A wombat free zone in Trade
21 Oct 2013|

wombat As noted in my previous column on the changes the Abbott government is making to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the wombat tribe has lost ownership of Trade. That’s to say, the National Party has given away or been deprived of the right to the Trade Minister job when the Coalition’s in office.

This column returns to the wombats because when an unwritten law of federal politics is repealed after nearly seven decades, it’s worthy of note. From 1956, when the Coalition was in power, the wombat tribe (the junior coalition partner Country-turned-National Party) always got Trade—and it was usually the ministry of choice for the leader of the Country/National Party. Australians became accustomed to the idea that the deputy Prime Minister would also be the Trade Minister.

The law was created by John McEwan, who held Trade for 15 years. It says much for McEwan’s impact on the culture of the wombats that his iron grip on Trade persisted as party tradition, long after McEwan’s protectionist ethos had expired.

The man who followed McEwan as chief wombat, Doug Anthony, held Trade for eight years. The habit continued under John Howard, with his three Trade Ministers all emerging from the wombat burrow: Tim Fischer (3 years), Mark Vaile (7 years) and Warren Truss (1 year). The McEwanite tradition meant that, in Canberra bureaucratic wars, Trade spent almost as much time fighting the diplomats in Foreign as it did skirmishing with the econocrats in Treasury.

The Hawke government’s merger of Foreign and Trade seemed to threaten the wombat law. But when the coalition returned to power, Tim Fischer swept aside all objections (including the private doubts expressed by Alexander Downer that the ‘junior’ minister in DFAT, the Trade Minister, could not also be the deputy Prime Minister). Fischer wanted Trade and he got it. The ghost of McEwan still walked.

The man who started to dismantle the law was John Anderson. When Fischer retired, John Anderson took over as National Party leader but stuck with the portfolio he had, Transport and Regional Development. When Anderson retired in 2005, Mark Vaile became wombat king and was able to resume the McEwanist mantle as both deputy PM and Trade Minister.

Vaile, however, had to confront the tensions between what the Trade portfolio had become and what the modern National Party expected of its leader. The jet-propelled reality today is that Australia’s Trade Minister and Foreign Minister spend much of their working life out of the country; and out of the country is not where a Country Party leader should be. In 2006, Vaile switched to become Minister for Transport and Regional Services; wombat custom was served by giving the Trade job to the Nat’s deputy leader, Warren Truss.

In Opposition, Truss managed to get his hands on the shadow Trade job for the short period when Malcolm Turnbull was Opposition Leader. When Tony Abbott dethroned Turnbull, he gave the combined Foreign and Trade shadow portfolio to the Lib’s deputy, Julie Bishop. Thus did the wombat claws slip from Trade.

The impact of the Country/National Party on Australian trade policy is a subject where classical economics isn’t much help. Partly, this reflects the closed nature of the Nats and the way it operates. The Xinhua correspondent in the 1970s who translated the Country Party into Mandarin as the ‘Peasants’ Party’ was on to something: the Nationals are as much tribal and family as they are political. Canberra Press Gallery lore holds that the wombat cave is a dark and secret place—the Nats caucus is so small it almost never leaks.

The great contradiction in the National’s hold on Trade is that the Party was fiercely pure in its advocacy of international free trade for agriculture, while at home it has always operated, happily, as the party of the rural socialists. Because mineral exports face few trade barriers, the National Party has been able to maintain the view that Australian trade policy is all about farm exports. McEwantie habits meant that the Nats were slow to see logic that Australian agriculture would benefit from the dismantling of Australia’s own protectionist walls: on the conservative side of politics, that fight was led by the ‘dry’ wing of the Liberal Party and the National Farmers’ Federation.

By creating a Department of Trade and Investment, Abbott was taking a well-aimed kick at the simple equation that read trade policy = farm exports. And Abbot was also putting the boot into the protectionist thinking of some important wombats. As Phil Coorey wrote, Abbott stripped Trade from the wombats ‘because they are deemed too protectionist to spearhead an aggressive free trade and foreign investment agenda.’

To glimpse what Abbott feared in the wombat psyche, see this recent article by the Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, the deputy chief wombat who is waiting relatively patiently for his turn to take leadership of the tribe and become deputy Prime Minister:

The biggest issue challenging agriculture is turning trade aspirations into real returns at the farm gate; turning the excesses of green cost into something that pays its way in real time; ensuring that, when a person pays off their property, their rights are not usurped by an encumbrance not anticipated. Australia must also have the capacity to control its destiny, otherwise we are not a nation—we are merely a location.

The wombat language can be a bit opaque, but you get the idea that this isn’t the sort of stuff Australian Trade Ministers usually sprout. The Nats lost/released their hold on Trade because of the growing divide between what the bush thinks is good for the farm and what international trade policy demands.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Halans.