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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

In Conversation with the Hon. Christopher Pyne


Kendall O'Donnell and I, as contributors representing The Bruges Group, had the opportunity to speak to the Honorable Christopher Pyne, a long-serving former Cabinet Minister in the Australian Government, holding portfolios ranging from Education to Defence.

We spoke on matters ranging from the domestic, such as Australia's Covid policy and the nature of Federation, and international, such as the Foreign Relations Act or the geopolitical shifts in the Indo-Pacific. As a longstanding partner and ally to the United Kingdom, he spoke on the recent United Kingdom-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed between both countries' Prime Ministers, concerns about agricultural goods, and U.K.'s role – if any – in the CPTPP.

The Hon. Christopher Pyne, speaking as Leader of the House and an MP, before retiring in 2019.

When asked about his time as Minister for Defence, credited with the most significant buildup of defences in peacetime, Pyne said that this was a result of "President Trump calling on the allies to 'step up'", referring to the then-controversial move by him to call on other countries to 'step up to the plate' of defence spending, as well as the publishing of the Defence White Paper in 2016, relating to Australian investment in homegrown defence capability, whether it be missiles or sub marine warfare. He said it was "the right one", and that "it will continue for many years to come".

On the question of the UK-Australia FTA, especially his previous comments that Australia had the upper hand, as well as agricultural concerns, Pyne said "If only there was an influx of low-priced agricultural goods from Australia to the UK, that would be good for the consumer", citing how British consumers would receive "decent lamb and agricultural produce" for lower prices, versus the "closed market" he described in Britain. He said that "with Free Trade, the consumer is the big winner", saying "this is something the EU has managed to steadfastly managed to avoid for the last 50 years". He described the UK "turning its back" on Australia, New Zealand, and Canada in order to join the EEC back in the 1970s as "leaving...[us] our own devices", saying it was "casting us adrift as easily as a bottle of champagne after the races". However, he warned Australians that "we shouldn't pretend that somehow, the UK is doing us a big favour in allowing us to have a free trade agreement with the British. We have done very well without the British who joined the EU in the '70s. It was their choice to Brexit and we are, quite frankly, out of the goodness of our hearts and the closeness of our silos, prepared to have a free trade agreement with the British".

Pyne noted how in the 1970s, the decision by the Heath Government to join the EEC without giving Australia and 10 to 15-year grace period to reorient its economy, "left a very bitter taste".

On 'The Quad', Pyne described it as a dialogue between the 4 countries of India, Japan, and the United States, noting how "containment of China" is not a formal purpose of it. Australia's military buildup, Pyne said, was because "Australia needs to do its bit", describing the Australian Defence Force as being "The first in and the last out". Pyne reiterated the need to "continue to sharpen the sword" so that the ADF is "able to make a contribution, not just make up the numbers". Pyne said that the buildup in military spending was more of a recognition that previous defence spending – the 1.65% of GDP under Labor Governments – was the lowest since 1938.

"It was time we recognised the realities of our region and started to invest in our military, and given capability was our number one priority, and industry our number two priority, we thought we might as well invest in our own industry" - Pyne on increased defence spending as Defence Minister.

In terms of the question of Coronavirus policy in Australia, plus ongoing tussles between state governments, especially state Labor governments (Queensland, Western Australia, and Victoria etc.), and the Federal Coalition government, longtime Federal Minister Pyne said it was less a matter of either "states deliberately undermining federation" or "Federal lack of leadership", but more "a dissonance between public policy being announced nationally by the National Cabinet and its delivery on the ground – because the health systems are run by the states, but most of the money comes from the Commonwealth.". Pyne described the inevitable conflict between, "one government delivering the money and one government delivering the service – it comes with the territory". Considering the broader Covid picture, Pyne noted the success of Australia's Covid strategy and how, unfortunately, it created a certain complacency among Australians about getting vaccinations.

On the EU's role in the Indo-Pacific, Pyne discussed how individual states in the EU, especially France, had territories in the region and were thus important in maintaining their interest in the region. Pyne also praised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his interest in the region.

When asked about foreign interference issues, a particularly relevant issue in light of 2020's Foreign Relations (States and Territories) Act, Former Science Minister Pyne said, "I think we have led the world, particularly the Five Eyes countries.", and that "Australia's made a decision around some of those matters that they should look closely at", noting how this has made changes in Wellington, Washington, Ottawa, and London.

Pyne said that "Australia's never had an isolationist party.... we've always been open to the world.". When asked further about the Foreign Relations Act – specifically, the cancellation of the state of Victoria in China's Belt and Road Initiative, and how the Foreign Minister would be able to distinguish co-operation with 'infiltration', he said that S. 51 of the Australian Constitution laid out how external affairs were to be an exclusively Federal power, and "for a state and territory to think they could make such treaties, suggests a dramatic departure from the responsibilities that were reserved for the Commonwealth in 1901, versus those that were left for the states and territories". Specifically discussing Victoria's participation, he described it as a "sad and sorry period".

On the Biden Administration, he described him as a "Conservative, Catholic, Democrat, in the Kennedy mold.", and that the much more predictable nature of the new administration would only work to Australia's advantage.

When discussing his address to the University of Adelaide when he received his honorary doctorate on the likelihood of conflict, he said "the world is more dangerous today, than 5 or 6 years ago", and that he didn't see a time when the U.S. wouldn't support Australia when threatened – but he didn't foresee traditional kinetic warfare appearing in the Indo-Pacific, or at least one that would threaten Australia.

On the question of CANZUK and Todd Muller's past suggestion to us that the U.K.'s participation in the CPTPP was close to an agreement, while he said that an FTA between the 4 countries "makes sense", he warned that "Canada might need to rethink its policies that are significantly diriges", pointing at Canada's military offset programme as a possible sticking point.

However, he didn't support the U.K. joining the CPTPP, as it was not in the !ndo-Pacific, describing it as a case of "horses for courses".

"Countries that are in Europe, that aren't in the Indo-Pacific, shouldn't pretend to be in the Indo-Pacific" - Pyne on why he doesn't support the UK's participation in the CPTPP.

We were fortunate to hear from Christopher Pyne, speaking from his experiences as Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for Defence, as well as a long-serving Cabinet Minister. 

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