Katy Balls

‘Whitehall was horrified by Brexit’: an interview with Australia’s departing high commissioner

‘Whitehall was horrified by Brexit’: an interview with Australia’s departing high commissioner
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When Britain voted for Brexit, Tony Abbott, the former prime minister of Australia, had an idea. How about striking a new free trade deal between Australia and the UK to celebrate escaping the statism and bureaucracy of Brussels? The deal needed to be only one page long, he argued, because the two countries were already so similar. ‘If a car is fit to be sold in Britain, it’s fit to be sold in Australia,’ he said. ‘If a doctor is fit to practise in Australia, he or she is fit to practise in the UK.’

In the end, things proved more complicated. An agreement was eventually signed last December, but it ran to 430 pages. Free trade was to be phased in very slowly – over 15 years in all – on the grounds that British farmers needed time to adjust. George Brandis, Australia’s high commissioner in London, was key to getting the deal over the line. When we meet at Australia House for his last interview before leaving office, the scrap of paper on which Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison sketched out final figures for sheep and cow quotas over dinner is framed on the wall.

The trade deal was a battle, says Brandis, in ways he did not expect. ‘One of the very surprising things to me coming from Australia – where the protectionist argument was thwarted decades ago – was [to see] that the default position of Whitehall is protectionism. The default position in Whitehall was horror at Brexit. It was kind of like a cringe or a crouch, recoiling and willing it not to happen. Or being in denial that it was happening. The Whitehall establishment wanted to maintain this whole culture of protectionism and that set Whitehall completely at variance from the government’s priority.’

He formed an alliance with Liz Truss, then international trade secretary. ‘She had been granted a new department so had a cleaner slate than most ministers,’ he says. ‘The political will was there to drive and cut through the bureaucratic and institutional inertia and reluctance. It was more than inertia, it was reluctance bordering on hostility in some departments – most notably Defra [the UK agriculture department]. So there were really three sides to the trade negotiation: a large element of the Whitehall establishment, the Australian side, and then Liz Truss and those close to her. We were, in a sense, both fighting Whitehall.’

But could the deal have been a bit more ambitious? ‘The criticism that we could have gone further is academic,’ he says. ‘In a practical sense, there will be plenty of headroom for as much beef and sheep that Australian farmers can put into this market from the start.’ And Britain can learn from Australia, he says, ‘to break out of this mindset that has been inculcated by two generations now of soporific, EU-influenced agricultural policy’ and instead ‘go out and find new markets’. Australia was forced to do just that when Britain joined the European Community in the 1970s, he says. ‘Our farmers went out and found new markets, built new markets and were very successful.’

In the four years Brandis has been in post, Anglo-Australian relations have been strong. One of the most important ties now, he says, is security. The two countries are part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network along with the US, Canada and New Zealand. Brandis thinks that within the Five Eyes the UK-Australia relationship is ‘probably bilaterally the closest and most trusting of all’. In September, the ‘Aukus’ alliance was announced: a trilateral pact with the UK, Australia and America to boost security in the face of Chinese aggression.

In light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there are some who say this ‘Pacific tilt’ is a luxury Britain can’t afford when the focus should be on European security. Brandis disagrees. ‘Nothing is far away these days. Not when the vectors that are deployable by hostile actors include cyber warfare, satellite warfare, hypersonics and quantum computing… Australia no longer sees itself as a relatively small nation far away from the front line of global politics. When Australians think about Ukraine, we also think about lessons that may be learned by the Chinese leadership that may influence their decision- making about Taiwan.’

The Ukraine war has revived talk about ‘the West’, but it’s a term Brandis thinks is outdated. ‘I am always a bit reluctant to embrace this idea of the Anglosphere, because although it has a certain sentimental logic to it, it doesn’t include Japan which is an extremely important partner and is hardly part of the West. I think the idea of the West is a kind of 20th-century notion. The idea of the “democratic world” is a much better way of capturing the fact that liberal democracies exist in the Indo-Pacific as well as in the Euro-Atlantic.’

As for what Brandis will take away from his time representing Australia in London, he talks about the strength and responsiveness of British democracy. ‘Your institutions are extremely resilient; I’ve never seen institutions in a peaceful country tested like they were in 2018 and 2019 [over Brexit],’ he says. ‘What I think is really important is that the narrative of decline has now been arrested… You actually broke that.

‘Britain has all the opportunities. What it has lacked, because of 45 years of being cocooned within the EU, is the enterprising globalising culture to seize those opportunities beyond the Euro--Atlantic and to go into the Indo-Pacific.

‘I know Boris gets flayed sometimes for corny patriotism. But what I think he has done for the British people – particularly for working-class people – is to show them a leader who actually gets the concept of the possibility of British greatness. To change an inherited multi-generational, establishment-reinforced Whitehall-sanctioned culture takes a lot of doing. But that is what Britain is capable of and I think Johnson, for all his faults, has been able to at least kindle that.’

I came into politics for the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll
‘I came into politics for the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.’