British farmers hold a “bizarre” and outdated stance on free trade, and the UK agriculture sector has nothing to fear from the deal with Australia, Canberra’s outgoing high commissioner has insisted.
George Brandis, who has served as Australia’s envoy to the UK since May 2018, said the new agreement was “not a bad deal for Britain”, adding that he was “aghast” at the “culture of fear of global trade” among farmers.
In an interview with the Financial Times to mark the end of his posting, Brandis said farmers should be more open to the benefits of trade and international competition, following the UK’s departure from the EU Common Agriculture Policy.
Despite concerns from the agricultural sector that the bilateral pact will negatively affect farmers, Brandis said farmers had struggled to “confront the cultural change” prompted by Brexit.
“One thing that really astonished me when I went to my first National Farmers’ Union conference, it was as if the Corn Laws hadn’t been repealed. I felt like the ghost of Robert Peel was walking through,” he said, in a reference to the mid-19th-century Conservative prime minister who advocated free trade and the repeal of protectionist measures.
“These people actually thought that keeping the price of food more expensive than it would be was a good idea and it was because I think so many British farmers have been acculturated to the EU system of agricultural subsidies and highly regulated trade.”
Brandis referenced another NFU conference where one farmer insisted the “greatest threat to our business is trade”. “What he meant, of course, was international trade and competition,” Brandis said. “There is this fear of competition but reluctance to be enterprising on the global markets.”
In response, Minette Batters, NFU president, said: “Economic conditions at the time of the Corn Laws could hardly be less relevant to British farming today”, and added that free trade meant Britons enjoyed cheap food.
Batters said: “The government’s own assessment of the Australian deal shows beef and sheep farmers, among others, will be negatively impacted to the tune of around £150mn. The high commissioner surely knows this only exacerbates the precarious trading conditions currently faced by UK farm businesses.”
The high commissioner said the most significant aspect of the UK-Australia trade deal, which was signed last year but has yet to be ratified, was the relaxation of visa requirements, particularly youth mobility visas. “The flow of people, particularly young and talented people, at a time when there is a global talent shortage is going to be a very significant outcome of this free trade agreement.”
The 64-year-old former attorney-general, who served as a senator for 18 years, said that in his experience UK politics had “more bureaucratic inertia” than Australia’s.
He added that the “centuries old” culture in Whitehall resulted in “immense” bureaucratic power that “sits beside political power and can slow things down and stop them happening”.
Brandis cited the decision by Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary of the Home Office, to issue a so-called “ministerial direction” over the government’s policy to process asylum seekers in Rwanda as an example of how officials could “materially affect the outcome of a ministerial cabinet level decision”.
Many of the UK government’s policy initiatives have been influenced by those in Australia, such as offshore processing for asylum seekers, the points-based migration system and a tougher stance on China.
Brandis cited the “greater nimbleness” of his country’s political system for the inspiration. “Australia has addressed a number of issues at an earlier point in time than the United Kingdom addressed them, and addressed them more swiftly.”
But Brandis also said that Australia’s political debate was “much more about the future” compared with the UK. “Australians think a lot less about our history than I’ve noticed people do in the United Kingdom,” he noted. “The great thing about that is it gives you perspective but sometimes it can also be limiting.”
During his four years in London, the high commissioner has also helped finalise the trilateral Aukus defence pact between Australia, the UK and the US.
“Aukus brings the United Kingdom and Australia together in a close partnership for the development of strategic capability that hasn’t existed before,” he said.
“The free trade agreement is primarily about economic integration, the Aukus deal is about strategic capability, and up to a point integration — the bringing together of both the trading and strategic aspects of the relationship.”
Brandis acknowledged that Australia’s decision to abandon a defence deal with France was “always going to be difficult”, but said: “Our long term strategic and national security interest required a change of weapons systems.”