Twenty-twenty – and how liberating it is to consign it to past tense – was the year we mobilised to meet the greatest peacetime challenge of our lives. Once we emerge from that immediate response, it will be time for us to be big and bold in plotting Britain and Australia’s comeback from Covid-19. We all know recovery will take time – and the lessons of the pandemic highlight some core principles for achieving it.
First, in having a sustainable recovery we can leave no one behind. Boris Johnson talks passionately about “building back better” and “levelling up”. We Australians emphatically agree.
Advances in technology mean we can now produce and power the things we need more cleanly and efficiently than ever before. As our prime minister said at the Policy Exchange think tank: we firmly believe the world must achieve net zero emissions as soon as possible and, by building back with better technologies and cleaner practices, we can achieve that goal together. Australia saw the dividend of that approach last year, with coal playing the smallest role in our national electricity market this century. We have undertaken to implement a clean technology road-map, mobilising at least $50 billion in green investment to achieve ambitious targets in the next decade, taking us toward net zero as soon as possible.
Both our nations knew that, left unchecked, the economic damage of Covid-19 could outlast the virus itself. Nobly, both our countries expanded government support to prevent that – and now, getting both young and old back into the workforce is our most pressing task. Be it through a free trade deal, our clean technology partnership or the other areas in which we work together, Australia-UK collaboration will supercharge our recovery and ensure more jobs come back. Levelling up our international engagement in 2020 – by supporting a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific and protecting our interests in multilateral bodies – also made clear that being out in the world, standing up for our values and protecting our prosperity, is the best way to shape the international order to our national interests.
Secondly, greater liberalisation to, and deeper engagement with, trusted partners are critical to prosperity and security. In an interconnected world, it became easy to forget that many of our most critical goods came via supply-chains over which we had little to no sovereign control. That must change.
In 2020, we made clear that our sovereignty, institutions and political systems were not for sale and our independence non-negotiable. To borrow from the late Lady Thatcher: Australia was not for turning. We backed that up with key investments in critical supply chains to enhance resiliency to future shocks. Yet while we are increasingly conscious of the availability of essential goods, Australia makes no case for protectionism. Just as we enjoy bipartisan consensus on the centrality of our sovereignty, Australians and their political leaders share a decades-long commitment to the benefits of free trade.
We see a comprehensive and ambitious free trade deal between the UK and Australia as central to making the global case for free trade, and demonstrative of how two like-minded partners can diversify trade, strengthen supply chains and help jobs come back. We have the political will. There is no reason it can’t be wrapped up this year. Not only will it bind our two nations even more closely together; it will be an early post-Brexit dividend for Britain. It will more closely connect Britain with the world’s most economically dynamic region, the Asia-Pacific: the heartbeat of the world economy in the 21st century.
Finally, and most importantly, we believe the things which mattered most to us in the world before Covid-19 – our friends and family, our love of adventure – are the essential elements of our old normal which must come back. While Australia took early action to protect Australians from the virus by closing our international borders, the affection we have for our friends in Britain remains undiminished. We want to see young Britons living and working in Australia again and our best and brightest travelling freely between us, linking up ideas and industries that supercharge economies. Australia is working toward having borders that are open once more – and while that will take time, we have the skill set to do it.
Britain and Australia got through 2020 by standing as one in safeguarding our sovereignty and protecting our prosperity. In 2021, we can take the lessons of that trying year, apply them together and truly make this the year of our comeback.
George Brandis QC is the Australian High Commissioner to the UK