Trade Secretary Liz Truss and her team of advisers have been accused of launching an “unprovoked attack” on Australian trade deal negotiators ahead of potentially pivotal talks beginning today (22 April).
Australian trade minister, Dan Tehan, was described by an ally of Truss as “inexperienced compared to Liz” and as responsible for “glacially slow” progress.
Canberra has been accused of being “slow to move on key UK asks” including services, investment and business visas – particularly for legal services and management consultancy.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, however, the spat has been confected by allies of Truss to allow her to claim credit for a breakthrough in the talks, which are thought to be progressing well.
Draft by Friday?
The Herald claims that if progress is made on the remaining issues as expected, Tehan and his delegation will have the chance to sign a draft deal on Friday.
It could then be formally signed when Australian PM Scott Morrison visits the UK in June for the G7 summit of world leaders.
Scotch whisky and cars
The UK also wants to see 5% Australian tariffs slashed on Scotch whisky and cars.
Canberra is pushing for wins on agriculture, particularly lower tariffs on meat exported to Britain.
A bilateral trade deal between the two nations is expected to boost UK exports to Australia by around £900 million.
Although the Australian government has not replied to the comments, Dr Jeffrey Wilson, research director of the Perth US-Asia Centre at the University of Western Australia, told the Guardian that the remarks would “damage trust between the ministers”.
Wilson added that Australia had not succumbed to a year of “trade bashing” in talks with its number one trade partner in China, so it is unlikely to be “bullied” by the UK.
In contrast to British barbs, a senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) official in Australia told the Herald that Tehan was highly respected because of his experience.
Although new to the cabinet, he has decades of experience in diplomacy and trade negotiations including helping negotiate Australia’s free trade deal with the Bush administration in the US in 2004.
“If this was briefed by a member of Truss’s staff, that is very disrespectful,” the official said. “It’s also a very bad tactic. It won’t work.”
According to DFAT figures, the UK is Australia’s 8th largest two-way trading partner, worth $26.9bn (£15bn) in 2018.
It is also Australia’s third largest services trading partner, with Australian services exports to the UK worth £3bn and imports valued at £5bn in 2018.
UK government figures show UK businesses traded £18.1bn worth of goods and services with Australia in 2019.