FOR Brexiteers it was held up from early on in the referendum as the template of a sovereign country independent of Europe… only that country was Australia, 9445 miles from the UK.
And now with prospects of a trade deal with the EU on the brink of collapse, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been reviving the example of Australia as the model we will want to follow.
Australia has been flavour of the year again with the Tories in 2020 with Johnson saying back in September: “There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on October 15 … If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on. We will then have a trading arrangement with the EU like Australia’s.”
Johnson has been banging the drum since taking power last year for the UK brokering its own deals around the world unhindered by the EU.
He even courted the Australians earlier this year in a trademark publicity stunt that really took the biscuit.
The Tory leader invoked one of Australia’s most beloved treats, the Tim Tam chocolate biscuit, at the start of negotiations for a free trade agreement with Australia.
In a video recorded inside Downing Street, an animated Prime Minister waved around a family-sized pack of Tim Tams – which attracted an 8% tariff in the UK – as evidence of what could be achieved through a deal.
“I want a world in which we send you Marmite, you send us Vegemite. We send you Penguins and you send us, with reduced tariffs, these wonderful Arnott’s Tim Tams,” he said.
“How long can the British people be deprived of the opportunity to have Arnott’s Tim Tams at a reasonable price?”
Despite the cultural links between the two countries, a bigger physical distance does exist between them than with Europe with the UK just 20.7 miles from France, or none at all when you factor in the Channel Tunnel.
The EU comprises 11% of Australian goods trade and 19% of its services trade. Total EU-Australia trade amounted to around £111 billion in 2018/19 (at 2018 exchange rates).
For the UK, in 2018, the EU comprised 52% of its goods trade and 44% of its services trade. UK-EU trade is almost six times Australia-EU trade in terms of value, at £660 billion in 2018.
Australia’s main exports to the EU are raw materials, namely coal and gold, which make up two-fifths of its total exports to the bloc.
The UK exports a more varied, highly regulated range of mainly manufactured goods, such as cars, food products and pharmaceuticals.
All of which has prompted former Australia premier Malcolm Turnbull to warn that we should be wary of falling for the Johnson rhetoric of operating on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.
Turnbull has been a long-term critic of the UK’s rush to Brexit.
He cautioned earlier this year: “In an age of rising protectionism, the United Kingdom has chosen to walk out of the biggest free trade area in the world. And its economic prospects, its trade prospects, now depend on cutting new and better deals with a whole range of countries, not least of which of course, is the EU itself.”
While he followed that up by appearing on the BBC’s Question Time last week: “There are very big barriers to Australian exports of agricultural products in particular, there’s a lot of friction in the system in terms of services, there’s a lot to aim for,” he said.
“So you know, be careful what you wish for. Australia’s relationship with the EU is not one from a trade point of view that Britain would want, frankly.”
Or Australia itself according to a European big-hitter.
Carl Bildt, co-chairman of the European Council on Foreign Relations tweeted: “Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks about an Australian situation which he means no deal with the EU.
“He probably thinks it sounds better like that. Someone should tell him that Australia is actually busy negotiating a trade deal with the EU.”
Johnson though is sticking to his beliefs that the current mini-deals which Australia has brokered with Europe will work too for the UK.
Australia and the EU signed a “framework agreement” in 2017, adding on to an agreement signed which established a general principle of co-operation on areas including trade, foreign policy and security, development and humanitarian issues a decade before.
That can be boiled down to agreements with the EU on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and scientific co-operation, a “mutual recognition agreement” for acceptance of each other’s safety certificates and product markings.
And an agreement on the trade of wine.
Johnson has, of course, shown himself to be easily swayed by the transient trends of focus groups and has listened intently to his spin doctors who have been telling him that the Tory base believes the Australians have immigration sorted out.
Brexiteers have pointed to TV footage of asylum seekers in Australia being put in camps on remote Pacific islands – even though that has nothing to do with its points-based immigration system.
And they believe that an Australian closed-doors policy is protecting their citizens whereas the number of Australians born abroad, including many from ethnic minorities, has risen sharply in recent years.