Alexander Downer is a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former Australian Foreign Minister.
The UK’s departure from the European Union gives Ministers a huge opportunity to put freedom at the heart of this Government’s agenda. Freedom from Brussels’ bureaucratic meddling. Freedom to deviate from overbearing European laws. Freedom to strike trade deals around the world.
But what use is freedom as a word unless the Government puts it into practice? We are now beginning to see the opportunities that freedom can present in real terms.
Liz Truss, flanked by her rough and tough negotiators at the Department for International Trade, has worked tirelessly to battle for a gold-standard deal with Australia. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that reflects the export potential of British SMEs and services. An FTA that tears down the archaic barriers and restrictive tariffs that limit trade between two of the world’s closest allies.
Brexit was fought and won so that Liz and Boris Johnson could prove to British businesses and consumers that they can export their quality goods and services and import vibrant new products without the cumbersome interference of Brussels. If Britain cannot do a trade deal with Australia, a country with whom it shares a common language, history, and standards – then who can it do a deal with?
Total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and Australia was £13.9 billion in 2020. Britain is the second-largest source of total foreign investment in Australia, and the eighth largest two-way trading partner. The Government estimates a good deal could further benefit the UK to the tune of £500 million.
Does it want to have delivered Brexit only to allow unsubstantiated protectionist tendencies to limit that mutual growth further?
In recent days, a lot has been made of the potential for a UK-Australia FTA to do irreparable damage to British farmers. These claims are misguided. For example, Australia’s beef exports to the UK peaked back in 1955, accounting for 65 per cent of total exports. This trade was decimated when the UK joined the EU in 1973 – and today, exports to the UK make up a minute 0.15 per cent of Australia’s total. Despite this, as a result of trade diversification, the market has restructured and today Australian red meat products can be found in over 100 different markets, from the US to Japan, Indonesia to the UAE.
2021 is a vitally important year – and not just because Australia will welcome England down under for the Ashes tour. Johnson hosts the G7 summit in June and will welcome some of the world’s most influential political leaders to Carbis Bay, Cornwall. In November, the Prime Minister hosts the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
These two events mark critical moments for Britain to take its proud, independent place on the world stage again. The best way of proving those credentials? Britain must walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to “Global Britain” and free trade.
A good deal with Australia stands to benefit Aussie farmers just as much as Scottish whisky distillers; trade goes two ways. If “Global Britain” is to become a reality and not just a slogan, the Department for International Trade must be given the freedom and power to negotiate and then sign trade deals with great allies like Australia.
Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison have the chance to toast a comprehensive, trade liberalising FTA over a delicious Aussie beef steak and glass of English sparkling wine at the G7 summit in June. That would give Britain a huge boost in its aspirations to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the vast Asia-Pacific trading club that opens the trading doors to new corners of the globe.
I agreed entirely in 2016 with George Eustice, then the Farming Minister, when he backed Leave and urged proud British farmers to do the same. Let us now get on and get the deal done. Australia and Britain are two great friends. Now is the time to sign a Free Trade Agreement that allows our partnership to flourish further.