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The TPP fiasco

January 26th, 2017

Until now, I thought of Malcolm Turnbull as clever but weak, unwilling to challenge the right wing of his party even as they drive his government into the ground. But his handling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership over the last week has left me with the impression that he doesn’t have a clue.

To recap, it’s been obvious for a long time that the TPP was in serious trouble. Both candidates for the US Presidency opposed it, and Trump was particularly vociferous in his denunciation. It’s also important that, within the US policy establishment, the most potent argument for the TPP was that it would cement US leadership in the region, and lock China out.

So, I would have imagined that the Turnbull government would have thought through the consequences of a US withdrawal from the TPP, even if they were surprised by the actual timing. In particular, I’d have thought that Turnbull would have discussed possible responses with Japanese PM Abe when he visited the other week.

So, I was pretty startled when Turnbull floated the idea of bringing China into the TPP to replace the US. At least from the viewpoint of the US and Chinese foreign policy establishments, that would amount to switching our support to China, or least shifting towards neutrality, in struggles about the future of the region. Given the risks posed by an alliance with the US under Trump, there’s an arguable case for that, but it would be a very big move. Turnbull’s floating of the notion seemed like a thought bubble, or maybe a thoughtless bubble.

Even more striking was Japan’s immediate rejection of the idea, accompanied by a repetition of the forlorn hope that the US might come back to the deal. Honestly, how could Turnbull have had a lengthy meeting with Abe and failed to elicit an indication that his proposal would be rejected out of hand?

Finally, as an aside, how about his churlish decision to give an AC to Julia Gillard but not (unless it was offered and privately rejected) to Kevin Rudd? At least Abbott was consistently tribal in his breach of the longstanding convention of making this offer to an outgoing PM (after they’ve left Parliament). With Turnbull it looks like personal vendetta.

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  1. derrida derider
    January 26th, 2017 at 19:43 | #1

    I would have imagined that the Turnbull government would have thought through the consequences of a US withdrawal from the TPP, even if they were surprised by the actual timing. In particular, I’d have thought that Turnbull would have discussed possible responses with Japanese PM Abe when he visited the other week

    Err, how do you know they haven’t and he didn’t? Both the Australian offer of including China and the rapid Japanese rejection of it may very well be intended more as signals at the start of renegotiations rather than intended to ever happen. The Australian signal would be exactly what you said – signalling to all that we are no longer the US deputy sheriff and are considering our position. And the uncharacteristic speed and bluntness of the Japanese rejection makes you think they at least have gamed all this out in advance. DFAT have their deformations professionelles, but they are sometimes capable of seeing past ANZUS and doing contingency planning.

    Arguably Trump has done us a big favour anyway. The worst parts of the TPP from an OZ POV were the intellectual property provisions, followed by the investor dispute resolution stuff. Both were in at US insistence, and both are likely to be dropped, or at least greatly weakened, in a new TPP.

  2. Ikonoclast
    January 27th, 2017 at 06:11 | #2

    Turnbull does not have a clue. He goes to Japan and offers a different deal leaving the USA out. The Japanese PM weighs it up in a trice. “Who should I offend? Puny Australia or powerful USA? No contest. Go away funny Australian man.”

    Australia is of no account on the world stage. It’s delusional to think we are. You can spend six months in the northern hemisphere and hear about Australia once… and that will be a man bites dog story, or a kangaroo attacks woman story.

    Our politicians are big frogs in a small pond. They go overseas and think they are still big frogs. It’s hilarious to watch.

  3. David Allen
    January 27th, 2017 at 08:18 | #3

    Turnbull has always been STUPID and weak. His performance allows no other conclusion. Everything he touches turns to sh*t.

  4. Smith
    January 27th, 2017 at 08:43 | #4

    The Order of Australia honours are decided by a committee that is independent of government. The committee includes representatives of the states appointed by state governments as well as community representatives who are eminent strong minded types. Now I wasn’t in the room, so I don’t know this for a fact, but I think it is unlikely that the Chair told the meeting that he had spoken to the Prime Minister who had made it known that Rudd was not to get an AC. If that had happened then the committee would have resisted and the story would have been leaked.

    The explanation I suspect is much more prosaic and that is that you do one ex PM at a time and Rudd will get his in the Queen’s birthday honours in four month’s time.

  5. John Quiggin
    January 27th, 2017 at 08:54 | #5

    @Smith

    ” think it is unlikely that the Chair told the meeting that he had spoken to the Prime Minister who had made it known that Rudd was not to get an AC … you do one ex PM at a time”

    On this theory, the ACs should have been awarded in the last term of Parliament, after both Gillard and Rudd had resigned their seats. I infer that, as well has his famous “captain’s picks”, Abbott had, and used, a blackball, as has Turnbull. But, we’ll see soon enough.

  6. Smith
    January 27th, 2017 at 09:27 | #6

    @John Quiggin

    We will see indeed.

    On a small point of terminology, it was Gillard, not Abbott, who used the phrase “captain’s pick”. The occasion was when, against all Labor Party procedure, she personally and unliaterally terminated the career of Senator Trish Crossin, installing Nova Peris as Labor’s Northern Territory senate candidate at the 2013 election.

  7. John Quiggin
    January 27th, 2017 at 10:31 | #7

    @Smith

    You’re quite right. Did Abbott re-use it or adopt a variant?

