British farmers have a “bizarre” and outdated attitude to free trade, and the British agricultural sector has nothing to fear from the agreement with Australia, Canberra’s outgoing High Commissioner has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 deal was “not a bad deal for the UK”, adding that he was “appalled” at the “culture of fear of global trade “among farmers.
In an interview with the Financial Times to mark the end of his post, Brandis said farmers should be more open to the benefits of trade and international competition following Britain’s departure from the EU’s CAP.
Despite concerns from the agricultural sector that the bilateral pact would adversely affect farmers, Brandis said farmers had struggled to “confront the cultural change” prompted by Brexit.
“One thing that really surprised me when I went to my first National Farmers’ Union conference was it was as if the corn laws had not been repealed. I felt like Robert Peel’s ghost was going through,” he said in a reference to the Conservative prime minister of the mid-19th century who advocated free trade and the abolition of protectionist measures.
“These people actually thought it was a good idea to keep the price of food more expensive than it would be, and that was because I think so many British farmers have been acculturated to the EU system of agricultural support and highly regulated trade. . “
Brandis referred to another NFU conference where a farmer insisted that “the biggest threat to our business is trade”. “What he meant, of course, was international trade and competition,” Brandis said. “There is fear of competition, but reluctance to be proactive in global markets.”
In response, Minette Batters, NFU president, said: “Economic conditions at the time of the maize laws could hardly be less relevant to British agriculture today”, adding that free trade meant the British enjoyed cheap food.
Batters said: “The Government’s own assessment of the Australian agreement shows that beef and sheep breeders, among others, will be negatively affected by around £ 150 million. faces.”
The High Commissioner said the most important aspect of the trade agreement between the UK and Australia, which was signed last year but has not yet been ratified, was the relaxation of visa requirements, in particular youth mobility visas. “The flood of people, especially young and talented people, at a time when there is a global talent shortage, will be a very significant result of this free trade agreement.”
The 64-year-old former justice minister, who served as senator for 18 years, said his experience had British policy “more bureaucratic inertia” than Australia’s.
He added that the “century-old” culture of Whitehall resulted in “enormous” bureaucratic power that “sits next to political power and can slow things down and stop them from happening.”
Brandis cited the decision by Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary of the Interior, to issue a so-called “ministerial guide” on government policy to treat asylum seekers in Rwanda as an example of how officials could “significantly affect the outcome of a cabinet conference decision”.
Many of the UK Government’s policy initiatives have been influenced by those in Australia, such as offshore treatment of asylum seekers, the point-based migration system and a tougher stance on China.
Brandis mentioned “greater agility” in his country’s political system for inspiration. “Australia has addressed a number of issues at an earlier stage than the United Kingdom addressed them and addressed them more quickly.”
But Brandis also said Australia’s political debate was “much more about the future” compared to Britain. “Australians think much less about our history than I have noticed people do in the UK,” he remarked. “The great thing about it is that it gives you perspective, but sometimes it can also be limiting.”
During his four years in London, the High Commissioner has also been instrumental in finalizing the trilateral Aukus defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“Aukus brings Britain and Australia together in a close partnership for strategic capacity development that has not existed before,” he said.
“The free trade agreement is primarily about economic integration, the Aukus agreement is about strategic capacity and up to a point of integration – to bring together both the trade and strategic aspects of the relationship.”
Brandis acknowledged that Australia’s decision to abandon a defense agreement with France “would always be difficult”, but said: “Our long-term strategic and national security interests required a change in weapons systems.”