An Enduring Affair? How Britain Fell in Love with Australia

Since Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party in the summer of 2019, there has been a certain swagger and machismo emanating from the heart of the British government. It is not only the by-product of Johnson’s particular brand of optimistic, buccaneering energy, and the brash confidence of the Leave campaign finally taking the reins at Number 10. Beneath the consuming demands of the pandemic, there is a perceptible entrepreneurialism and a youthfulness of spirit particularly familiar to those of us who have spent time in Australia or watching its politics.

The growing visibility of Australian strategists at the heart of the Conservative Party’s operations has drawn much interest, but their presence is nothing new. Canberra has long served as a training ground or victory lap for political recruits, with the shared Westminster system facilitating a kind of two-way exchange programme for strategists trading off election success. Sir Lynton Crosby cut his teeth on John Howard’s campaigns during the 1990s, before decamping to London to support Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaigns and David Cameron’s 2015 election victory. After serving as Tony Blair’s director of political operations, John McTernan moved to Canberra to support Kevin Rudd’s 2007 campaign, and then went on to serve as the communications director for Julia Gillard.

Last year, Lynton Crosby’s protégé Isaac Levido, who worked on current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s surprise 2019 win, was brought in to lead Boris Johnson’s general election campaign, and returned in March to sharpen the government’s coronavirus communications. Like Crosby, Levido has now established his own political consultancy, helping businesses and other stakeholders get their heads around the new centrifugal force of political power.

Still, something feels unique about the Australian influence in British politics in 2020, which extends far beyond personnel. Today’s antipodean dalliance coincides with one of the most significant moments in modern British history, as the chapter of our European Union membership comes to a close. The irony, of course, is that Australia was forced to undertake this same exercise after Britain joined the EEC some forty years ago, compelling the young Anglosphere nation to reconsider its identity and build a new future for itself within its region.

With its sense of boundless energy and good humour, Australia provides an attractive model for a nation reinventing its identity, and a government urgently needing a tangible blueprint for an independent future. Australia’s unique combination of a European-style welfare state and an American streak of libertarianism offer an intriguing template, and its high-functioning civil service is a font of policy ideas.

The importation of Australia’s ‘points-based immigration system’ proved so popular with the British public, that the nation’s hard-line border approach to irregular arrivals by sea is now being considered to address the growing spate of Channel crossings. The merger between Australia’s own development and foreign affairs departments was studied in great detail as the prototype for the UK’ s consolidation of its international engagement. The decision by the Australian government to draw a hard line on Huawei, banning the China-owned technology firm from its 5G network, accelerated pressure on the UK government to reverse its position.

Recent reports that Tony Abbott, the divisive former Prime Minister of Australia, will be appointed to an advisory role on the UK’s new trade commission body, has solidified the influence of an Australian tone in post-Brexit Britain, if not its substance. Deadpan, the UK Government has even taken to brazenly describing a ‘No Deal Brexit’ as an ‘Australian-style deal’ – a source of great bemusement and weariness for Canberra’s political commentators.

Opinion polling and focus groups make clear that Australia holds special appeal for ordinary Britons, regarded as a prosperous and buoyant model to emulate. Certainly, one only has to step off the plane in any of Australia’s major cities to feel an immediate sense of good health and good living. Yet, it is also true, that many Britons misconceive Australia’s modern identity, as a profoundly multicultural, cosmopolitan nation necessarily preoccupied more with economic and geopolitical implications of the ‘Asian Century’ than the endless summer the white-washed tourism advertisements convey.

There are other areas of Australian policy innovation that may appeal to this government in its revolutionary zeal – not least of all, the nation’s public-private healthcare system, which compels mandatory private insurance for higher-income earners, and its hugely successful superannuation system, which has mandated a 9% flat contribution from employers for decades, and built substantial provisions for an ageing population along the way. If the UK Government continues to seek inspiration in Australia’s immigration system, its controversial off-shore approach to asylum processing and ‘towing back the boats’ may too fall into the purview of British policy-makers.

It’s easy to admire something from afar; the months and years ahead will prove a test for the resilience of the love affair with ‘the Australian way’.

At some point, Britain and Australia’s pathways will diverge once more. The structural differences around their economies, their social and demographic profiles, and their geopolitical realities remain profound. While Britain feels at a crossroads, its deep connection to its history and the powerful tropes of its cultural and traditions, continue to form a coherent – if fragile – national identity around which to build a modern state.

Indeed, if Britain assumes the confidence it hopes will rub off from its recent fascination with its antipodean ally, it should also come to fully appreciate the privileged status it holds in world affairs, as – a few bumpy years notwithstanding – a nation uniquely admired for its diplomatic prowess, the strength of its institutions, and the openness and generosity of its people. Britain’s interest in Australia comes at a moment of uncertainty and faltering confidence, and when it fades, we will know that Britain has once again found its sense of self.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.