Australia’s refugee swap with US up in the air due to Trump presidency

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 January, 2017, 1:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 January, 2017, 1:52pm

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has refused to express confidence a refugee swap with the United States will go ahead, after the chief diplomat had her first high-level interaction with President Donald Trump’s administration.

The deal, struck in November under president Barack Obama, was to see 1,800 refugees held in Australian offshore detention centres resettled in the US, but Trump has thrown the agreement into doubt.

A leaked draft executive order from the White House reported by US newspapers on Thursday includes a four-month suspension on accepting refugees and a range of long-term restrictions.

Speaking after a dialogue on Australia-US relations in Los Angeles on Thursday, Ms Bishop said she took a phone call that afternoon from US Vice-President Mike Pence and had a “warm and engaging discussion” about a “whole range of issues”.

Ms Bishop would not say if the refugee swap had been discussed with anyone in the new administration, or if she had confidence it would go ahead. “I believe the United States and Australia will continue to work together to assist each other in implementing our strong border protection policies,” she said.

Asked what she had discussed with the US vice-president, she would only say the conversation covered “regional challenges that the United States and Australia both face” and bilateral issues.

Ms Bishop was speaking at the US-Australia Dialogue on Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific where Australia’s ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey, offered his own reflections on how relations should be managed following the election of Mr Trump.

“I would just caution people not to worry too much about their emotions during this transition in the United States,” the former Coalition treasurer said. “Don’t be optimistic, don’t be pessimistic, be realistic.”

Mr Hockey said Mr Trump’s election victory should be seen in the context of a wave of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the globe, which included the Brexit vote, numerous incumbent governments losing office, and terrorism.

In her speech at the dialogue Ms Bishop said it was essential for the US to give “serious consideration and at the highest levels” to closer involvement with the Association of South-East Asian Nations. She said ASEAN, though often maligned, still had the power to positively shape China’s rise.

Mr Trump said on Thursday he would introduce “extreme vetting” of immigrants and that it was going to be “very hard to come in” to the US.

“The world is as angry as it gets,” he said in a television interview. “The world is a total mess.”

The president on Thursday publicly suggested implementing a 20 per cent import tax on Mexican goods, as well as on other countries, to pay for his much trumpeted border wall.

Mr Trump has also threatened to rip up its free trade agreement with its southern neighbour. But Ms Bishop said the possibility of an import tax on Australian goods had not been raised in any of her discussions with Mr Trump's administration, and that the Australia-US trade agreement was safe.

“The Australia-US free trade agreement works very much in the US’s favour in the sense that there is a significant trade surplus,” Ms Bishop said. “We have a trade deficit with the United States and there’s certainly has been no indication at all that the administration is looking to renegotiate the ... free trade agreement.”