It is often said, in a phrase once attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, that there are three categories of mistruths: lies, damned lies and statistics. By the same token there are three types of geeks: geeks, super-geeks and trade negotiators.
Trade negotiators know the difference between the bound and applied tariff on imports of cars into Brazil. They know the quota for frozen lamb that can imported into the EU from New Zealand. They know their way around all 22,500 pages of commitments made by different countries at the end of the Uruguay round of trade talks in 1993. These people are experts and, despite what the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said, Tony Abbott is not one of them.
Expertise, though, is not why the UK government is thinking about hiring the former Australian prime minister as a trade envoy. He is not being lined up as a details man, but because he is an evangelist for free trade and his government signed deals with three of Asia’s biggest economies: China, Japan and South Korea. All these agreements had been worked on for years but Abbott got them over the line.
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There are two phases to any trade deal: the technical phase where officials haggle over what should and shouldn’t be protected, and a delivery phase where the politicians are called in to settle the outstanding issues.
The government has already hired a vastly experienced trade technician in Crawford Falconer, the former New Zealand ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Falconer is a tough and wily negotiator, although by all accounts an under-used resource.
Abbott doesn’t claim to have Falconer’s grasp of the nitty-gritty, but that wouldn’t be his role. His job would be give log-jammed negotiations a political push and so get free trade deals over the line. Or as he put it to the Policy Exchange thinktank this week: “Look, obviously as prime minister you are not dealing with the minutiae of trade deals. You are dealing with things at the very highest of levels.
“You are reassuring heads of other governments that you would like to bring about a deal that is a win-win situation as soon as as possible, and you are encouraging senior officials not to be held up by things that are not all that important and not to be distracted by things that are not really issues of trade but might, forargument’s sake, be issues of the environment.”
Whether the former Liberal party prime minister will have the chance to prove his worth remains to be seen. Despite plenty of speculation, the government has yet to confirm his appointment and might decide that Abbott’s reputation for misogyny and homophobia means he will be more trouble than he is worth.
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