In September 2019, amid former President Donald Trump’s then-escalating scandal with Ukraine, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a highly publicised trip to the United States. The visit would include a rare state dinner at the White House, with Morrison as the guest of honour. During the same visit, Morrison would also be granted another elusive honour: an invitation to accompany Trump to a cardboard factory opening in Ohio — effectively a Trump rally — before a crowd of thousands. “For a self-respecting Australian leader, this was beyond awkward,” commentator Michelle Grattan said of the rally.
After the event, when asked whether he would endorse Trump’s 2020 presidential bid, Morrison smiled and reflected on how he and Trump “share a lot of the same views.” Instead of the usual grimaces and stiff conduct displayed from other world leaders when asked about Trump, it seemed that Morrison had approached the week-long state visit with curiously high spirits.
Morrison’s penchant for cosying up to the Trump administration has often been justified as a strategic act of diplomacy; Australia has long been a close, “uncritical,” and “unwaveringly loyal” ally to the US, and a subsequent beneficiary of post-war American primacy. Cultivating close ties with the sitting US President — whoever they may be — was invariably believed to be in Australia’s best interests.
But after unprecedented scenes of pro-Trump insurrectionists, including QAnon and Proud Boys members, storming the US Capitol reverberated around the world, Morrison’s support for Trump is no longer justifiable.
World leaders have immediately issued harsh, unambiguous condemnations of Trump’s actions. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, one of the staunchest allies of the US, notably stated that “[Trump] stoked uncertainties about the election outcome, and that created an atmosphere that made the [storming] possible.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite being a personal friend of the former President, also admonished Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. “What President Trump has been saying…has been completely wrong and I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol,” he said.
Even Trump’s most like-minded supporters, including populist and far-right leaders, managed to rebuke the riot in which five people died. French politician Marine Le Pen urged Trump to condemn “any violent act that aims to disrupt the democratic process,” and Trump cheerleader Nigel Farage tweeted: “Storming Capitol Hill is wrong. The protesters must leave.”
In Canberra, Morrison struck a markedly different tone. In the direct aftermath of the storming, he merely described the scenes as “very distressing,” and condemned only “these acts of violence,” stopping short of holding Trump personally responsible. On Monday, after being urged to go further in his critique, Morrison continued to withhold Trump’s name, only calling his actions “incredibly disappointing” and leading to a “terrible outcome.” Indeed, it seems that Trump’s grand gestures — the high-profile trips, lavish dinners, awards and flattery, describing Morrison as “a man of titanium” with whom he shares a “very special relationship” — worked.
Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud, lies about the election being “stolen” and needing to be “reclaimed,” and support for Capitol rioters (“Be there, will be wild!”) were a deliberate effort to compromise the democratic process. Yet Morrison’s tepid, generalised remarks expressing distress or disappointment, while failing to repudiate Trump as the direct instigator, undermines Australia’s reputation as a supporter of democratic principles, against national interests.
More concerningly, Morrison’s unwillingness to admonish Trump raises concerns over the extent to which Australian conservatives will support Trumpian rhetoric and alt-right conspiracy theories. In a major foreign policy speech last night, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese noted that Morrison and Trump’s affinity comes partly from a “political constituency they share,” and that Australia’s alliance with the US had in fact suffered as a consequence. In December, The Guardian revealed Morrison’s close ties to Tim Stewart, a leading Australian QAnon member. In the days following the insurrection, Liberal MP Craig Kelly spread pro-Trump disinformation while Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack ludicrously compared the events to Black Lives Matter protests. Morrison has also made his disdain for certain democratic norms clear in the past. When faced with peaceful protesters last year, Morrison attempted to “outlaw” their “indulgent and selfish practices.”
That the ease with which Morrison had interacted with Trump and his supporters during the Ohio rally was simply due to sharing “same views” was an understatement. After the events on the Capitol, the Australian public is left to wonder whether their leader’s reticence is a tacit endorsement of the events of January 6, and the beliefs held by the seditious criminals who participated in it.
As Australia’s leader, Morrison is obligated to make his position clear. If he truly wanted to be seen as a bona fide ally to America, and not another Trump lackey, finding the resolve to speak up during one of the darkest moments for American democracy would have been a good start.