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The empty moral calculus of Turnbull and Trump



The Turnbull-Trump tapes took one back. For some, it was back to the Watergate Tapes and the innocent years of Richard Nixon. For those of us of a certain age and faith, it was back to the primitive and unenlightened world of Abraham.

xxxxxBoth Turnbull and Abraham bargained about numbers: Turnbull by reducing the number of asylum seekers from Manus Island that Trump might take; Abraham by reducing the number of just men he would need to produce for God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.          Abraham’s conversation is part of a fragmented cycle of stories about the division of land between Abraham and Lot, his nephew. Lot chooses the downlands; Abraham the uplands.

Lot eventually settled near the area that includes Sodom, which God had decided to destroy because of its wickedness. He tells Abraham, who had offered hospitality to God’s emissaries, what he has decided, and has sent emissaries to get first hand information.

There is a bargain between the bazaar-wise Abraham and God. Abraham pushes down the number of good men needed to save Sodom from 50 to 10. God’s emissaries go on to Lot’s house in Sodom and are hospitably received.

But at night, every man of the town tries to break into the house to rape the two guests. So much for the 10 just men! God then tells Lot to get out of town and destroys the cities.

This story cycle is built around acceptance of a universal moral order guaranteed by God, the violation of which has consequences. The stories explore what room that universal moral order leaves for personal responsibility and virtue. They ask whether personal human goodness could avert the consequences of the sin of the majority.

In more general terms, the question is posed: Is there space for compassion in the moral order? Abraham’s successful bargaining proves that there is, and that the outcome—the escape of Lot’s family—shows that the moral order respects the humanity of each human being. People matter as persons, not as generalisations, and compassion is integral to any good society.

Although this is a primitive story, its characters have the dignity proper to people who are players in a much larger drama. As the number of just men required to save Sodom falls, so the value of each human being rises. The level of tolerance of the mess inherent in displays of compassion also rises.


"We see two men bargaining, but with little dignity. Here no universal moral order is in place."


Returning to a more enlightened age, and to the phone conversation between Trump and Turnbull, we see two men bargaining, but with little dignity. Here no universal moral order is in place. There are only local political imperatives. There is no consideration of value, only of control and expediency. There is no appeal to truth, only of the need to maintain appearances.

Trump’s desire is to look good by keeping out immigrants. Welcoming someone else’s asylum seekers would be a bad look. Turnbull’s desire is also to look strong by keeping out unwanted asylum seekers, and to appear generous by shifting them to the United States. In reality, the interdiction policy in place has already stopped boats coming, and he is willing to trade the asylum seekers away.

Against this background the bargaining does not test the quality of a moral order. It only tests the limits of expediency. When Turnbull offers the bargain of reduced, even no, numbers, he declares as nil the personal value of the people he trades.

This stands in contrast to Abraham’s bargaining, which, step by step, values more highly the importance that human beings have in the moral order and so attends to the respect owed to them. In the exchange between President and Prime Minister the real suffering, and human diminishment, of the asylum seekers is treated as only apparent, while the potential loss of esteem for President or Prime Minister is the reality. If there is space for compassion it is due to the two merchants being trapped in their necessities. Other than that, it has no place in the case about which they negotiate.

As President Trump often insists, statecraft is about making deals. In this deal Mr Turnbull proved himself quite adept. Perhaps in this more enlightened age that is all we can hope for in any conversation between heads of state.

Yet one is left with the faint suspicion that these protagonists lack dignity, involved in a grubby business that strips away the grounds for mutual respect, as well as respect for the people they bargained about.

In the meantime, on Manus Island, Hamshed Shiripour lies dead, long afflicted by a mental illness untreatable in that place of punishment.

In Abraham’s conversation, Hamshed would be considered a person, the object of compassion. In the telephone conversation between Trump and Turnbull he is a cipher, to be counted but not valued. It may be considered 'primitive', but we can see how a moral order seems more decent when we observe its absence.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Trump, Turnbull



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Existing comments

I like to think that our leadership and body politic is better than that of other countries. A bit unrealistic, and overly nationalistic, I know. This conversation between Trump and Turnbull revealed Trump as aplomb-full and tactless and Turnbull, I'm sad to say, as gutless. Some very apt turns of phrase in this article.

Pam | 10 August 2017  

Thank you Andrew for a beautifully composed construction of the comparison. I shall take down my dusty Book and read the story over and over. Beth

Beth | 10 August 2017  

Thanks drew, you make some good points but I think you are very unfair to MT. He tried hard but rather unsuccessfully to explain why this nasty situation has arisen: to stop people dying at sea in their thousands, and emphasised the these poor people are not "bad" in any way. Turnbull want to bring an unfortunate and dark chapter in our history to an end but without destabilising the current situation and encouraging another surge of people-smuggling. Surely he deserves encouragement and support in doing this, and offering to take into Australia refugees from central America in return?

Eugene | 10 August 2017  

Thanks for the 'methodology' of digging deep into a scriptural story so it can be applied to a contemporary situation. This should be done more often in Eureka Street. However, there is a difference between deploring a situation and picking the sinners whom to deplore. Trump is merely a passive grumbler in this piece of stage action. Turnbull's real co-culprit is his fellow progressive, Barack Obama, without whose signature no 'deal' would have eventuated, a situation Trump in his own words would have preferred. Trump may be a sinner, but for another day.

Roy Chen Yee | 10 August 2017  

But Eugene, in pointing out that these are not bad people in any way and that Trump can still honour the deal by not accepting any indicates the Malcom would grasp Andrew's point better than you appear to have done. Hence the failure in ethical or moral decency. Hopefully Malcolm might even get to read it. Thanks for a great article Andrew - a model as to how to read our scripture.

