The early consensus in Australia is that Malcolm Turnbull has stepped back a little from the US alliance, but is this true? The commentary was based on two developments. First was Turnbull’s reaction when the US president phoned him last year to press him for trade concessions. As the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was taking its final form, Obama told Turnbull that the US needed a vital Australian concession to bring the 12-nation accord to conclusion.
Australia protects the patent rights of pharmaceutical companies for five years in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. After five years, the PBS admits cheaper, generic drugs. Obama asked that this be extended to 12 years. Turnbull said no.
Second were the reports that the US had asked Australia for a bigger military contribution to the fight against Islamic State and that Turnbull’s Australia had said no.
There is a problem with each of these apparent acts of defiance. On the trade demand, the problem is that Turnbull’s decision was not uniquely a Turnbull decision. Australia under the Abbott government was shaping to give exactly the same response. In any case the Australian Senate would have to legislate changes to the PBS and it’s unimaginable that it would.
On the demand for more military contributions, the problem is that Australia wasn’t specifically asked. The US sent a form letter to all of the 60 countries co-operating against Daesh and asked what they might offer to step up the fight. Australia, already supplying more military effort than any country other than the US, was not the target. There was no real US request for Turnbull to rebuff.
Turnbull has assured the US of a strong alliance, yet given Australians the impression that he has asserted greater sovereign independence. All at the same time.
Peter Hartcher is Sydney Morning Herald international editor