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Turnbull the diplomat emerging during five-nation tour

Turnbull the diplomat emerging during five-nation tour
Published 16 Nov 2015 

A free trade agreement between Australia and the European Union, closer business links between Germany and Australia,  the global refugee crisis and, of course, Syria; last week's meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull covered a lot of ground.

It also saw Mr Turnbull put some careful distance between himself and his predecessor Tony Abbott.

Sandwiched between a meeting in Jakarta with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the G20 in Turkey, the leaders meeting in Berlin provided some further insight into how Mr Turnbull intends to present himself and his country's interests on the international stage. More is to come this week with APEC in the Phillipines and the East Asia Summit in Malaysia.

Certainly the meeting in Berlin provided an interesting counterpoint between the old and the new. After Australia's rapid turnover of leaders, it's fair to say Australia's politics and politicians have featured more frequently and in more detail than usual in German media this year.  In its coverage of the the party coup that unseated Mr Abbott as leader, for example, the popular German newspaper, Der Spiegel, went so far as to note various designations, including the title of the 'Mad Monk'.  

Angela Merkel, in contrast, has been one of Europe’s stalwarts, a force of sane stability only now coming under attack for her open stance to refugees.   Within her own party, there are murmurings of dissent.  (As news of the Paris attacks broke in Berlin a few hours after the leaders met, these murmurs became louder on suggestions one of the attackers may have had a Syrian passport).

In the lead up to Berlin, there was speculation on how Mr Turnbull would position Australia's aggressive policies aimed at stemming refugee flows. Would he, as Tony Abbott did last month,  seek to warn Germany and Europe at large on the dangers of 'misguided altruism'? [fold]

Australia's model, which has come under legal challenge,  has been eyed by various countries, some landlocked and bound by regional treaties on human movement. Since the 1990s, respective Australian governments have suggested the need for reforming the UN Refugee Convention.   In the absence of consensus, unilateral measures to restrict irregular arrivals have become increasingly drastic.  Hungary’s Orbán government has decided to seal its borders with razor wire.  Austria is considering similar measures along its borders with Slovenia.  

As it turned  out, however, Mr Turnbull had no 'intention of giving advice on these matters to the German chancellor'.  Rather, he  made the point that '... each country faces very different circumstances, not the least of which are geographical'.   Ms Merkel did concede that the presence of smugglers and traffickers in what had become a refugee industry was 'unacceptable' and that the European Union had to 'protect its borders'.  The sea lanes between Greece and Turkey came in for special mention.

Discussions also ranged over the issue of the Syrian conflict, in which both leaders suggested that bombs did less than talks. (As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan suggested on a visit to Canberra in 1958, 'Jaw, jaw is better than war, war'.)  In this, Turnbull’s approach is certainly divergent from the more hawkish Abbott, who has been at the forefront of those wanting an expanded campaign against the Islamic State, including ground personnel. Turnbull, in contrast, has suggested 'the solution will ultimately be a political one'.  

Talks also covered Australia’s submarine evaluation process, in which Germany figures with France and Japan.  Naturally, the German chancellor pitched for the qualities of German industry, suggesting ThyssenKrupp’s strengths essentially spoke for itself. 

Mr Turnbull similarly edged in a few remarks about Australian prowess, praising Ms Merkel’s visit to Data61 while in Sydney last year,  describing it as a 'powerful and influential statement'.  Data61's funding, stripped back by the Abbott government, has been partially reinstated since the change in PM.

The leaders meeting also saw the release of recommendations by the Australia-Germany Advisory Group, established by Mr Abbott and Ms Merkel during the chancellor's visit to Australia a year ago for the G20 summit.  The laundry list includes closer cooperation in a range of areas; trade and investment, science, national and strategic security, the arts, education, culture, energy and politics.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned, not least from Germany's skills in commercialising innovation, particularly since  green technologies are likely to be treated in a friendlier fashion by the Turbull government.  Berlin and Canberra are distinctly ad idem on this. 

Indeed overall there is much to be gained from forging closer links between Australia and Germany, Europe’s economic and industrial fulcrum, and moving  Australia beyond its current, albeit lucrative, gold coin exports to Berlin.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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