There is a free trade deal with Australia to be had: sign it. No text is available, but the Australian government has published its terms, and they are exactly what the British side would be looking for too. It’s a bonzer deal, mate.
One thing I was told repeatedly when canvassing for Leave in the referendum: when we are out of the EU, we must apologise deeply to the Australians. What was done in 1972 was unforgivable, freezing them out of their main export market as we turned to Europe. Now it is overdue the time to return to normality, which is free trade between Britain and the Old Commonwealth. Australia and New Zealand were settled, established and made equal, independent realms on the basis that we were all one and equal and trading between ourselves: betraying those basic understandings unilaterally, insulting the tie of kinship, for a flawed engagement with Europe, was a scandal that hurt badly in Australia and New Zealand and has never stopped hurting.
Cynical commentators (though we do need cynics), portray Australia as a minor player, an exporter of mutton, wool and beef, but that is a generation out of date. There are indeed more sheep in Australia than people in the British Isles, and it is important sector, but the main game in town these days is mining: Australia is the world’s largest producer of iron and bauxite, and around the top of copper, coal and much else besides.. Cheap iron, steel, copper and aluminium are vital for industry. that is only in one sector: Australia is a wonderland for industry and agriculture.
It is in agriculture that the objections have been raised. Farmers’ representatives are screaming about being unable to compete with the vast economies of scale that Australia has in sheep and cattle. One could combat the worry by pointing to the distances involved that even in our crowded islands we have more than half the number of sheep that whole continent has, and our flocks are closer. However mathematics aside, we must never forget Adam Smith. It is almost two and a half centuries since The Wealth of Nations, and it is still hard to convince people of the truth and logic of its observations. Customs duties are imposed at the demand of local producers who fear competition, and in Smith’s day too these were mainly farmers. However every example he analysed over centuries showed that customs duties do significant harm to those who demanded them. By Adam Smith’s principles, farmers should be welcoming free trade. Even apart from competition on wool, all the equipment around the farm, from heavy machinery down to stock fences, needs steel and aluminium: without free trade these are more expensive. All that ore and bauxite coming out of the ground will, if duties are lifted, reduce the cost of farming and boost profit.
We could look at it another, more philosophical way too:
Imagine Britain is running out of land (as we are) and there appears out of the sea a new, practically empty country ideal for flocks and herds. The land is annexed and farmers are encouraged to cross to this new part of Britain and establish vast farms which our islands’ limited bounds could not fit until the new land appeared. We cheer the pioneers and encourage others to join them, not just farming but providing all the support, infrastructure industry and exchange needed so that the pastoral enterprise can thrive to its best. Then we may find that our mines are exhausted, but his miraculous new land has untapped resources, so we send miners there too. Would farmers in the old islands complain? Well maybe, but only with as much conviction as a hill farmer in Cumberland might grumble that those on the Cotswolds have it too easy: the new land was established to thrive and it has done. Now do we disown it and impose high taxes on those we encouraged to move to the new land? That would be shocking. This really though is the story of the settlement and growth of Australia.
Tony Abbott has observed that while Britain and Australia are juridically separate, we are not foreign to each other. That is at the nub of it. We are one nation, juridically separated, but of the same essential understandings and aiming for the same things. Our twin government can do deals for mutual benefit without trying to put one over on the other – a very different dynamic indeed from the negotiations with the European Union last year.
There is a deal to be done, and both governments have the same aims and criteria. Sign it.