When Scott Morrison finally got around to denouncing Donald Trump on Monday, it was phrased in the passive voice. It was “very disappointing that things were allowed to get to that to that stage”, the prime minister told 2GB radio.
“The things that were said that encouraged others to come to the Capitol and engage in that way were incredibly disappointing,” he added.
In the context of the questioner asking about Trump, the target of the censure was clear but the tone was tepid.
There was even a bit of praise for the Trump administration’s earlier achievements contained in the indirect condemnation, when he said the last couple of months “really detracted from other things … they were able to achieve over the last four years”.
It had taken the prime minister a while.
In November, Morrison congratulated Joe Biden on the win but otherwise held fire for two months on Trump’s baseless claims of fraud in the US election; and in January took two weeks to criticise Trump’s incitement of the Capitol insurrection.
Now the United States has a new president, Australia’s prime minister has finally found it convenient to reframe and revise his relationship with the old.
Scott Morrison once praised Trump’s political priorities, stating that the pair “share a lot of the same views”. As recently as December, Morrison accepted the US’s highest military honour from the 45th president.
But this week, on a tour of Queensland after a short break, Morrison downplayed suggestions the pair are friends by observing he didn’t know Trump until he became prime minister.
Morrison told reporters in Quilpie 40 hours before Biden’s inauguration that he had “no plans” to speak to Trump before he left office. Two days of radio silence was hardly putting him in the deep freeze.
On Wednesday, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, charged in a major speech to the Perth US-Asia Centre that Morrison had botched the US relationship by “pandering” to Trump.
Albanese’s case centred on Morrison’s trip to the US in 2019, when he shared a campaign rally stage with Trump in Ohio and opted not to meet with any senior Democrats over a week-long visit.
The Labor leader also noted the appeal to Trump fans in Morrison’s warning against “negative globalism” in October 2019 and that the Australian prime minister had “burned capital with a poorly managed call for an inquiry” into the coronavirus.
Morrison responded that this was a “disappointing” personal attack and all he had done was the Australian prime minister’s job of engaging with our most important ally.
The defence didn’t really address the central point that it was not the aim of the close ties that was at fault but how he’d gone about it.
A presidency as erratic as Trump’s always called for ties that were less personal and more institutional.
Morrison was prepared to use personal touches like the campaign rally appearance to tacitly endorse Trump, but when the time came to disendorse him in the final disastrous months, Morrison said his professional role as a leader not a commentator required him to stay out of it.
Whatever Morrison says about his relationship now, he has behaved like a true friend to Trump
By contrast, other world leaders were swift and direct with their condemnation when Trump’s supporters answered his call to “fight like hell” to hold on to the White House on 6 January.
The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, “unreservedly condemned” encouragement of the events at the Capitol, adding that “in so far as [Trump] encouraged people to storm the Capitol and … has consistently cast doubt on the free and fair election”, what Trump had said was “completely wrong”.
Germany’s Angela Merkel said Trump had “prepared the atmosphere in which such violent events are possible” by refusing to concede.
Morrison’s first attempt blamed only the rioters for “terribly distressing” acts of violence while refusing to say if Trump bore any responsibility. Morrison left Michael McCormack in charge for a week and the acting prime minister managed that Trump’s role was “unfortunate”.
Of course, Morrison having to develop a personal relationship with Biden to replace the affinity with Trump is only the first piece of the puzzle.
There are also differences of policy to confront.
Biden’s election leaves Australia increasingly isolated on climate change due to its refusal to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
In Morrison’s account of his first call with Biden, and again in Gladstone this week, he argued that he and the new president are “talking off the same sheet” when it comes to the role of gas and carbon capture and storage.
Well, sure, finding common ground is always nice but it’s not enough to paper over the yawning gaps in the US and Australia’s level of ambition on emissions reduction.
Morrison has begun this shift by signalling Australia may not use Kyoto carryover credits and changed his language by saying Australia wants to “reach net zero emissions as quickly as possible”. Next must come the action to back up the language.
And however warm Morrison’s first call was with Biden in November, surely Australia would be better off if the prime minister weren’t starting at square one and had met more senior Democrats in 2019?
Even if he left it late, there was still more space and time to recognise that Trump’s refusal to accept the election result was a decisive break.
In an alliance based on values including democracy and the rule of law, that was the point Morrison could easily have said his opposite number had gone too far.
Perhaps the easiest explanation for why Morrison didn’t do more or start sooner to create distance from Trump is that it would have strained credibility.
The gentleness of this week’s effort is more proof of Morrison’s affinity with the former president.
Morrison condemned “terrible things” going on and the “terrible time” the US is having but he did not feign outrage he didn’t feel by naming Trump the terrible.
Whatever Morrison says about his relationship now, he has behaved like a true friend to Trump as a man, not just as the leader of Australia’s ally.