HAMISH MCDONALD. Downer leaps into British political fray with gratuitous advice

There was a time, back in the days of childhood, when everything that was modern and power about Britain seemed to begin with a “V”: Vanguard and Vauxhall cars, Vickers Viscount aircraft, the Victor, Vulcan and Valiant bombers…Alexander Downer wants to  build back those days when Brits and Aussies were brothers together.

Maybe it was the afterglow of Churchill’s V for Victory. The world seemed to be returning to its old ways, barring debacles like Suez and the need to call in the IMF. Australia exported wool, frozen lamb and tinned pineapple. We bought some of the above-mentioned items. Kids stood in classrooms on Monday morning while “God Save the Queen” was played via the speaker system. It all folded with the withdrawal from “east of Suez” and Britain’s accession to the European Union.

But wait! With the Brexit referendum, the British are trying to go back. The hands of Tory nostalgists like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, et al have reversed Churchill’s two-finger salute, back to the version he had to be corrected from, according to the recent film The Darkest Hour.

It’s “Up Yours Delors”, to quote the famous headline in Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun. Free of the Brussels bureaucracy and Europe’s moribund economies, Britain will strike out as an economic freebooter into the New World, picking up fabulous deals in the emerging markets and their young demographics.

It’s up to a point, Lord Copper, of course. The 450 million people of the continental hinterland aren’t a bad market; not much is stopping the British exporting strongly to the rest of the world. Then there’s the political-strategic downside: fracturing European unity in the face of revanchist Russia, risking the unity of the United Kingdom, re-igniting the Irish troubles.

Not to worry in Canberra. We’ve been cheering it on. We see a buck in it. The intervention of Australia’s high commissioner in London, Alexander Downer, in this hot issue of British politics has gone strangely unremarked, back here at least.

Downer, who still has some weeks of his tenure until replacement George Brandis presents his credentials at the Court of St.James, has been arguing strongly and in public for weeks in favour of a “hard” Brexit, i.e. not settling for the softer option of remaining in the European Customs Union.

In December , he starred in an amateurish video urging Britain to “get on” with leaving the EU. On February 12, he told the BBC that Australia wanted to “build back” its trade with Britain. “We could build substantially more trade if we were able to negotiate a free trade agreement. If you remain in the customs union… you would have no control over an independent trade policy, in fact you’d have no control over trade policy at all,” he said.

Downer said that he did not want to express a view on which scenario was preferable – perish the thought − the UK staying in the customs union or leaving it – but he did emphasise that countries “like Australia, China, Japan, the US, and so on, would not be able to conduct trade negotiations with the UK” if Britain stayed in the union. “We would only conduct trade negotiations with the EU, which we already do. You wouldn’t be relevant to that – you wouldn’t have a say in those trade negotiations,” he said.

Downer pointed to Australia’s  “unilateral trade liberalisation” as an example to follow. “The fact is that it does lead to some economic restructuring – some redirection of investment,” he admitted. But it also contributes to economic reform, and you need a constant rate of economic reform to achieve high rates of economic growth,” he said. “It’s worked for us with 26 consecutive years of economic growth, partially because we’ve opened our market to the world,” he added.

“We equally are happy to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU and are beginning that process already, but if you stay in the customs union that cuts you out of that process,” Downer added.

On March 28, these diplomatic caveats were abandoned. In a widely publicised speech to the Policy Exchange, a London conservative institute he will lead after finishing at Australia House, Downer said Britain said leaving the EU but staying in the customs union would be a “gross act of folly.”

“Imagine a great country like this having its trade policy determined by bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels without the British government or the British people having any say whatsoever in international trade policy,” he said.

“Imagine free trade agreements being negotiated by the EU without having any say as to the terms of those agreements, yet being subjected to the terms of those agreements.

”Within Britain you may describe yourselves in such circumstances as a rule taker. For us in the outside world, Britain would become at least in economic terms irrelevant to international diplomacy. All our trade negotiating would be done through Brussels and the capital cities of the major EU member states knowing that whatever we negotiated with Brussels would apply to the UK but that the opinion of the UK was irrelevant.’’

The British would be better off remaining within the EU or being completely out of it in every way, Downer said. “Otherwise you leave yourselves in such a position of weakness and irrelevancy. It would be humiliating for a once great country to end up by being little more than a dependency of the European Union. So we very much hope you will not go down that path. If you did, you wouldn’t be negotiating any trade agreement with Australia. But let’s assume you do not commit such a gross act of folly.”

