Address to the European Australian Business Council

15 August 2023


Address to the European Australia Business Council


Thanks very much for having me.


Before we start, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re meeting today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.


I know you asked me here today to talk trade policy, which I’m very happy to do.


But given the very sad loss of our mutual friend and colleague, Simon Crean, I thought I would use a large part of my formal remarks to say a few things about Simon.


As all of us here today know, Simon Crean was a great Australian. 


He leaves a legacy as a major architect of modern Australia’s engagement with the world.


The long arc of Simon’s career tells a big story. 


A life of leadership. 


The leader of Australia’s union movement, the leader of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Opposition.


A respected community leader in Melbourne, a leader at two of Melbourne’s top universities, and, in his final role, Chair of one of Australia’s most respected business bodies, the European Australian Business Council.


Simon’s was a career of service, and of contribution to the Australian national story in the largest of ways.


Those who knew him know there were important guiding threads in that big arc that was his life, and his contribution to our country.


The first of those threads was his absolute dedication to Australia and its people. 


Simon believed in public service, and he believed that public policy, service to the community, and serving business were about providing opportunity, jobs, economic growth and improving the welfare of Australians.


It’s why he had no trouble moving from the workers’ advocate, to decades later into the big boardrooms of Australia – like this one.  He was never about the sectional interest.  For Simon, it was always about the greater good for the nation.


A second thread was his relentless ambition for Australia - in seizing the opportunities presented to our nation.


Simon always saw opportunity in every engagement he had, whether at a trade union conference, a parliamentary debate, or an international negotiation. 


Seize the opportunity, he’d say.  And he’d seize it to the full.


A third was his belief in the power of the economy and economic reform to build opportunity for our nation. 


This belief was there right back in his time as ACTU President in the 1980s negotiating with the government and business on the Prices and Incomes Accords.


It was evident in his role within the Hawke and Keating cabinets of the 1990s implementing the critical reforms of that era.


And it was central to his role in trade policy in government and as EABC Chair.


These threads were consistently woven into the fabric of his life of service to Australia. 


Simon was driven by a firm belief in the power of an open economy embracing the world to improve the welfare of the Australian people. 


He spoke with authority and commitment to the role of international trade in boosting the Australian economy. 


It’s no coincidence that in her eulogy Carole half-joked - and I’m pretty sure she was only half-joking about this - that if we asked Simon what we should do right now, he’d say as one of his two priorities for the country: “let’s get the FTA done” with Europe.


The Albanese Government shares this view and is working hard to conclude negotiations.


For Australia, a deal needs to deliver commercially-meaningful market access to the EU, particularly for key agricultural products.


It will come as no surprise to anyone in this room that the Europeans are offering too little and demanding too much.


As Assistant Trade Minister, it’s my job to go into bat for better market access for Australia’s farmers.


The Government is determined to secure a deal, but not at any cost.  As a former trade negotiator, Simon understood this position well.


As both the Prime Minister and Bill Kelty said at his funeral, Simon was fond of telling us to “join the dots”. 


You didn’t have to spend much time with him to learn that he was constantly doing just that. 


Thinking creatively.  Working out how we could bring policy communities, workers, business, and indeed nations together in pursuit of the greater good. 


For Simon, it was always about the big picture. He could imagine that picture because he covered so much ground in his political life. A Minister in so many portfolios: Science, Education, Employment, Agriculture, Arts, Regional Australia and of course Trade.


It helped him see the dots and see the opportunity where others might have overlooked them. 


And then he would bring people together to join these dots across all the sectors and communities he knew so well.


It’s why he was such a great Chair of the EABC: he brought all this experience, energy and creativity to the role.


And it was his integrity and his ability to engage people of all backgrounds that drove every encounter at the personal level. 


Whether it was over a negotiating table at the World Trade Organization in Geneva confronting Ministers from the world’s biggest economies - or over a coffee table at his beloved café in Middle Park, whoever Simon encountered he knew he was going to win them over. 


He was a born negotiator: for the unions, for the government, for the Australian business community, and for Australia. 


No matter how much resistance he encountered: “We’ll get them in the cart!” he’d say flashing that crooked smile we all know so well.


And get them in the proverbial cart, he invariably would.


He did none of this with self-promotion, or with hubris.


The power of conviction was what won us all over. 


It’s precisely why President George Bush was able to tell Simon privately that his Parliamentary speech opposing the Iraq war, had been a “fine speech”. 


Simon was powered by conviction, and everyone saw it.


Everyone in this room knows that a big part of defining Australia, opening Australia, and building Australia, is achieved through our economic engagement with the world.


That was why trade policy was such a big passion for Simon.


