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Can Tony Abbott really solve Britain’s trade woes?

by Colin chapman

Tony Abbott is an acquired taste. Few outside Australia have acquired it, and even within Australia it is a relatively rare commodity. The voters in the leafy green community of Warringah turfed Abbott out at the last federal election ending his15 year tenure as MP and terminating his political career.

Abbott is one of those political figures who can inspire loathing amongst people who have never met him. They consider him a male chauvinist based on Julia Gillard’s overrated oration to parliament. Others brand him a homophobe because he voted against same sex marriage.

Tony is always ready to tackle bush fires, but serving Boris Johnson will be tricky

These and many more of Abbott’s alleged unpleasant traits have been heavily and sensationally trailed across the British ‘gutter’ press and even in the serious press in recent days as they reacted to his appointment as trade . ‘tsar’ to Boris Johnson’s government.  

I am no friend of Tony, though he was my MP and I once  exchanged a few words with him at a community meeting in Balgowlah. However, he is not a bad man – certainly not in the sense that Boris Johnson is. Johnson breaks promises like a breakfast chef cracks open eggs and is a liar to boot.  People whose homes have been rescued by the Rural Fire Service, in which Abbott is a longstanding volunteer, and surfers from Manly to Collaroy, see and talk of a different Tony – one who mucks in and gets things done.

Tony Abbott was not a great PM but he was not the worst of recent years.  That record belongs to the bad-tempered Kevin Rudd, though he does know how to string words together better than most academics – his chosen career post-politics — and is a better analyst than he was a political leader.

Abbott did make some good decisioins. One was to refuse to bow to intense pressure from the US State Department to steer clear of the China-led Asia International Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).  Abbott joined signed up, defying the White House. (At the time, China’s president Xi was seen as a friend.)

Abbott was fortunate in having the competent Peta Credlin as his chief-of-staff. Her testimony on Abbott would be different and more credible than that of Julia Gillard. 

But was Tony Abbott wise to take up Johnson’s offer of a job in the British government?  That is a vexed question but it’s easy to see why he jumped at the chance. As a former PM with no route back to the top of the Liberal Party, he has a limited future in Australia. 

The Brits are not offering him a salary or fee, but there will be seats on the pointy end of the one remaining British Airways flight between Australia and London, and a 5-star hotel near Hyde Park. He will be able to pop over to Stoke Lodge and chat with his former Cabinet colleague George Brandis, now High Commissioner to the UK. There will be a trip to Windsor Castle. Maybe, if all goes well, he will be knighted there, following in the footsteps of Lynton Crosby and Frank Lowy.

But what of the job itself?  The prime objective is clearly to achieve what the incompetent Liz Truss, UK International Trade Secretary, has failed to do: to pave the way for British trade deals in the Anglosphere and Asia Pacific. Two of Boris Johnson’s ‘proclaimed ‘oven-ready’ deals have, as I predicted at the start of the year, failed to materialise.

Just as UK ministers confirm Johnson is prepared to renege on the international treaty he signed with the European Union nine months ago, Abbott has to find a way to break the deadlock between London and Canberra, Wellington, Tokyo, Washington, and a number of other nations. 

Japan should be a relatively easy nut to crack, even if friendly Shinzo Abe is off the scene. The Japanese have already offered Britain the same deal as they have with the EU, but cocky Liz Truss wanted to prove she could do better than Michel Barnier’s Brussels team, and insisted on special access for Stilton, a British blue cheese. The men from Tokyo smiled, and shook their heads. 

A deal with Washington will have to wait until Donald Trump is re-elected – a fearsome possibility. Britain would be hard pressed to offer New Zealand a better deal than it has already. 

Which leaves Australia. The sticking point will be access to Australian beef, as Simon Birmingham has previously signalled. If, as seems likely, Britain’s beef producers face a tariff and other obstacles to their European sales, UK beef price will fall and producers will not welcome competition from Australia and the US. The UK is awash with wine from non-EU countries like Argentina and Chile, and beer from Mexico and India.  It is desperate to get into the Australian financial services market, but Sydney and Melbourne are ready to beat off that challenge. 

Britain is also keen to find a way of joining the Trans Pacific Partnership and sees Australia as the nation most likely to back it, but many PPP members will find it hard to trust Boris Johnson to deliver on his promises. They may also wonder why Abbott is serving two masters – the party he led and the neo-colonials from across the seas.

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