The Conversation

Brexit, Australian style: will leaving the EU breathe new life into an old friendship?

This piece is republished with permission from GriffithReview69: The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica, and published in partnership with the Australian National University

When Boris Johnson unveiled his government’s new points-based immigration system in February 2020, designed to deliver Brexit by shifting Britain’s migrant intake “away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe”, the spin cycle was at full tilt. This was no raising of the drawbridge, but a signal that “the UK is open and welcoming to the top talent from across the world” – inspired by the shining example of Australia.

Throughout the 2019 election campaign, Johnson had relentlessly touted an “Australian-style points-based system” in order to “take back control” of Britain’s borders. Though criticised by his own advisers for signalling “different things to different people”, the “Australian-style” tag stuck.

Capitalising on the encouraging voter response, Johnson took the Australian connection a step further within days of “getting Brexit done” on January 31. In a major address to business leaders, the prime minister went out of his way to dispel outmoded conceptions of Britain’s future options outside the European Union. “The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no deal’,” he insisted. “The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s – or more like Australia’s. In either case, I have no doubt that Britain will prosper.”

This instantly had pundits scrambling for their international trade-deal manuals. Although Canada’s free-trade agreement with the European Union has long figured as one of several possible alternatives for Britain, at no point during the interminable Brexit negotiations had an “Australian model” ever been tabled. There is a simple reason for that, of course – Australia doesn’t have a formal trade agreement with the EU.

As it happens, Australia’s trading history with the European Union is one of decades of frustration, recrimination and sheer hard slog in the face of Europe’s infamous protectionist barriers. Although the situation has improved in the more liberal trading climate of recent years, Australia is hardly the place to turn for a model of frictionless borders and free-market access. But that was immaterial to Johnson, who calculated that an “Australian-style deal” sounded less calamitous than “no deal at all”. By a deft turning of the Antipodean dial, he sought to neutralise the “deal or no deal” debate that had plagued the nation for years. Somehow, the mere mention of Australia worked as an analgesic. It cast the hardest conceivable Brexit in a safer, more familiar guise.

Mates forever?

To understand how this was even remotely plausible, consider
“Matesong” – the Australian Tourism Commission’s recent AU$15 million campaign featuring Kylie Minogue as a seductive siren, beckoning Brexit fatigued Britons with a breezy ironic melody. Launched on British television screens on Christmas Day 2019 – immediately before the Queen’s speech – the advert promoted Australia as the natural antidote to a “tough and confusing” year of “negotiating tricky trade deals”. Despite their battle with the EU, the audience were reassured, they could always rely on Australia’s instinctively sunny disposition:

But all of Australia loves you

And we’ll never judge you

You just need some space.

As though drawing on Johnson’s own market research, the song chimed with the spirit of a beleaguered people craving unconditional friendship abroad:

When you need an end to what ails ya

Call on your friends in Australia

Glorious United Kingdom

Lean on your wing-men and women.

Far more than just a welcome getaway, Australia was portrayed as “a pal to rely on, a shoulder to cry on” because “helping a mate, is a national trait”.

And not just any old mate. The implication throughout was that Australia owed a special duty of care to its British “sisters and brothers”.

Matesong: we’l put you right.

For all the evident lightheartedness, there was serious intent in the campaign’s core pledge: “We’ll put you right”. Like Brexit itself, the ad nurtured the fantasy that no matter the adversity, the Brits could always call on their “besties across the ocean”.

It is unlikely that the majority of Australians actually feel that way about Britain today – but that’s beside the point. The campaign was made for Britain, tapping into how the Brexit-voting public would like to think Australians feel about the mother country’s peril at the hands of obdurate Europeans.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (himself a former senior tourism executive) gave further encouragement with a suitably fawning tweet congratulating Johnson on his December 12 electoral victory. “Looking
forward to the stability this brings and a new deal for Oz with the UK. Say g’day to the quiet Britons for us.”

Morrison left no room for doubt that Australia and Britain were on the same side when it came to Brexit.

One of his predecessors, Tony Abbott, seemed even more mate-struck. In one of his scribblings for the Brexit-worshipping Daily Telegraph, he heralded the imminent restoration of “the unrestricted commerce that we enjoyed for 150 years” as a historic vindication of Australia’s deepest loyalties. It was, Abbott declared, “the best 2019 Christmas present either of us could have”.

Really? There is surely no rational, self-interested economic argument for Australia to champion Brexit from the sidelines, not least at a time when the prospects for an Australia–European Union trade agreement have never been better. Britain has remained a key market for certain sectors such as the wine industry, but its overall importance to the Australian economy has become increasingly marginal (as its thirteenth-largest trading partner, wedged between Thailand and Vietnam). Trade with the remaining 27 European Union members combined has outgunned Britain by three to one, and a significant portion of Australia’s exports to Britain have been destined ultimately for European consumers.

Where Britain has remained crucial to Australia is as a colossal source of investment capital, but this also contains considerable risks should Brexit-related volatility rebound sharply on British financial markets.