As Minister for Trade from 2007 to 2010, Simon would bring his trademark passion to the task of further internationalising the Australian economy.


He saw that task as the other side of the coin to the Hawke-Keating domestic economic reforms – the reforms in which he had played such an important role a couple of decades earlier.


As Trade Minister he was instinctively committed to the Australian Labor Party tradition of multilateralism.


At a time when bilateral agreements were all the fashion, Simon never neglected the foundations of the global trading system, ensuring Australia was at the big table of the World Trade Organization, and investing, building and reinforcing that system. 


He is still remembered by many of those Ministers who encountered him at that time, from the US, to Brazil, to India.  And sometimes he is remembered with some trepidation, given the force of his engagement during the tough negotiations he led during the Doha Round. 


Throughout that time, he made the foundations of the WTO stronger.  And we have again seen the benefits of that continued strong investment in the WTO earlier this month, with the successful conclusion of the dispute with China over barley - a dispute which was resolved with the support of the WTO’s dispute settlement system. 


As Trade Minister, Simon played a pivotal role in building our region’s economic architecture. 


It was Simon’s decision as Trade Minister to bring Australia into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, boosting our role, our voice, in writing the rules of the road in our region. 


It’s no coincidence that he was also the Minister who landed the big ASEAN-centred deal, the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, or AANZFTA. 


That deal, in turn, would become the precursor of the other major regional agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. 


It is a proud legacy Simon has left in a stronger regional economic order.


And more recently he continued to serve on this mission of building our links with the world, as your Chair, here, at the Europe Australia Business Council. 


His next big priority, like yours, was to help us complete our network of free trade agreements across the world. 


He saw, rightly, the Free Trade Agreement with the EU as the next chapter in the story. 


As Trade Minister, Simon played a significant role in building modern Australia and its global destiny, so much of which depends on our economic engagement with the world.  


Indeed, the arc of Simon’s contribution to our national story mirrors in many ways the very same arc that modern Australia has itself travelled. 


A country that was more protected, more inward-looking forty years ago, has travelled a long distance, to become more confident, more outward looking, more engaged with the world. 


Simon saw that arc, he travelled it, and he was a big part of it. 


And he was buoyed, I know, being on that last mission with many of you in Europe, ready to have another tilt at getting the Europeans into the cart.


When he left us, he was still very much “on mission”, as he always was.


I know you would have all experienced, in the various conversations with Simon here in Sydney, or in his beloved Melbourne, or on buses and trains and aeroplanes with him over recent years, that power of conviction and his belief in the possibilities of modern Australia.


And indeed, I last saw Simon when we caught up for breakfast in an airport lounge in Melbourne.


He was full of energy and enthusiasm, discussing the EU FTA, the WTO, the debate about trade policy in the Parliament and within the labour movement, and the role of modern industry policy in the context of Australia being a confident, outward-facing, open market trading nation.


It was quite a conversation – they always were. And I was struck by how fit, energetic and full of life he was.


He would have been here in this room with us today, no doubt asking the toughest questions, challenging, urging, and demanding the best of us all.


And I know it must have been particularly hard for those of you who were with him, at the outset of the last visit to Europe, to have lost him there in Berlin.


But the support you offered Carole, and through her to their daughters, at that incredibly difficult time was precious and especially important.


I want to pay my tribute to you all and the way you went about dealing with and then commemorating the life of this great Australian who was with you on his last mission to Europe.


To Jason, the Board and the whole mission, I want to pay tribute to you for the way you handled those sad days of his passing. 


And I know you will join me too in thanking Philip Green, our Ambassador in Berlin, and his team for the fine way they supported Carole and the whole delegation on those very difficult days.


Simon’s legacy is an important one. 


Of course, our work here endures.


Talks between Australia and the EU will continue.


Beyond the complementarity of our economies, the size of the Europe market with almost half a billion people, Australia’s vast reserves of critical minerals, industrial capability and Australia’s vantage point proximate to the fastest growing region of the world in human history, this proposed deal is manifestly in the economic, security and industrial interests of both of us.


But the deal put forward in Brussels a few weeks ago offered too little and asked too much – particularly in access to markets for Australian food products.

Collective advocacy here, building on the momentum that Simon drove for so long and with such vigour, will be key.


You are, I am sure, proud to have counted him as your Chair. 


He was and shall ever remain a great Australian, and a great contributor to the Australian national story. 


And his role as the Chair of the EABC was an important chapter in that story. 


He joined a lot of dots as your Chair, chased a lot of promise, and continued to fight for the opportunity he saw in our country’s future, and for the role that our economic engagement with the world could play in it.