  8. John Quiggin
    January 27th, 2017 at 10:33 | #8

    @derrida derider

    If you’re right, then they are sending mixed messages

    http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/julie-bishop-tells-president-donald-trump-that-asia-wants-more-us-leadership-not-less-20170126-gtz9dz

    Maybe this is all a grand plan, but if so, it’s too deep for me.

  9. Smith
    January 27th, 2017 at 10:33 | #9

    @derrida derider

    Yes, it might be a fiendishly clever strategic move.

    Or it might be a stuff-up.

    You might ask how could Turnbull be so stupid as to make such an obvious stuff-up with all those smart people in DFAT, PM&C, ONA, etc advising him. The answer might be that he decides based on the advice he gets last, and that is from the person he thinks is the smartest of them all: himself.

  10. Smith
    January 27th, 2017 at 10:52 | #10

    @John Quiggin

    When Abbott knighted the Duke of Edinburgh, he said it was a “captain’s call”.

  11. poselequestion
    January 27th, 2017 at 11:16 | #11

    You forgot “the oldest dog in the world dies”, in Wilcannia, widely reported in France. @Ikonoclast

  12. GrueBleen
    January 27th, 2017 at 16:57 | #12

    @Smith

    Buzzfeed quotes TA as having said: “I accept that the restoration of knighthoods was a captain’s call,” said Abbott . “I have listened, I have learned, I have acted, and those particular captain’s picks which people have found difficult have been reversed.”

    So he appears to have used both terms, but I can’t, despite trying, recall him using “captain’s pick” about a specific action as he used “captain’s call” for Pil’s knighthood.

  13. 2 tanners
    January 27th, 2017 at 17:11 | #13

    I do wonder if Japan’s rejection of the deal had more to do with them not actually wanting it, but having to go along with the US. In that scenario, Trump’s action is a free pass to them without them having to admit anything either way.

  14. rog
    January 28th, 2017 at 18:08 | #14

    Bravo Turnbull, he has successfully wrested the Don Quixote Crown from Abbott and claimed it as his. What next for our very own Man from La Mancha.

  15. Smith
    January 29th, 2017 at 11:01 | #15

    There is a story in the Weekend Australian on the Gillard and non-Rudd ACs. So obviously sourced to Abbott they might as well have given him the byline, it says that Abbott wrote generous letters of recommendation for both and says what was in them. The story says it’s a mystery why Rudd missed out.

    The obvious conclusion is that Abbott leaked the story to make himself look good and by implication that Rudd was blackballed by Turnbull.

  16. Other James
    January 29th, 2017 at 11:59 | #16

    Having worked with managers who have the arrogance that comes from thinking they are more capable than those under them, I see Turnbull as a classic case of a leader who sees his leadership as exemplary, and therefore above criticism. In this sense he enjoys ‘being’ prime minister, rather than ‘doing’ prime minister. And in his lawyerly parsing, an argument is something one makes, not something one owns. When he came to power, he stated he was going to run a ‘cabinet style’ government, which I think he still believes, in that the cabinet/ministers own the decisions they make. This has two advantages. Firstly it probably makes his position within the party room more secure than it appears to outsiders, and secondly, it allows him to see himself as ‘fair and inclusive’ when the decisions of his ministers/cabinet are anything but. Finally, he sees his critics, which are gathered up under the generic rubric of the ‘Labor Party’, as churlish and misinformed, since his leadership is by definition outstanding and hence the decisions made by his government are the best possible within the given circumstances. From experience, managers of this type have sudden downfalls, usually from not owning one decision too many. Till then, their position within the organisation is almost impregnable, and can last for a long time.

  17. January 30th, 2017 at 08:40 | #17

    The debate here is confused by the use of the term ‘TPP’ as a strictly content-free term to include anything at all that’s signed by more than two Pacific nations, rather than as the actual content of the previous TPP. Perhaps we could call them TPP1 and TPP2? You shouldn’t sign the TPP1 without America because most of the actual content consisted of things the USA wanted and nobody else did (although we were prepared to accept them in return for access over other points). For example, the US would have wanted the term of copyright extended; if China’s in it would want it reduced. Anything new – TPP2 – will have to go through the whole negotiation process again and can’t be finalised for several years. Which is to say that Turnbull appears to have been prepared to sell Australian interests down the river – to accept harsh terms in TPP1 we no longer had to accept – rather than admit to failure. As long as it’s labelled TPP that’s all he cares about.

  18. derrida derider
    January 30th, 2017 at 10:50 | #18

    “As long as it’s labelled TPP that’s all he cares about.”

    Well yes. It was worse with the disastrous US-Australia FTA. The government was so dead keen to have an agreement – any agreement – with the US they really did not care much what was in it, so long as it had a few minor and face saving points about “selling more beef” for small rural constituencies. With the TPP they’re now not quite as feckless as that, but the marketing is still a lot more important in their minds than the substance.

    It is part of the more general point that people who actually want free trade should strongly oppose all these sort of things. Apart from the trade diversion issues (serious in themselves) , the incentives for pollies on all sides of them are to get “concessions” for influential constituencies (eg farmers in Australia, big pharma in the US) at the direct expense of less visible but much larger constituencies (consumers in Australia, rust belt workers in the US).

  19. Jim Rose
    January 30th, 2017 at 11:54 | #19

    As I recall, the agreement did not have much of a future if Clinton was elected either. She was making various comments but I cannot recall the details.

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