Denis Quinn | 10 August 2017  

Enlightening piece, Andrew. Another element is the structuring of the relationship with a perceived 'cannot do without' unprincipled partner. So the subtext for Turnbull is that he will not threaten nor show up the silliness of the other. "We will go all the way with LBJ, Boss and never say a word about the unspeakable things you do. We are skilled in the subservient pose". But the Australian government has made it harder than need be for refugees and Australia, by the way it maliciously and incorrectly called them 'illegals'. Who wants to buy illegals? It is like labeling fruit rotten and then trying to sell it to get rid of it. However when moral imbeciles do deals I doubt that morality is an issue.

Michael D. Breen | 10 August 2017  

W e could be tempted to excuse the two 'leaders' for some of their moral vacuity in this matter because, as politicians, they have to reflect the will of the people; if it was not for the fact that they seem to be - literally- hell-bent on using every underhand means at their disposal to manipulate the will of the people to agree with their particular narrow interpretation of this dire situation.

Robert Liddy | 10 August 2017  

Thank you Andrew. A very insightful article. The photo of the two leaders says a great deal with Mr Trump's ironic expression revealing the shonkiness of it all".

Kerry Holland | 10 August 2017  

Jesus was quite apolitical when he could have been a Jewish revolutionary hero against the Romans, something he rejected. That does not mean Christians should not be involved in politics. In our own tradition, although not in this country, the names of William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Daniel O'Connell spring immediately to mind. They were men with an evolved conscience who knew what morality was and did not trim and waver, nor follow their own selfish interests, as so many of our modern politicians do. They would all have been proud to be called a Christian in an age when Christianity was central to British and Irish life. A friend of mine recently told me how surprised he was that one of his children seemed not to know very much about religion even though they had gone to an expensive denominational school. I think that is one of the problems Liberal Christianity aka Cafeteria Catholicism, where you can pick and choose what you subscribe to in orthodox Christian beliefs causes. Moral relativism and its offspring, including gender theory, is born of this. We are in a dark wood, like Dante and need a path and a guide out of it.

Edward Fido | 10 August 2017  

The use of Old Testament (OT) stories to belittle two world leaders is strange. Evangelical Christians promote the OT GOD. They prefer a belief system based on fear and retribution instead of one founded on the primary message of Jesus, i.e. LOVE. In Andrew’s article, “There is a bargain between the bazaar-wise Abraham and God”. Yet Jesus states, “do not bargain with God”. Andrew states, “Abraham pushes down the number of good men needed to save Sodom from 50 to 10." To use this argument is specious. One of the characteristics of the ‘Holocaust’, is the shining examples of many men and women, who constantly rose above their morally lacking environment, to give examples of unquenchable faith and restoration of moral order (in however small a way). Sodom and Gommorrah would also have men and women who, in the depths of moral chaos, may have risen to be examples of faith and morality. Andrew quotes 50 reduced to 10. I hear Jesus asking GOD “Why not 50 or better still 500.” Followed by “Why destroy two cities after YOU have granted Mankind freedom of choice?” If the OT is used, JOB's story is much more focussed on a “Loving God”.

Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 10 August 2017  

A stunning analysis and comparison Andrew. Thank you.

Ginger Meggs | 10 August 2017  

I don't think Emperor Trump would have been expecting Vassal Turnbull to raise any contentious issues during a perfunctory congratulatory sycophantic phone call. Even if White House staff had briefed POTUS on Turnbull and Australia-USA relations I don't think he would have taken much notice. But if he had been properly briefed and had he taken notice he could have put our PM in his place by asking him how did Australia allow this situation to develop. Why had his party scuppered the Malaysian solution? Why was Australia not accepting NZ's offer to take 100/200 refugees? Trump wanted only adulation. Turnbull wanted only his unmentionable quid pro quo deal to be kept alive, if not in fact, at least in a process that could very well lead to no refugees being settled in USA. The sad fact is that in this 24/7 Twittersphere burning issues only remain incandescent as long as more fuel is poured into them.

Uncle Pat | 11 August 2017  

I would question the notion of "moral order" that is invoked here. This version translates into: someone is "out of order," therefore someone must be punished. A better alternative is: these persons ought to change.

Brian Johnstone | 11 August 2017  

A wonderful example of the power of Scripture properly interpreted. Thank you, Andrew.

Joan Seymour | 11 August 2017  

Roy, you are falling into the same moral chicanery being played out in the archetypal biblical story AND the Trump/Turnbull sideshow - the denial and bargaining of moral values. Obama was acting morally by signing a deal lived up to the obligations under the UN refugee conventions most nations agree to follow. The basic moral principle underpinning that is simply that refugee have a right to seek asylum. It's as simply as that. Don't claim to be following a moral or Christian value if you don't hold that view!

AURELIUS | 13 August 2017  

Let me point out that many in Australia are no better. They are making the ludicrous claim that if we keep turning away refugees we can help those on Nauru and Manus.

Marilyn | 13 August 2017  

Aurelius: “Obama was acting morally by signing a deal lived up to the obligations under the UN refugee conventions most nations agree to follow. The basic moral principle underpinning that is simply that refugee have a right to seek asylum.” Both Obama and Turnbull are doing the same thing, taking unauthorised arrivals with one hand but expelling with the other. You criticise one, you criticise both. On the other hand, if it is moral for an unauthorised arrival to be shunted off to a country that is equally as good as the original intended destination, then there should be as little a problem with boat people being reassigned to the fifty states as there is with Central American jungle trekkers to the fifty first.

Roy Chen Yee | 18 August 2017  

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