Guest Notes

Trade notes

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

Boris picks a real Tory

In his two years as prime minister, Tony Abbott achieved more to help Australia’s exporters than any other leader in our history – and more than all Labor’s prime ministers put together. These are not facts the media cared to highlight reacting to the news that Boris Johnson’s government is to appoint Abbott as joint president of the UK’s Board of Trade. In fact much of the commentary was notable for the absence of any references at all to Abbott’s record on trade.

Depressingly, the media reaction provided another case-study of the triumph of identity politics. Amid the avalanche of tired abuse, the Abbott-haters’ favorite response was to recycle the video of Julia Gillard’s ‘I will not take lectures on misogyny from this man’ comments. Until the appearance of Jacinda Ardern, Gillard was of course the Left’s favourite woman leader in the Anglo-world. So, whatever the evidence to the contrary – not least the fact that Gillard’s attack on Abbott was in defence of her government’s misogynist speaker – if she said Abbott was a misogynist, he must be.

None of the Gillard fans attacking Abbott thought to compare the two prime ministers’ performances helping Australia’s exporters. That’s understandable. Abbott finalised free trade agreements with our top three markets, China, Japan and Korea, now accounting for over 50 per cent of exports. The Howard government had initiated all three, but they languished over the five Rudd-Gillard years with Labor pre-occupied with infighting and Rudd’s vanity project of a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. Gillard, who was prime minister for a year longer than Abbott, finalised just one trade deal (Malaysia).


The British Labour party’s shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry joined the Abbott-haters with a statement revealing a failure of basic research. In addition to her absurd claim, given Abbott’s record, that he has no experience negotiating trade agreements, she alleged he has ‘no concept of the importance of Britain’s trade with the EU’ – presumably a reference to Abbott’s argument that a no-deal relationship with the EU has not stopped Australia doing about A$110  billion worth of annual trade with it. Some easy Googling would have revealed to Thornberry that Abbott of course wants continued tariff-free and quota-free trade between Britain and the EU. Moreover, it was Abbott who initiated work on a free trade deal between Australia and the EU to allow trade to grow even more. He’ll of course support the same objective for Britain, as long as the price demanded by the EU isn’t onerous or compromises UK sovereignty.

Aside from Abbott’s record of achieving big trade deals quickly, his passionate enthusiasm for Britain as well as Australia suits him well for the role. A dual Australian-UK citizen until he relinquished his British citizenship on entering parliament in 1993, he’s more bullish about Britain than most Britons. That includes its time-tested institutions: few facts about Australia impress the British more than learning that Australians are the Queen’s only subjects who’ve voted for her continuing reign – an outcome to a great extent attributable to Abbott’s defence of the constitutional status quo ahead of the 1999 referendum. Abbott’s lukewarm assistance to David Cameron ahead of the 2016 EU referendum in setting out a case for Remain doesn’t change the fact that he’s always been very pro-Brexit, wanting Britain to regain its sovereignty and what he sees as its rightful standing in the world. Just as he was determined to prove wrong those who said the boats couldn’t be stopped, he’ll want to prove the Remainers wrong by making Brexit a great success.

This isn’t the first time Britain’s Conservatives have appointed colonials to senior positions. Crawford Falconer, New Zealand’s former chief trade negotiatior, is now the UK’s chief trade negotiatior. And Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, morphed into governor of the Bank of England.  But Tony Abbott is in a different league, not only as a former prime minister, but as a Left hate-figure – for his climate change scepticism, tough approach on borders, pro-life views and previous opposition to the legalisation of gay marriage. Boris Johnson’s recruitment of him is his first decision for a while which suggests he still sees himself as a conservative and provides grounds for hoping he hasn’t flopped irredeemably into the woke wetness of his Tory predecessors. Aside from Johnson’s apparent determination to achieve a genuine Brexit which hands back complete sovereignty to Britain from 1 January, his prime ministership has been a sorry tale of capitulating to illegal immigration, BLM anarchy and rampant Leftism in publicly-funded institutions. Depressingly, the BBC’s new director-general, appointed on Johnson’s watch, seems just as right-on as his predecessors. He was involved in the broadcaster’s appalling decision to vandalise Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory by performing them at the last night of this year’s Proms without their lyrics. Abbott as a Whitehall insider could encourage the political winds to blow in a more recognisably conservative direction.

Should a former Australian prime minister be assisting an overseas power achieve trade agreements? Not long after the Brexit referendum, Britain set out to recruit trade negotiators from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. As was remarked in Canberra corridors at the time, how better to ensure the swift and satisfactory completion of an Australia-UK free trade deal than negotiations between Australians on both sides of the table.

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Mark Higgie was Tony Abbott’s international advisor 2010-2014

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