Albie Mills discusses the relationship between the UK Conservative Party and Australian politics.
Many eyebrows were raised after a leak from the Home Office with ‘blue sky thinking’ advisors suggesting moving asylum detention centres to Ascension Island, a volcanic island with such poor runway conditions that A330 aircraft can no longer land there. The harebrained plan was supposedly inspired by Australia’s detention centres in Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Christmas Island. The suggestion would be laughable if its intentions were not so cruel.
What is interesting about the Home Office’s new proposals is that it serves in a long line of Australian-inspired policy proposals which have culminated in the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, being appointed as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade. As is the case with the Ascension Island debacle, the Conservative Party seems to avoid concerns surrounding offence, humanity and equality by ignoring Abbott’s record of homophobia and climate change.
But what is it about Australia, a country of 25.6m people accounting for only 1.7% of UK international trade, that has enraptured the right-wing of the Tory party since the Brexit referendum in 2016? The Government has consistently cloaked its intentions for a No-Deal Brexit behind the guise of an ‘Australian-style Free Trade Agreement’ and, during the referendum, many leavers promoted leaving the EU as a means of increased trade with Australia.
The first reason for close ties between the Conservative Party and Australia can be explained through close party links with the ruling Liberal Party. As Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have taken the Tories on a journey to the hard-right of British politics, the party has aligned itself with the Liberal Party, ramping up culture war rhetoric that was the stock and trade of Abbott’s Liberals. Just as Kevin Rudd’s Labour Party used the public relations strategy of New Labour in 2007 and we in the Fabians have close ties to those in the New Zealand Labour Party, it is natural for successful sister parties to show each other the way.
This does not explain, however, why the right’s messaging on Australia has always seemed to cut through to the public. On the UK Government’s webpage outlining its trade strategy with Australia, it claims that ‘an FTA with a like-minded and key ally’ would be important because ‘we share a language, a Head of State, a common law system, and societal values as well as the many family ties, friendships and sporting rivalries’. Were sporting rivalries drivers of trade negotiations, you might think that the UK, or England at least, would have one of the largest surpluses in the industrialised world.
If you chose to interpret the phrase ‘societal values’ as ‘white and wealthy’, then there would plenty of evidence to back up your argument. In a polling study by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, just 10% of a 2017 sample said that no Australians should be allowed to come and live in Britain compared to 37% who said that no Nigerians should be allowed. France had approval ratings close to Australia’s while Pakistan sat close to Nigeria. The report suggests that Britons employed an ‘ethnic hierarchy’ when considering immigration; ‘at the preferred end of the scale are those who are white, English-speaking, Europeans and from Christian countries’. Interestingly, Romania had similar polling figures to Nigeria, which ‘may reflect an association with Roma’.
Britain’s current immigration strategy is straight out of the Tony Abbott playbook. In 2013, the then-opposition leader called for Australian foreign policy to be “less Geneva, more Jakarta”, arguing that the left relies too much on supranational bodies and treaties rather than bilateral agreements with individual countries. It is important to point out that at the same time as this supposed charm-offensive in Jakarta, Tony Abbott’s government was propelling migrant boats back into Indonesian waters. The Home Office leak last week also included plans to use wave machines to push refugees back into French waters in the same week that Brexit negotiations came to a head.
The truth is that the Conservative Party’s obsession with Australia is derived from both racism and a Cummings-esque ‘why can’t we just get it done’ approach. It is the same energising yet deeply flawed ‘government-at-gunpoint’ strategy that has led to over 40,000 coronavirus deaths as well as potential legal action from the European Commission. The late Australian writer Clive James said that “fiction is life with the dull bits left out”. This might prove particularly prescient when applied to Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministership, obsessing over a foreign relationship that offers the UK little economically or politically but rooted in sentiment and gut reaction; government is life with the dull bits left out.
Albie Mills is an Edinburgh-based support worker and Chair of the Young Scottish Fabians
He tweets @albiealbiemills