On Monday morning, we saw one of those organic redirections that sometimes happen in politics. If the Nationals hadn’t lunged to take out their leader Michael McCormack, another story about Scott Morrison and an undeclared pilgrimage in Cornwall to engage with his convict ancestry would have dominated the day.
If you missed this story in the melee, a quick recap. On Monday, the London correspondent for Nine newspapers, Bevan Shields, reported that Morrison had last week embarked on an undeclared pilgrimage to St Keverne, a small village 45 minutes south of the G7 summit site in Cornwall, to explore his family’s convict past. This ancestry dot com sortie was undertaken minus the travelling press.
After the report appeared, a burst of understandable outrage ensued. Australians can’t travel overseas and in most cases interstate at present without fear that new Covid restrictions will disrupt their plans. Thousands of Australians are also stuck overseas and deeply resent seeing their prime minister indulge himself with diverting family field trips while at the same time dragging his heels on establishing dedicated quarantine facilities to allow people to return.
To quell the outrage, two things happened. Morrison went on the Sydney radio station 2GB to exonerate himself. He declared the excursion “innocent”.
The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, was also deployed. Birmingham characterised Morrison’s field trip as “soft diplomacy”.
“Soft diplomacy” as an explanation sounds risible.
But in this case, Birmingham’s characterisation contained more than an element of truth. To understand why, we need to track back to Sunday 13 June.
Morrison left the G7 summit in Cornwall, travelled to the adjacent village of his convict ancestor, and then travelled on to London. In the evening, Australia’s high commissioner to the UK, George Brandis, hosted a soiree for 30 in the garden of Stoke Lodge, the high commissioner’s London residence.
Australia had not yet nailed down its proposed free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, and the Brandis dinner (of Australian lamb, wine and pavlova – naturally) was about accelerating to the handshake. The diplomatic soiree was also the prelude to a dinner for six at Downing Street on the following evening, where the final sticking points would be cleared.
How the trade deal ultimately came together is a story in large part about deep political linkages between Britain and Australia. It’s safe to assume that Morrison’s field trip was about gathering first-person perspectives at St Keverne that would inform his remarks at Stoke Lodge later that evening.
During his speech Morrison referenced his convict ancestry as one frame of reference. His core pitch was Australia and Britain – two democracies with a shared history, bound by close security and economic linkages – needed to stand together in illiberal times. The misty-eyed harking back to empire, while stapling those historical bonds to contemporary threats, namely the hegemonic ambitions of 21st-century autocrats, particularly China, was important to swaying hardline protectionists in Tory ranks spooked by a voluble campaign from the National Farmers Union – the British equivalent of Australia’s National Farmers’ Federation.
People familiar with the dynamics say Australia’s spiky stance on China wins plaudits with Tory isolationists and protectionists. In that vein, Morrison had used the opportunity of the G7 summit, and the contribution he made during a session about open societies, to highlight China’s list of 14 grievances against Australia, which includes Australia’s public commentary about human rights or territorial issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang; the blocking of numerous Chinese foreign investment proposals; and “antagonistic” media reporting by Australia’s free press.
To put it simply, Morrison’s homily at the G7 helped grease the wheels of the free trade deal over the next 48 hours.
In the garden at Stoke Lodge, Morrison sat next to the UK trade minister, Liz Truss. Priti Patel, the home secretary, was at the same table. Two of Boris Johnson’s staff, Baroness Simone Finn, Downing Street’s deputy chief of staff, and the, international adviser John Bew, were in attendance, as was the Tory grandee Lord Robert Salisbury, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng.
Isaac Levido, the 30-something Australian-born strategist who ran Johnson’s election campaign in 2019, was there, as was Lynton Crosby. In a story about linkages, consider this: when Australia’s high commissioner was deployed to sway wavering Tory MPs a couple of weeks before Morrison’s arrival in the country for the G7, Brandis deployed a Crosby Textor poll finding (among other things) that 87% of UK respondents believed that Australia should be able to trade with the UK on equal or more favourable terms than it does with the EU.
Relevant opinion leaders were also in the garden at Stoke Lodge: Dean Godson, the director of the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, as well as journalists from the Spectator and the editor of the Times, John Witherow. On the Australian side, Morrison’s international and national security adviser Michelle Chan was in attendance, as was Andrew Shearer, the Howard era veteran who is now director general of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence.
Chan would accompany Morrison to the intimate dinner at No 10 on Monday night to nail down the outstanding issues – which at that point were the treatment of Australian agricultural commodities and the quantities permitted to enter the British market. Given the FTA with Australia was to be the first bilateral agreement since Brexit, Johnson was accompanied by his top Brexit adviser, David Frost. Brandis, who had compared notes with Frost on the sidelines of the G7, also accompanied Morrison.
Australia’s constant mantra to wavering UK counterparts was: “If you can’t do a free trade agreement with Australia, whom else can you do a trade agreement with?” The lack of an effective rebuttal to that argument ultimately sealed the deal. The in-principle agreement was unveiled the next morning.
Of course, it is reasonable to ask at this point whether the UK free trade deal is really all it is cracked up to be.
Perhaps we could ask John Howard. “It’s obviously a welcome development but the gains are not huge and it needs to be kept in perspective,” the former prime minister told The Australian after the handshake in London. “We need to keep our focus on the trade relationship with Asia, and not just China.”
Well summarised John. I would add the following: if Australia goes on to land a trade agreement with the European Union, that agreement will be much more consequential for the nation economically than the UK deal, given the EU trading bloc is the biggest in the world.
But selling Australian agricultural commodities into the northern hemisphere is always hard fought, and welcome for farmers. Landing this agreement was also important from the British perspective. Officials with insight into the dynamics say the Australian trade deal was important strategically to the UK because of where Britain needs to get to post-Brexit.
The UK wants a bilateral trade deal with the United States, but pursuing that will take time. The US Congress, post Trump, leans protectionist and the president, Joe Biden, has other foreign policy priorities, including reviving global action on climate change.
The Australian deal is seen as an important stepping stone for the UK to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The UK formally requested accession to the CPTPP in February this year. As well as being a prime mover in the Pacific-rim trade agreement, Australia is currently the vice-chair of the accession committee of the CPTPP.
But Morrison, back from his summiting and soirees and stuck in quarantine at the Lodge, would have mulled the ironies of the past few weeks.
The government, by landing the UK free trade agreement, has delivered the Nationals a big win. Australian farmers have secured expanded access to the British market. The UKFTA will, for example, allow 80,000 tonnes of sugar to be sold to Britain immediately after the deal takes legal force, and the coalition holds five sugar seats in Queensland.
But the Nationals over the past week have been more preoccupied with rolling their leader.
Morrison also has to deal with his persistent international problem on climate change. Australia’s prime minister has been holding Johnson and Biden (who want more ambitious commitments from Canberra) at bay in part by emphasising the fact Australia enjoys a multidimensional relationship with both countries.
Morrison has tried to neutralise persistent calls from the UK and the US with his formulation that Australia wants to achieve net zero as soon as possible, and “preferably” by 2050. Australian officials had been of the view that Morrison just might pull this diplomatic dissemble off.
But just when it seemed safe to exhale, disagreements within the coalition government flared up. Out went McCormack as deputy PM and in came the coal-loving Barnaby Joyce, who was catapulted back to the National party leadership and once again in a position to play an outsized role on climate change policy – dead-weighting Morrison’s efforts to float airily above the fray.