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PM faces the Trump test

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 2/02/2017 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

Bill English © Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images Bill English Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Malcolm Turnbull's phone conversation with Donald Trump was a diplomatic train wreck, and soon it will be Bill English's turn to deal with the erratic and unpredictable US president.

The Australian prime minister was in a no-win situation as he tried to counter reports from Washington that the phone call had been a disaster and Trump had hung up on him.

The leaks apparently came from the White House after the State Department had released the usual bland statement that a cordial conversation had taken place.

This was in no way Turnbull's fault and he couldn't have foreseen such damaging developments.

It's now apparent that Trump didn't know what Turnbull was talking about when he sought an assurance that the US would honour an agreement to take refugees currently held on Manus Island and Nauru in return for Australia accepting refugees from Central America.

According to the leaks, Trump blew his top and accused Australia of "trying to export the next Boston bombers".

It was "the worst deal ever" and his conversation with Turnbull was "the worst call by far" of five he had held with foreign leaders that day.

Since then there have been attempts to take the heat out of the phone call fiasco, with confirmation that the refugee deal will be honoured but the refugees will have to undergo "very, very intense" screening.

That could take years and it won't be a surprise if none of them get through.

English will benefit from Turnbull's unpleasant experience.

For a start he will want to make sure, as best he can, that the points he raises with Trump involve issues the US president actually knows something about.

English has avoided talking about what he intends discussing with Trump but he's been stressing the importance New Zealand places on a strong US presence in the Asia-Pacific.

He has emphasised New Zealand's reliance on open international trade and expressed the government's disappointment at Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Raising the TPP itself would be futile and could be dangerous. It was Trump's "worst deal ever" before the Australian refugee issue gained that distinction.

English has already had a taste of the problems Trump can cause for government leaders in other countries.

The 90-day entry ban on people holding dual citizenship with seven predominantly Muslim countries demanded a response and it was another no-win situation.

Denounce the policy and risk alienating the leader of the world's biggest superpower, go soft on it and be accused by political opponents of shameful weakness.

English, despite what he says, went soft on it.

Describing it as "not the New Zealand way" and "not something we would do here" isn't condemnation, although he claimed that's what his comments amounted to.

English was hammered by opposition parties and the media.

He was trying to have his diplomatic cake and eat it, which didn't work.

"If he wants to avoid seeming trapped by indecision, or cowed by fear of a great patron, he should speak more forcefully when faced with a moral outrage," the Dominion Post said in an editorial.

Then there was the five-day delay in finding out whether the entry ban affected New Zealanders who held dual citizenship with the any of the seven countries.

Britain, Australia and Canada were reported to have been told their nationals were exempt well before New Zealand was given the same assurance.

Those three countries are part of the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering network that includes New Zealand and the US.

Questions were raised about why, despite this close relationship, the US either didn't seem to care about New Zealand or had overlooked it.

English was accused of incompetence while Foreign Minister Murray McCully, under pressure, said the Washington embassy was "working urgently" on the issue.

After English was at last able to say New Zealanders were exempt, McCully distanced the prime minister by blaming his own department.

"I don't think they have met the standards the prime minister and my colleagues would have expected... we haven't done ourselves any favours in the last couple of days," McCully admitted.

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