On a trip to Australia, I discover that a day is a very long time in politics Down Under

Douglas Alexander's Notebook.

I arrive Down Under as a guest of the Australian government, but my breakfast appointment on the first morning happens to be with none other than Alastair Campbell. He’s in Sydney simultaneously to support the British and Irish Lions and to talk about his diaries.

At a table overlooking the Sydney Opera House, we discuss the picture on the front page of every newspaper – showing Prime Minister Julia Gillard knitting a woollen kangaroo for the royal baby. John McTernan, also previously of Downing Street, now her communications director, is quoted in the coverage as saying the idea “was a no-brainer”.

Cool prime time

The previous day Alastair had been ushered in to see the prime minister in Canberra by John and he echoes the judgement of others, saying she seemed very calm under fire. Given the papers’ comments about her royal roo pose, it’s a quality she’ll need today. My next meeting is with a former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating. Now retired, he remains fascinating and stimulating company.

The sound of power

No sooner have we discussed the role of Kondratieff waves in advanced capitalist economies than Keating is explaining – as a lover of antique clocks – that he used to read the Christie’s catalogue during cabinet meetings. When I ask him what he believes the prime political virtues are, he replies without hesitation: “Imagination and courage.” He then explains that he drew his inspiration and got his best ideas in government by listening to music – “the highest form of art” – and to Shostakovich in particular.

Next it’s down to Canberra, amid growing speculation of a challenge that afternoon by Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard’s leadership. Parliament is in its last week before a long break, so it’s his last chance to challenge her ahead of the election scheduled for September. The Gillard/Rudd rivalry over recent years makes the periodic outbreak of the TB/GBs during our 13 years in office look like a picnic.

Events, dear boys, events

Until a few weeks ago the idea of a comeback for Rudd, the former prime minister deposed by Gillard three years ago, seemed remote. Yet with poor polls suggesting a wipeout in the election just months away, the speculation is at fever pitch as I arrive at Parliament House.

In the course of the morning I meet Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Climate Minister Greg Combet and Education and Employment Minister Bill Shorten. Within 24 hours two of these ministers will have announced not only that they’re quitting government but that they’re leaving parliament, too.

Rudd’s supporters make their move that afternoon as word spreads that a petition is being circulated among Labor MPs demanding a leadership vote, or “spill”, as I soon discover it’s called. Making a fateful decision, Gillard responds by announcing a vote that very afternoon, on condition that whoever loses gives up politics altogether.

With half an hour to go, Shorten appears before the cameras to announce that he’s switching his support from Gillard to Rudd. At the subsequent caucus meeting Rudd defeats Gillard by 57 votes to 45.

Labor’s difficulties seem more electoral than economic, and are more to do with personnel than policy: the Australian economy is growing for the 22nd consecutive year, and despite a legislative record that includes major educational reform and the introduction of a landmark disability insurance scheme.

Sheila, take a bow

Gillard’s concession speech was a model of graciousness. After congratulating her rival on his victory she spoke of the “honour” of serving as the country’s first female PM. In part because of her “misogyny speech” that became a huge YouTube hit even in the UK, there was much discussion of how being a woman had affected the way she was treated in the media. Here, too, Gillard had the last – and best – word when she said this about her gender: “It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things . . . What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I’m proud of that.”

Oz reorientation

One woman who doesn’t seem too bothered by Labor’s leadership change is Julie Bishop, the Liberal opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson. The next day when I meet her it’s very clear that this suburban Perth MP is still preparing for government. She is well briefed on the issues, and our conversation reinforces how deep and enduring are the ties between the UK and Australia. Yet it is also clear that Australians are already embracing the opportunities of what their government’s recent white paper called “the Asian Century”. Perhaps that explains why in none of my meetings did anyone suggest the UK leaving the EU would be a good thing for Australia. Indeed, in discussion after discussion, the possibility was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and anxiety.

Rugger relief

With 30,000 travelling Lions fans in the country it should be a busy time for Britain’s man in Canberra, High Commissioner Paul Madden, but he tells me with relief and pride that, so far, there has not been a single arrest.

Alas for me, the only meeting that didn’t happen was the one scheduled with a backbench Labor MP at 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon. At least he had a good excuse. That day, the now erstwhile backbencher (Kevin Rudd) instead met Governor General Quentin Bryce to be sworn in as the 28th prime minister of Australia.

As I left Australia the polls were already tightening. Yet Rudd still faces a huge task to defeat the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Then again, as I learned from my time in Canberra, a day – never mind a week or a few months – is a very long time indeed in Australian politics.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”