Alexander Downer: The Australian diplomat longing for a post-Brexit trade deal
Trade relations with Australia have ebbed and flowed – now high commissioner Alexander Downer believes the time is ripe for a new agreement. He talks to Conservative MP Graham Brady
"It’s the most enjoyable job I’ve ever done!” While Alexander Downer has held more senior positions than that of Australia’s high commissioner to the UK – when he was foreign minister, Australia’s diplomats reported to him – he is evidently enjoying himself immensely.
Not only is Downer an Anglophile – married to Nicky, a Derbyshire woman who helps keep him in touch with non-metropolitan Britain – he is also gripped by the rollercoaster that is British politics. Sent to London in 2014, he has seen a Scottish referendum, a general election and the vote to leave the European Union. The first two, he called right. While he is coming to the end of the usual three-year posting, it seems that Canberra is in no hurry to bring back such a canny and experienced observer of British politics.
A career diplomat turned politician, now back in an ambassadorial role, he crosses seamlessly from gamekeeper to poacher to gamekeeper. He is, though, very much a politician’s diplomat. After a spell as a speechwriter to Malcolm Fraser, he stood for election successfully as the Liberal party candidate for the seat of Mayo in the Adelaide Hills. A total of 24 years and nine elections saw him doing stints shadowing the Treasury and Foreign Affairs. He had a brief spell as leader of the opposition in 1994-95, when he was succeeded by his good friend John Howard. He was Australian foreign minister throughout the period of the Howard government until December 2007.
Experience and a safe pair of hands saw him move on to look after the Cyprus peace talks for Ban Ki-moon until the Liberal election victory in 2013 was followed by his current posting. He may not have left a reunited Cyprus, but clearly contributed to growing optimism that with “good will on both sides – Cypriots want an agreement”.
Having called the EU referendum wrong, Downer was quick to see the opportunities. He delights in recounting his telephone conversation on 24 June. “You were wrong about that - what should we do now?” asked Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister. Downer’s response was clear: “As soon as they have a new PM, call to congratulate and say that we want a free trade agreement with Britain.” His belief is that not only will this bring commercial openings, it will also help to bind the UK and Australia closer together once again.
The high commissioner is quick to list the existing ties between our countries: more Brits live in Australia than live in the EU27; it has the largest expatriate British population in the world (the US is in second place); the UK is the second biggest investor in Australia, and British investors own more land down under than there is land in the United Kingdom.
And yet... only 1.5% of UK trade is currently with Australia. Unsurprising, he says, after decades of focusing on the European market while protectionism and the common agricultural policy limited opportunities for trade with traditional markets. An FTA with Britain would be beneficial to both countries, not just through closer economic links but also in rebuilding and strengthening the relationship between us.
I ask whether we should worry that an FTA might take seven years to agree. Diplomat Downer is careful to stress the care that is being taken not to break existing EU rules that prohibit the UK from negotiating trade deals outside the EU, but politician Downer can barely contain his enthusiasm.
Some 11 years ago, he says, Australia was able to negotiate an FTA with the US in 15 months; since when trade with the US has grown by 70%. It all depends on political will and the willingness of both sides to trade freely. Australia is an “open door”, happy to import British cars without tariffs and keen to see the prohibitive tariff rates that the EU applies to beef and lamb eased. If everyone accepts that trade is in itself a good thing, progress can be swift. A working group has already been set up to explore the parameters, mutual recognition of standards, how to treat services, and whether visas should be included. A paper setting out the key issues has already been sent to the Department for International Trade.
Turning from the specific to the general, the high commissioner hopes that a global Britain leaving the EU will be a catalyst for reinvigorating the Commonwealth, building on a strong foundation as a “much loved” institution that champions shared values while bringing together nations with mutual ground, from the common law to a wide use of the English language.
Good stuff is already underway, guided by Lord Marland’s Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, working towards an agenda of trade liberalisation, aid for trade and helping to build stronger economies. For Downer, Australia’s strong links with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and extensive trade with China are not an argument for exclusivity. The Five Eyes security arrangements grew out of the Second World War and the Anzus treaty bound Australian defence to the US as far back as 1951. More recently, Aussies have been an important part of allied operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a champion of free trade and liberal democracy, Australia is able to play an important role in global and regional organisations; sharing the UK’s commitment to a rules-based international system whether that is applied to Ukraine, North Korea or the South China Sea.
Referring to the 1999 referendum in which Australians decided by 55% to 45% to retain the monarchy, I tried optimistically to draw my guest on ‘neverendums’. The best I could elicit was that, “Australians don’t want their country in a state of constant constitutional flux”. He was far happier to boast of Australia’s proud achievements in advancing political rights for women: South Australia (1894) having followed New Zealand (1893) in giving votes to women; followed by rights to vote and stand in federal elections in 1902. All a long way from stereotypes of unreconstructed blokes, beer and barbies.
Alexander Downer concludes our conversation with the wry thought that his father (also a politician and a diplomat) was high commissioner to the United Kingdom when Britain joined the EEC in 1973 and he anticipates holding that post when we leave the EU. Momentous events for Britain book-ended by two generations of Downers.
I have the impression that the chance to build a closer relationship between our countries will bring more pleasure to this generation than the abrupt separation did to the last.
Graham Brady is Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West and Associate Editor of The House magazine