send those, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I like to imagine that Scottish-born immigrant Mary Anne MacLeod, whispered the same words to her children, holding her slightly stubborn second son particularly close. I hope that President Trump will remember the words his mother could have whispered to him, and that millions of mothers do every year in the US, and finds the compassion to chart a better course. With Muslims. With refugees. And with Australia.

Al Jazeera