Downer said an FTA with Australia could be negotiated and ready to operate by December 2020, just as Britain’s post-Brexit (March 2019) transition period ends. ”From Australia’s perspective, we would willingly give away any tariff protection and provide improved access to our services market as well as create a better investment environment for British investors,’’ he said.

Perhaps demob-happy, Downer let his feelings show on other issues. He wondered aloud if  “there wasn’t some kind of serious disconnect between the opinions of the mainstream of British society and the elites who dominated the nation’s major institutions — the parliament, the civil service, the BBC, the media, academia and even parts of the professions.’’

The British handled immigration and ethnic relations “grated with many of the British population.” Again, they should follow the Australian example. “First of all, we have a coherent immigration policy under which we decide who comes to our country and circumstances in which they come,’’ he said. “And secondly, we insist that migrants can speak English. For the indigenous British, the lack of integration has been disquieting.”

This is the man speaking or us from Australia House. Has he gone rogue, or is he articulating the foreign policy of the Turnbull government?  If his intervention in  British politics is not condoned, has  he been rebuked by the Depart of Foreign Affairs?

When put these questions, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop came back with a somewhat opaque answer:  The shape of the UK’s future economic and trade relationship with the European Union is a choice for the parties involved, and subject to ongoing negotiation,”she said. “The Australian Government places a high priority on commencing negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom as soon as it is able to do so.”

So it seems we do want the British to jump off the cliff, and Downer is not being held back from saying so.

It is not going unnoticed in London. The Labour opposition, which would win an election hands down if it were held now, is veering back from its lukewarm support for Brexit to the softer option. Sections of Theresa May’s ruling Conservative Party are inclining to the customs union.

Denis MacShane, a former Labour government minister, said after the BBC interview in February that Downer had  “crossed a line” by intervening “so crudely to support the extreme ideology of those who want an amputation with Europe.”

MacShane said authoritative surveys showed Britain already had a lower cost of living – and groceries – than Australia, and tweeted that the BBC interviewer should have done “a little research… to challenge the blathering nonsense from anti-EU Oz High Commissioner”.

Being inside the EU allowed UK firms unfettered access to a giant market of 450 million consumers, MacShane said. “If cutting trade links with Europe helps Britain to export more why does Germany export five times as much to China as the UK?” he said. “Mr Downer is correct to promote open and free trade and Australia and New Zealand were right to free up their economies in the 1980s and 1990s… (But) other countries would like to unload their giant agro-industry surpluses. That would spell the end of British farming and horticulture.”

“I think (Downer) did Australia no service at all by so blatantly interfering in a bitter divisive UK political debate while still in post as High Commissioner,” MacShane said. “When he retires to go off to be president of one of the right-wing anti-European think tanks in London he can do, say what he likes but lining up with the hardline isolationists in the Brexit debate is very ill-advised.”

Turnbull will be in London this week, for a Commonwealth heads of government meeting at which the weighty issue of whether Prince Charles should be the grouping’s next formal  head will be discussed. He will also hold bilateral talks with the British, no doubt with Downer giving advice.

To add to Canberra’s cheek, Turnbull and Bishop will be accompanied at the CHOGM by international development minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who leaked her speech in advance. It urges Britain and other Commonwealth nations to step up aid and investment in the Pacific islands to counter Chinese influence.

Brexit should lead to “new partnerships” between Australia and the UK in the Pacific with an emphasis on useful infrastructure, she said. “Australia and the UK share so much when it comes to our perspective on the importance of overseas development in making the world a better place.”

Britain already has a $23 billion foreign aid budget, the third largest in the world. Australia has sharply reduced its budget to $3.9 billion under the Coalition and abolished the separate aid agency AusAid. Canberra rumours say Scott Morrison is eyeing a further $400 million cut to foreign aid in next month’s budget for 2018-19.

So Turnbull appears in London as a kind of vulture fund opportunist amid the Brexit wreckage, pushing a quick trade deal that offers decimation to British agriculture and not much in return that the British don’t already have. In addition, he’s asking Britain to take over the extra lifting we should be doing in the Pacific.

In 1840, Thomas Babington Macauley wrote of some distant future when “some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.” The traveller’s origin is slightly out, but Macauley’s dystopia may be close, at least in economic terms.

Hamish McDonald is the Saturday Paper’s world editor and a former correspondent in Asia.

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