Australia’s cultural, social and political history is entwined with Britain’s. We share a language, the Westminster democratic system, the common law and a respect for diversity, individualism and freedom.
Australia’s modern incarnation was defined by British colonisation. As former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott put it last week, during a discussion of Anglo-Australian trade relations at the UK Conservative Party conference, ‘Once, you exported people to Australia, of course… chosen by the finest British judges’. Today, Australia and the UK continue to have particularly strong ties in intelligence and international relations, but the UK’s decision to join the European Economic Community in 1973 put a strain on our close friendship.
In the 1950s, the UK government assured the Australian government that it would do nothing to diminish trade relations. Consequently, Australia was genuinely shocked and affronted by the UK’s application to join the EEC in 1961. French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry in 1963, and again in 1967. In order to join the EEC, Britain was compelled to sever economic ties with the Commonwealth, imposing extensive trade restrictions on Australian exports. This has had a profound cultural and economic effect on Australia. As former Australian prime minister Paul Keating put it during the 1990s, the UK had ‘walked out on us and joined the common market’. This secondary status is writ large at British airports, where, despite sharing a queen with Brits, Australians are shuffled into the slow lane while Europeans are given priority. (Just a few weeks ago, I waited for 50 minutes in one such line.)
This is why Australia is excited about Brexit. It is an extraordinary opportunity to right a historic wrong, and rebuild our relations, both economic and cultural.
Many pessimists have pointed out that Australia’s trade with the UK is very small – minimising the importance of any trade deals. Indeed, Britain is only Australia’s 8th largest export market. However, this focus ignores the reason why Australia-UK trade has declined – Australia’s lack of access to the common market. Australian businesses cannot compete on an equal footing with European businesses.