Donald Trump’s conviction delivers a new challenge for Anthony Albanese to show political dexterity and the stakes are high

Donald Trump’s conviction delivers a new challenge for Anthony Albanese to show political dexterity and the stakes are high
  • PublishedJune 3, 2024

Watching the prime minister answer questions over two separate but significant international legal decisions, each with massive ramifications for our domestic debates, has been instructive and points to Anthony Albanese’s instinct to dodge political booby traps and stay in what he sees as his lane.

First came the International Criminal Court judgement seeking arrest warrants for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders.

On this one, the PM used the old politician’s formula of not commenting on legal matters far away.

The PM initially said it would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing court proceedings, despite US President Joe Biden criticising the move.

Given Australia is a state party to the ICC’s Rome statute and an historic ally of Israel, Albanese’s silence was widely seen as a weak response, both from those who wanted a strong defence of the ICC, and those who thought the court’s ruling conflated Hamas and Israel.

It was also odd given in the very same press conference the prime minister commentated on the Julian Assange case — also subject to court proceedings overseas. Although to be fair, Assange is an Australian citizen and as such the obligation on any prime minister is indeed elevated.

Extraordinary news delivers PM’s next challenge

On Friday morning, the extraordinary news broke that Donald Trump had been found guilty of falsifying business records to cover up an affair with an adult film star, making him the first former US president in history to be criminally convicted.

The event provided the next challenge for Albanese to show his political dexterity.

With less than six months remaining before Trump’s anticipated election rematch against US president Joe Biden, the Australian government has learnt the lessons of history and is zipping it when it comes to Trump and the circus and disruption that inevitably comes with him.

But while zipping it and showing the discipline not to say anything that may come back to bite them down the track, politicians across the political divide are privately concerned about the stability of American democracy and the unpredictability of a Trump presidency Mark Two.

It is utterly unremarkable that a Labor government would privately prefer to deal with a Democrat president. Yet, it is fair to say that this Republican former president’s potential comeback is rattling Canberra insiders who watch the opinion polls in the United States like the rest of us.

Trump’s predictable but uncomfortable rant against the judicial system and the rule of law — a bedrock of liberal democracy — is a challenge for Australia because it is the very foundation of our political system and belief.

The idea that we are all equal before the law and that the courts must not be undermined by conspiracy theories is something that has bipartisan support in Australia.

Our politicians are living in that reality. Yet, unlike 2016, when the political elite believed Trump wouldn’t win, no one is making that mistake this time.

Lessons in working with Trump

Trump isn’t that hard to work out. He doesn’t look kindly on people who criticise him. Doing the maths and watching the polls, the Albanese government has decided to play along nicely and not provide any fodder that may disrupt dealings with any future Trump administration.

Given the level of unprecedented investment and reliance we have on AUKUS the stakes are higher than ever economically, as well as strategically.

Trump looks down frowning while wearing a suit in court
Donald Trump doesn’t look kindly on people who criticise him. (Reuters: Jabin Botsford/Pool )

Australia got a taste of the wrath we want to avoid when Donald Trump insulted Australian ambassador to the US Kevin Rudd as “not the brightest bulb“, and suggested he might not remain in the role if the former president is re-elected.

Trump was asked about the former prime minister during an interview on British television. Politician-turned-broadcaster Nigel Farage told Trump that Dr Rudd had “said the most horrible things” about him, including calling him a “destructive president” and a “traitor to the West”.

“He won’t be there long if that’s the case,” Trump responded.”I don’t know much about him. I heard he was a little bit nasty. I hear he’s not the brightest bulb, but I don’t know much about him.”

Trump added: “If he’s at all hostile, he will not be there long.”

The interview was broadcast on conservative UK TV station GB News.

That storm blew over as they inevitably do — but it was a fresh reminder that the Australian government should stay in its lane and seek not to antagonise Trump or his campaign.

The practise of not commenting on US elections is pretty stock standard, but there have been notable deviations from the script.

Former prime minister John Howard launched a public condemnation of Barack Obama when he was US presidential candidate, warning his victory could destroy Iraq and prospects for peace in the Middle East.

“If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats,” he said at the time.

It was ill-conceived and inappropriate and Albanese who prides himself of respecting conventions is not about to repeat the mistake.

Instead, Albanese refused to weigh directly into Trump’s guilty verdict, saying he is not worried about Australia’s relationship with the superpower should Trump win in November.

Asked about Trump’s case at a press conference Foreign Minister Penny Wong said: “Look, you wouldn’t expect the foreign minister of Australia to engage in commentary about the legal processes of another country, including our most important strategic partner and ally. And I won’t.”

Reacting to the Trump verdict, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton didn’t show the same discipline, saying the former president was “despised” by some in New York and “adored” by some others. He said the guilty verdict might make November’s US election “more exciting”.

Over coming months the opposition leader will be pressed to take a side on whether the justice system in the US is indeed stacked in a giant conspiracy against Trump.

Nationals senator Matt Canavan wrote on X that it was “sad what has happened to the American ‘justice’ system” describing it as an embarrassing political witch hunt and “one US trend we should not follow.”

“Let’s hope our judicial system is never politically weaponised like this.”

The tweet must have sent a chill down the backs of Liberal MPs in urban seats who worry about the party looking like it’s aligning itself with Trump and his theories about the justice system being broken.

And as the Liberals seek to win the Teal seats again they will need to distance themselves from Trump, who has been widely rebuked by those who believe in the strength of democratic institutions like the courts and parliaments.

Peter Dutton’s predecessor as Liberal leader, former prime minister Scott Morrison, controversially backed Trump’s assertion that America’s legal system is being used against him in a politically motivated attempt to end his run for president and said before the verdict that Trump had been subjected to a “pile on.”

Morrison, who met with the former president recently, said America’s legal system risks damaging its reputation and being viewed as similar to those in developing countries that are politically compromised.

“You have got developing countries whose systems are not yet as mature or sophisticated where they use their justice system to throw their political opponents in prison and what view do we form about that?” he said.

“It sort of makes it hard to make that point though if someone could accuse us of doing the same thing.”

Despite some in the Coalition base agreeing — it would be wise for Dutton to stay away from that kind of commentary. Our leaders can’t be selective: they either believe in the rule of law or they don’t.

The US alliance remains a priority

Labor’s careful navigation of a Trump comeback demonstrates the obligation of governments to prioritise the health and strength of the US alliance above other considerations.

That obligation isn’t shared by the Greens, who weighed in and used it as another opportunity to put pressure on Labor as the party has done on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said the jury “just confirmed what we all know”.

“Donald Trump is unfit to be president and would be a disaster for the USA, Australia and the world if he is elected again,” Mr Bandt said. 

“Every day a new reason for Labor to reconsider Australia’s relationship with the US, including AUKUS.”

Australia has no intention of rethinking that relationship.

What is also not public but is very much an internal conversation among government MPs and frontbenchers is the way a potential Trump victory will impact the views of Australians. 

Some senior Labor figures have even talked of a Trump victory being helpful to Labor because Australians who are alarmed by what is happening in that US will lean on an instinct of stability and not wanting to go down the same road.

Although, if you ask Liberal and Labor MPs away from the microphone, they will freely admit we may be in for a wild and unpredictable ride and the stakes could not be higher.


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