A stronger trading relationship with the UK has been a bone of contention, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spruiking a prospective new free trade agreement but former Liberal Democrat leader and deputy British PM Nick Clegg dismissing closer Commonwealth ties as “nonsense on stilts”.
Clegg told reporters last month Britain “will never, ever, conduct trade with countries on the other side of the planet as intensely and as effortlessly as we can with our near neighbours… that is a complete and utter illusion”.
But South Australia’s Agent-General in the UK Bill Muirhead insists there are “definitely opportunities” for Australia – with South Australian businesses well-positioned to capitalise in the post-Brexit world.
Muirhead, in town to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of South Australia for his services to the state, told InDaily while the impact of Brexit remained a great unknown, he was optimistic about improved trade opportunities.
The influential advertising executive at M&C Saatchi – who helped orchestrate former Tory PM David Cameron’s 2015 election victory after successful campaigns in the Thatcher and Major eras – was previously critical of the Brexit vote, telling News Corp in 2016 he objected to “the thought of Britain retreating into a small, selfish island”.
But he believes “the opportunity for us [as a state] should be very good”.
“It’s obviously incredibly complicated… and in some ways a little bit scary,” he said of the process to extricate Britain from the European Union, but “I think there’s lots of good opportunities for us as a state”.
“Brexit has become a very divisive thing… I’ve seen people falling out with each other – friends and even in families – so clearly it’s quite an emotional thing,” he said.
“Because it’s so complex, my view is it might take longer to get to a deal of some sort, because there’s too much to lose on both sides.”
Britain is set to leave the EU next March, with Muirhead suggesting the country should be “looking to negotiate a free trade agreement straight away with us”.
“Australia as a brand is deeply loved by the British, so I’m sort of optimistic – we’ve had an increased number of calls [to the office of the Agent-General] and people asking about it, so it ought to be a good opportunity, certainly for SA, to get out front and centre.”
Muirhead says local businesses “need to be proactive in looking at the opportunities that are going to be presented”.
A new trade agreement, he says, “should take away a lot of the tariff barriers that have caused problems in the past”.
“I think there’ll be more opportunities… I think sometimes people forget the importance of Europe, and particularly the UK because it’s such a huge market and there’s such historic ties,” he said.
“Because it’s a huge market, the guys that are proactive about it are, I think, going to be winners.”
He said while SA was “small in relative terms [compared] to the other states” we “punch above our weight” in areas such as premium food and wine, while sectors such as defence, mining and minerals, agriculture and “particularly tourism” offered “a great opportunity”.
“I think the British feel a great affinity towards us… in my other career in advertising I’ve worked with a lot of leading brands, and the one thing they think about us in Australia is that we’re friendly, I think there’s generally a feeling we’ve got a society that’s free of a lot of the problems they’re facing in Europe,” he said.
“There’s a lot of goodwill towards us [and] as a brand, I think we’re in a good spot.”
Muirhead suggested SA was a niche brand, saying the state “can’t pretend we’re things we’re not”.
“We don’t have Sydney Opera House, we can’t move the border north to include Uluru,” he said.
But he said the state was well-positioned because of its smaller size than bigger states, “certainly from a cost point of view, because we’re smaller and we can grow faster”.
Surprisingly, given SA’s reputation as a public service state, Muirhead said “we’ve had smaller government, so we can do things quicker”.
“Probably the [smaller] size means we somehow feel less bureaucratic,” he said.
“I’ve got a job in the private sector as well, and I don’t feel like I’m working in a government department [as Agent-General]… I’ve had access to ministers, we’ve been able to do things to raise awareness for SA in a positive way [and] I think that will continue.”
Muirhead has met with members of the new Marshall Liberal Government while in Adelaide, saying “they’re determined I think to expand the opportunities [and] hopefully that will all happen”.
“But we can’t pretend we’re something we’re not – we’ve got to provide policies that will attract businesses to invest here,” he said.
“We need a clear sort of brand – the [Brand SA logo] brand we have is very good, it says where we are and that we’re a gateway into Australia.”
He says in selling the state in the UK and Europe “we focus very much on Adelaide” as a city-state, and eschew the acronym ‘SA’.
“We’ve banned using ‘SA’ in Europe, because ‘SA’ means ‘South Africa’ to Europeans,” he said.
“We concentrate on Adelaide, which is a great name and a great city.”
While he’s apprehensive about the Brexit process – “I’ve got friends who have fallen out with each other, it’s become such a complex issue in its own right” – he maintains the UK will remain a powerhouse after it leaves the EU.
“This is the fifth biggest economy in the world – it’s not a backward place, it’s a financial centre, it has a very good record on rule of law,” he said.
“Business doesn’t like uncertainty [but] other places have far bigger problems.”
The question is to what extent local businesses can capitalise on the far-flung uncertainty – and how the Agent-General can help leverage that into an ongoing partnership.
“My job is all about creating jobs in SA,” Muirhead said.
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