Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer has accused the US of perpetrating a “diplomatic insult” to Australia by failing to appoint an ambassador in Canberra for nearly 18 months, underlining a tension he believes will worsen after this week’s revelations about Alexander Downer.
The US has not replaced its former ambassador to Australia, John Berry, since he left the post in September 2016. It is one of many senior international roles the Trump Administration has failed to fill, but the vacancy is considered unbefitting of a close friend and ally.
Alexander Downer linked to Russia probe
Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that Russia had political dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“This is now bordering on a diplomatic insult,” Mr Fischer told Fairfax Media on Tuesday. “We’ve been downgraded, despite all the nice noises. We are a low priority.”
Mr Fischer, who served as Australian ambassador to the Holy See for four years, was a trade minister in the Howard government and deals regularly with diplomats in his role as vice-chair of the international Crop Trust.
He blamed President Trump’s vehement dislike of the refugee resettlement deal – negotiated between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama – for the US’s failure to appoint a new ambassador. And he said the outing of Mr Downer’s key role in sparking an FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia would “no doubt” sour our relationship with the White House further.
Mr Downer was told over drinks with Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in May 2016 that Russia had “dirt” on Mr Trump’s political rival Hillary Clinton. He later relayed this information to Canberra by cable, and it is understood the intelligence was then shared with the Americans under the stewardship of Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Joe Hockey.
“It’s very optimistic to think there will be no onward impact with the Trump Administration,” Mr Fischer said. “The acid test will be how long we have to wait for a US ambassador to Canberra.”
He said it was no fault of Mr Turnbull or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who had “worked miracles” in the circumstances.
It has been speculated the US will appoint Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, as its next ambassador to Australia, but no confirmation has been forthcoming. The matter has been complicated by an extension of the Admiral’s current posting in Hawaii. Deputy chief of mission James Carouso has acted as ambassador since September 2016.
Mr Fischer’s view was opposed by the head of the United States Studies Centre, Simon Jackman. While he acknowledged “it has been a while”, he said the delay showed Washington was taking the appointment “extremely seriously”.
“I think they’re looking for an appointment that will be the right person for the US-Australia relationship given the intensity around the China debate here in Australia, and the way the temperature might be ramping up on North Korea,” Professor Jackman said.
He also argued the revelations about Mr Downer reflected poorly on American officials, not Australia’s.
“We did not leak. This came out of the US,” he said. “That’s a tremendous demonstration to the US – and the rest of the world – that Australia is a very safe pair of hands with sensitive matters.”
Retired diplomat Bruce Haigh said the diplomatic relationship “will go on” irrespective of whether a new ambassador is appointed. The delay could be a good thing because “it’s much easier to deal with a professional American diplomat [Mr Carouso] than with a political appointee”.
But Mr Fischer said despite suggestions to the contrary, the lack of a permanent ambassador was a real handicap. “It does make a difference, I can tell you,” he said. “Ambassadors do count.”
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek maintained Labor would not comment on the revelations about Mr Downer while there was an ongoing investigation in the US.
But she accused the Turnbull government of mishandling Australia’s relationships with several key partners including the US, New Zealand and China.
“We’ve got a government which hasn’t handled the relationship with the US particularly well,” Ms Plibersek said. “They don’t seem to be particularly good at tending to some of our most important trading and diplomatic relationships.”