That was essentially the view of the Australian government under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Perceiving that the disruptive effects on the global economy could only be to Australia’s detriment, no official encouragement was given to the idea whatsoever. The referendum itself received only low to medium-level media coverage in Australia, a far cry from the drama of the 1960s and 1970s when the tortuous path of British entry into the Common Market (as it was then known) was front-page copy for a country still heavily reliant on the British market to sustain a wide range of key primary-producing sectors, from wheat to beef, dairy goods, sugar, apples and pears.

In the intervening 47 years, Australians have long since recovered from the shock of Britain’s decision to turn its back on traditional Commonwealth suppliers for the benefits of an exclusive new preferential trading zone. There was no “matesong” sung when Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony returned empty handed from London in 1971 in a last-ditch bid to salvage a portion of the British market for Australian producers. It was the cold, clinical terms of separation that enabled Australia to embark on a thorough process of self-examination, contemplating a future without Britain.

Abandoned mate

How, then, to make sense of the recent stirring of such obviously outworn affinities? Johnson’s predilection for “Australian-style” is perhaps not quite so recent – nor solely focus-group driven. During a visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2013, he latched on to the story of an Australian teacher forced out of Britain when her work permit expired. This “disgraceful, disgusting, indefensible” treatment of hard-working Australians, he ventured, was the “infamous consequence” of entering the EU in 1973. It was a decision that amounted to the betrayal of a people who were much more “intimately cognate with Britain”.

Even then, it was a view better attuned to EU enmities in Britain than any lingering resentment in Australia. Some 25 years ago, I started work on what would become Australia and the British Embrace – a history of Britain’s purported sellout of Australia at its point of entry into the new Europe; the very burden of Johnson’s beef. It was a time when Australia’s economy and political culture had been so profoundly reoriented towards the Asia-Pacific region that Europe generally – and certainly any residual acrimony over Britain’s place in Europe – had entirely receded from view. I doubt I would have come across the subject at all had I not made the unfashionable choice to study European history and languages.

It was while working in Europe for a Brussels-backed project on the history of European integration that I first stumbled onto the Australian side of the story of Britain’s courtship of the Common Market. It had never featured in my school or university curriculum and I had no recollection of anyone ever mentioning the existential dread that had conditioned Australia’s official response to Britain’s early European overtures. But in British and European archives, the raw feeling and dogged recidivism of Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s government in coming to terms with Britain’s choice was unmistakable.

It was not just that entire rural communities, from fruit growers to dairy farmers to sugar producers, faced financial ruin from the loss of “imperial preferences” in the British market. It was a question of loyalty, of an Australia devoted to the civic rites and rituals of being British, suddenly and unceremoniously “edged from the imperial nest” (in the words of one contemporary newspaper). Cartoonists had a field day depicting Britain variously as the neglectful mother, the wayward spouse, the fairweather friend, while whispers of “ingratitude” for wartime sacrifices were frequently insinuated.

There was every reason why Australian primary producers would want to fend off an urgent threat to their livelihood, but what seemed extraordinary was the emotional leverage they were able to muster. Commerce was inseparable from matters of fealty, of implicit codes of conduct and unwritten obligations that any self-respecting British government was duty-bound to honour.

What intrigued me about the material was its sheer remoteness from the Australia of the 1990s. Within a mere matter of decades, the assumptions, sentiments and everyday common sense of Australia’s organic ties to Britain had seemingly fallen by the wayside.

In Britain, too, although euroscepticism was a familiar feature of the political landscape in the post-Thatcher era, it no longer drew on the language and imagery of “kith and kin overseas” to uphold its moral claims. Talk of a momentous choice between “Commonwealth and Common Market” had all but disappeared in the wake of the first referendum in 1975. Britain’s place in Europe per se was no longer the bone of contention; it was more a question of how much Europe there should be, and the scope of its permissible intrusions into British national life.

Mates reunited

The events of the past four years have turned all this on its head, although it would be a mistake to make too much of Britain’s renewed love for the Commonwealth. Significantly, Johnson’s signature post-Brexit vision of building a “Global Britain” was only coined three weeks after his Brexit triumph of June 2016. He went on to road-test it several times in the autumn of that year before deeming it a serviceable sales pitch, furnishing a shell-shocked Conservative government with some semblance of a way forward. It never formed a part of the Brexit package that had been sold to the electorate in the spring of 2016. Indeed, the Leave campaign deliberately shied away from “global” messaging out of fear of alienating core constituencies that wished to completely rid the country of pernicious outside influences.

It therefore cannot be assumed that voters were consciously swayed by dreams of restoring links with the old white British world.

