Australian-UK trade deal moves a step closer after Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson meet in London

Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson hammered out details at Downing St. Picture: Getty
Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson hammered out details at Downing St. Picture: Getty

Australia's first free trade deal with Britain has reached an in-principle agreement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said early Tuesday morning in London following negotiations with his counterpart Boris Johnson.

The deal, once signed, will make it easier for more Australians to obtain visas to travel to the UK and opens the pathway for the UK to join the 11-country CPTPP trade agreement.

The age limit for tourist-work visas for Australians will be lifted from 31 to 35.

It also scraps a rule that requires British citizens on a 12-month working visa to do 88 days work in the agriculture sector to extend their stay.

Most of the details negotiated this week were not made clear when Mr Morrison and Mr Johnson spoke to reporters in London on Tuesday.

"This is the most comprehensive and ambitious agreement that Australia has concluded," Mr Morrison said, describing it as a foundational partnership for both countries.

It is the first free trade deal that the UK has negotiated from scratch since leaving the European Union.

"Young people, or any people, can go and work much more easily in Australia, both ways," Mr Johnson said.

"There will be free exchange of British rent-a-Poms and indeed Australian campaign managers will be able to come more easily at work in this country."

Australia was frequently cited during the Brexit campaign and negotiations as a potential major new trading partner for the UK if it broke from the European Union, a promise that economists said made little sense.

Associate Professor Shiro Armstrong, an expert in international trade at ANU, said the government should not hype the benefits from the deal, as it would see more benefit from regional agreements and reforming the World Trade Organisation.


"It's one country and it's the other side of the world," Dr Armstrong said.

"It is great that we're going to have increased people movement, but the real action is going to be in our region, with the dynamic economies of the world in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, and in getting more assurances around people movement in a regional and multilateral setting."

The deal is Australia's 15th free trade agreement, with most of the major markets now covered under bilaterals or multi-country arrangements. The government is still negotiating agreements with the EU, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council, along with smaller economies in Central and South America.

Trade agreements with single countries have a much smaller payoff, Dr Armstrong said as each agreement takes significant resources, both administrative and political.

"You wouldn't want to sign agreements as political trophies," he said.

"This is a smaller Britain that's now trying to be global Britain ... We're not going back to the old Commonwealth Imperial preferences era."

Concessions in the Australian-UK deal, such as mutual recognition of professional qualifications and people movement was not standard, said Mark Melatos, an associate professor of economics from University of Sydney.

"I don't think this agreement is particularly important, from an actual economic point of view, but if they do significant things on those fronts then at least people will notice it."

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said there would be no loss of seasonal workers due to a 'mechanism' within the agreement. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said there would be no loss of seasonal workers due to a 'mechanism' within the agreement. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

The Nationals have assured farmers there will be no loss of seasonal workers under the Australian-UK deal.

Australia has yielded to the UK's request to scrap the rule tying mandating agriculture work for an extended visa.

There were fears such a move would remove more than 10,000 people out of the seasonal workforce, which is already under extreme pressure due to Covid border restrictions.

However, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said there won't be any loss in workforce "because of the mechanism that will be put in place".

"The National Party has secured an agreement from the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party to make sure that we look to other mechanisms to fill that gap," Mr Littleproud said in Canberra on Tuesday prior to the announcement from London.

Mr Littleproud said beef, lamb, rice and sugar would be big winners in the FTA.

Currently, of Australia's $50 billion in agricultural exports, just $730 million is sent to the UK.

"It's never been the panacea," Mr Littleproud said.

"This is just another feather in the cap. It will be free-trade agreement number 15, so this is about diversification and giving options for our producers to send boats left and right if they've got trouble in one particular market."

A spokesperson for Mr Morrison said the prime ministers held a positive meeting in London overnight have resolved outstanding issues in relation to the FTA.

"Their agreement is a win for jobs, businesses, free trade and highlights what two liberal democracies can achieve while working together," the spokesperson said.

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