While much of the world greeted Britain’s decision to leave the European Union with a mixture of dread and disbelief, former prime minister Tony Abbott says the move shows the UK is ready to become a ‘global leader’.
Mr Abbott has also urged the UK and Australia to strive for a one-page free trade agreement once Britain is no longer constrained by the “statism and bureaucracy of Brussels”.
The comments came as Australian diplomats held “informal discussions” with their UK counterparts about preparations to leave the EU, amid concerns the British lack negotiation experience.
In a foreword written for a report by the UK’s Free Enterprise Group, Mr Abbott said “Brexit means that Britain is back” and he calls for the movement of goods between the UK and Australia to be “absolutely free of tariffs or quotas”.
The report by Conservative MP James Cleverly and Tim Hewish was released on Tuesday and argues that Britain should leave the European Customs Union and embrace Commonwealth trade.
Mr Abbott wrote that Britain’s decision to leave the EU was not a vote against free trade “because the EU has acted as a protectionist bloc against trade with outsiders”.
Brexit gave Britain the chance to do its own trade deals, he said.
“Free trade agreements with economically advanced Commonwealth countries are the obvious place for Britain to start.”
Mr Abbott said no two countries were more like-minded than Britain and Australia with a common language, set of values and much shared history.
“If Britain is determined to make the most of Brexit – and everything about Prime Minister (Theresa) May shows this steely determination – why not strive for a one page FTA with Australia?”
Mr Abbott said each country’s product and service standards should be recognised in the other.
“If a car is fit to be sold in Britain, it’s fit to be sold in Australia. If a doctor is fit to practise in Australia, he or she is fit to practise in the UK.”
Mr Abbott said the movement of goods between the two nations should be “absolutely free of tariffs or quotas”.
“Provided people are coming to work rather than to take advantage of social security or health services, Australians should also be free to live in the UK and vice versa.”
A warning shot to Turnbull
Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment Jason Clare said Mr Abbott’s comments were a “warning shot” to the Turnbull government.
“Tony Abbott’s gratuitous advice to Malcolm Turnbull on the direction Australia should take on trade with the UK is another part of his job application to the conservative right of the Coalition,” he said.
“Australia is a trading nation and our trading relationships are too important to our economy to be used as a pawn in the Liberal Party’s leadership games.”
The Free Enterprise Group report urges the UK to look to the Commonwealth’s open economies of Australia, Canada, Singapore, and New Zealand to secure FTAs in time for Brexit.
No ‘specific request’ for help
Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers, resigned earlier this month and raised concerns that serious multilateral negotiation experience was in short supply.
Similar concerns have been raised by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who told Reuters that the UK diplomats were slow to act given they had not led negotiations in years.
Chancellor Phillip Hammond has previously said he was willing to recruit Australians or Americans to bridge the skills gap.
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman said no specific request for assistance had been made by the UK, but diplomats continued to work together.
“The UK is still at the pre-trigger stage and much remains to be decided,” she said.
“It is likely the UK will continue to assess its competencies throughout this period and beyond to enable it to deliver on core trade functions and policies once it leaves the EU.
“No specific requests for assistance have been made to Australia at this stage.”
Late last year, Mr Turnbull said Australia had providing the UK with assistance to negotiate trade agreements.
“They haven’t had to negotiate a trade agreement for over 40 years because they’ve been part of the European system,” he said.
“So Theresa May is very grateful as she said for the assistance we’ve provided.”