Nor has “Global Britain” been developed beyond a fleeting soundbite. That has fuelled suspicion that it is merely an exercise in cynical euphemism to conjure older, discredited enthusiasms. The British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee took the extraordinary step in 2017 of launching an official inquiry into the term itself concluding that “for Global Britain to be more than a worthy aspiration, the slogan must be backed by substance”. But this missed the point entirely. For a government that thrives on ambiguity, the very vagueness of Global Britain – its capacity to take in everywhere and nowhere in a single gesture – is its principal asset. Unsurprisingly, Johnson made zero effort to rail in the uncertainty about its ambivalent historical resonances.

Similarly, Johnson’s “intimately cognate” feel for Australia is nowhere near as instinctive as he has imagined. His antipodean affinities, like so many of his enthusiasms, resemble a superficial skimming of the semantic surface. He avails himself of easy cross-cultural references – the Ashes, the rugger, the cursory likeness with the Morrison government – though seemingly without conviction. He recently pledged to bring the two countries “closer together than ever before” while waving a packet of Arnott’s Tim Tams, trivialising the very object of his purported affections. Like Global Britain, his overtures are more made up than real, grasping at shards of a shared inheritance rather than seriously attempting to reboot the Commonwealth.

Such outward displays of an instinctive rapport can also be extraordinarily insensitive. At the height of Australia’s bushfire carnage in early January, popular British broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson devoted his column in The Sun to the notion that “Australia is God’s laboratory and people were not actually meant to live there”. For all his signature effrontery, he concluded on a note of fraternal outreach: “So if you’re reading this down there, please come home. You’ll like it. It never stops raining. And we are better at sport”.

Equally, Abbott’s presumption in rejoicing for Britain on behalf of all Australians was as much an outlet for his own pent up frustrations from the political wilderness. “Rest assured that Britain’s friends are cheering you on as you reclaim your destiny as a sovereign nation,” he urged in a follow-up splash in the Telegraph, casting Australia yet again as the spear-carrying mate-in-chief.

No doubt there is much goodwill towards Britain in Australia, but it is virtually certain that this doesn’t translate into blind, broad-based support for a policy that has brought so much division in Britain itself.

Mates of convenience

All of which suggests that there was something decidedly forced and inauthentic about the rekindled enthusiasms of “Matesong”. It was evidently (and exclusively) the exigencies of Brexit that necessitated Johnson’s seaward tack to Global Britain. Why his Australian sponsors elected to sail along was less obvious. Partly it had to do with the polarisations of the culture wars, where Brexit has become tenuously aligned with a raft of right-wing causes from climate change denial to draconian border laws to the all-out assault on “political correctness”.

When US President Donald Trump can feel perfectly at home in the company of Mr Brexit himself, Nigel Farage, tweeting gratuitous denigrations of the European Union, there is every reason to suspect that more is at stake than British parliamentary sovereignty. Boosting Brexit has drawn on a deeper well of discontents, a new front in the rear-guard defence of the old order, with an Australian contingent at the ready to do their bit.

But when all is said and done, it is hard to deny that Australia still harbours something of the old, Menziean allegiance to the UK – something that I had not expected to resurface.

The temptation to indulge in elaborate theories about time looping backwards needs to be resisted, however. The Brexit debate has furnished a profusion of speculation about the Empire “striking back”. But although the past seems ubiquitous in the putative striving for “Global Britain” or a revitalised “Anglosphere”, blaming history-in-reverse can also be a distraction from the political and commercial imperatives of the present.

I am reminded of the “complexity and plurality of differing temporalities”, as historian Bill Schwarz terms it. This is the distinction between the course of history itself and the imprint it leaves on our imaginations, allowing the reveries of the past to be reactivated in the present, “apparently immune to the fact that the historical conditions that originally gave them life” had come to an end. It is as apt a description as I can find of the tortured imaginative twists that brought us Brexit, Australian-style.

It is not the past inhabiting the present but the other way around. Fragments of residual feeling harnessed to present-day impulses where their modalities – their ways of seeing – can be rendered serviceable. Not to be confused with the past, nor even a reliable facsimile, it is the repackaging of old emotional investments in ill-fitting garb.

These things, of course, are never static. In the past few months alone, the political agenda has been utterly transformed by the relentless onslaught of COVID-19. Though Johnson has insisted throughout that his Brexit timetable remains unchanged, there can be no denying that the all-dominant issue of the last four years has receded amid the mayhem of managing a global pandemic.

Yet upon his release from hospital after a near-fatal run in with the disease, the convalescent prime minister could not resist a subtle nod to Global Britain. In paying heartfelt tribute to the NHS staff who “saved my life”, he singled out two nurses – the one Portuguese, the other from New Zealand – who stood by his bedside during the critical hours “when things could have gone either way”. It was the latter – Jenny from Invercargill – who monopolised the imagination of the ensuing media frenzy. Luis from Porto was relegated to “the other nurse”. It was a portrait in miniature of the skewed affections that pervade the politics of Brexit Britain. Had Jenny from Invercargill hailed from Inverell, New South Wales, she would equally have served Johnson’s purpose.

Stuart Ward has received funding from the Velux Foundations.