Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory provides Australia with a unique opportunity to strengthen ties with our oldest and one of our closest allies.
To take full advantage of this once in a generation opportunity, the Morrison government must aim for much more than a bare-bones FTA. It should use the existing Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement (CER) as a blueprint for a comprehensive agreement complete with reciprocal work rights for Australian and UK citizens.
Boris Johnson has previously supported such a proposal, and when UK trade secretary Liz Truss visited Australia in September she said freedom of movement was “certainly something that we will be looking at as part of our free-trade negotiations”.
High Commissioner to the UK George Brandis has also hinted at a relaxation on visa arrangements, stating “there are different visa categories and different visa restrictions that it would be good to see relaxed”.
This is one of the key benefits of the Australia-New Zealand CER agreement. In addition to be being one of the world’s most comprehensive free trade agreements — which is based on mutual recognition of standards, rather than the regulatory harmonisation approach favoured by the EU — the CER agreement includes generous rights for Australians and New Zealanders to live and work in their respective countries.
Unfortunately, Morrison has previously rejected the idea of CER agreement as a basis for an Australia-UK FTA, saying “the New Zealand arrangement is quite unique and it’s not one we would probably ever contemplate”. This must be re-evaluated.
Australia and the UK share deep institutional, cultural and historical ties dating back centuries.
When the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, they brought with them the institutions of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. They brought a culture that valued enlightenment principles like freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech — even though they sometimes failed to live up to them.
Over the past 232 years the institutions we inherited have taken on some unique Australian characteristics, such as the American principles added to our Westminster parliamentary system. Our culture has likewise been shaped by successive waves of immigration, as well our relations — both good and bad — with our indigenous communities.
But the culture and the institutions we inherited remain distinctly recognisable. And our ties with the UK have been strengthened by everything from the wars we’ve fought together to the sports we play against each other.
This explains why the UK is the second largest source of foreign investment in Australia. It’s why almost 1.2 million Australians were born in the UK — more than any other foreign country. And it’s why living in London has been a rite of passage for many young Australians.
Unfortunately, this rite of passage has been made much more difficult in recent years. Faced with rising discontent over the level of EU immigration, Theresa May, then the Home Secretary under the Cameron government, responded by attempting to make it more difficult for non-EU citizens to get visas (as restricting EU immigration was not an option).
May’s “hostile environment policy” created a major scandal over the deportation of some legal migrants who had been in the country almost their entire lives.
But May’s reforms also made it more difficult for Australians wanting to work in the UK, with the number of visas granted to Australians falling from 37,375 in 2005 to 19,134 in 2017 (according to figures compiled by the Adam Smith Institute).
Correcting this ought to be a priority when negotiating an Australia-UK FTA.
Opponents of reciprocal work rights may point out that Brexit was, at least in part, motivated by opposition to the EU’s freedom of movement. This is true. But in 2018 a poll published by Canzuk International showed no such hostility exists to freedom of movement between Australia and the UK.
The poll asked 13,600 people in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK whether they supported freedom of movement between the four countries. Large majorities in all countries were in favour; the proposal 73 per cent support in Australia and 68 per cent in the UK. Only 17 per cent of Australians and 19 per cent of UK citizens were opposed.
This highlights the ongoing strength of the institutional, historical and cultural ties between the core Anglosphere countries. But another factor is that all four countries have similar levels of economic development and standards of living. This reduces risk of a country being overwhelmed by the number of immigrants, which can occur when freedom of movement exists between developed and relatively undeveloped, or relatively unstable nations.
The Morrison government must cease the opportunity that Boris Johnson’s election victory provides and sign a wide-ranging FTA complete with reciprocal work rights for Australian and UK citizens. The already existing CER agreement between Australia and New Zealand provides a blueprint for the type of agreement we should be aiming for.
If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that an Australia-UK FTA that lacks improved visa arrangements will be a massive missed opportunity.