Donald Trump has no better friend than Australia

He provides cover for Australian politicians – of all stripes – to dog-whistle on protectionism, to grand-stand on border protection, and even, in the case of Fred Nile, to grasp at relevance after years of political obscurity.

But while Australian politicians try to ape him, Trump seems indifferent to our interests.

The US State Department sent us a “Happy Australia Day” message saying “the US has no better friend than Australia”, but the reverse doesn’t seem to be true. He has rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership and he looks set to reject the refugee-swap deal negotiated with his predecessor.

Treasurer Scott Morrison didn’t hesitate to filch the jingoism of Trump’s inauguration speech, in which the Short-Fingered One declared “America First will be the major and over-riding theme of my administration”.

The slogan has troublesome connotations – America First was the name of an anti-Semitic isolationist pressure group founded in 1940, which lobbied to keep the US out of World War II. One of its chapter leaders famously branded Winston Churchill “half Jew”. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

But such historical unpleasantness didn’t bother Trump, and nor did it trouble Morrison, who declared on Wednesday his government would pursue an “Australia first” economic agenda.

To be fair to the Treasurer, he used the phrase when explaining that Australia would continue to pursue open trade, the opposite of the protectionism espoused by Trump.

So why did Morrison feel the need to mimic this nationalistic Trumpian phrase? Because the government is fully aware of its vulnerability to charges from Labor that our liberalised, de-regulated, globalised economy has left the little guy behind.

That little guy, Labor intimates, is not served by the Trans-Pacific Partnership the government is pushing, despite Trump’s rejection of it. That little guy will, soon enough, be voting in the West Australian and Queensland elections, and both parties need to lure him away from the false promises of One Nation. Even if it means making some false promises of their own.

Which brings us neatly to Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Unlike Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he has the luxury of being able to openly criticise Trump the man. Shorten has had the moral gumption to condemn Trump for his misogyny, calling him “unsuitable to be the leader of the free world”, and “barking mad” and his comments “disgusting”. Turnbull cannot go that far, although one suspects he wouldn’t sit any woman he loves next to Trump at a state dinner (who would?).

But Shorten has to be far more cautious when it comes to Trumpian jobs policy. The Labor party has a strong and proud history of protectionism. Parts of the labour movement have routinely failed their members by clinging on to the fiction that subsidising dying industries will stave off the forces of globalisation. This fiction is precisely what propelled Trump to the White House.

Trump’s rhetoric about re-creating “real” jobs – by which he means male jobs, jobs making stuff you “can drop on your foot”, in the words of economist Saul Eslake – provides the perfect environment for Shorten to champion the working rights of the blue-collar man who has traditionally voted Labor, but whose eye has lately been wandering.