Illustration by Prospect

Australia has an outsized influence on British politics

Canberra has captivated attention in Westminster. Some things, from inhumane immigration policies to the strategies of Lynton Crosby, should remain deep down under
December 8, 2022

If you’re building something, it’s a good idea to check what’s worked elsewhere. When the framers of the Australian federation finalised their vision at the beginning of the last century, they sought to coopt the best of the British and American systems. Australia’s form of government is sometimes dubbed “Washminster”—a portmanteau of Washington and Westminster—but in practice there has always been more of the latter. 

The chambers of the Australian parliament are the House of Representatives and Senate, like the US. But the look and feel is unmistakably British, from the green and red leather benches to the golden mace carried in procession ahead of every sitting day by the serjeant-at-arms, who on ceremonial occasions still dresses in knee-breeches, stockings, white gloves, a shirt with a butterfly collar and bow, and silver-buckled shoes. 

The proceedings of the Australian parliament are recorded in Hansard. The pantomime of parliamentary Question Time is the centrepiece of the Canberra day. Old Parliament House even has an exact copy of the speaker’s chair designed by Augustus Pugin in 1849, with a royal coat of arms hewn out of oak from Westminster Hall and armrests incorporating timber from Nelson’s HMS Victory. One of the reasons why the author and journalist Donald Horne dubbed his homeland “The Lucky Country”, which was always meant as a term of derision rather than a nationalistic boast, was because Australia had been so lazily derivative. Its operating system had largely been imported from the “Mother Country”. 

More recently, however, the Antipodean effect on Westminster has outweighed the British effect on Canberra. Rupert Murdoch has obviously held sway for decades, exerting more influence over more years than all but a handful of British politicians. Then, of course, there is the impact of election guru Lynton Crosby, dubbed the “Wizard of Oz”. Crosby has advised Tory premiers, including Boris Johnson, and was first hired ahead of the 2005 general election by Conservative leader Michael Howard, in the hope that he could replicate the success Crosby achieved with former Australian prime minister John Howard. 

But the Aussie influence cuts much deeper, tactically and philosophically. It also shows up on the UK left. Keir Starmer will be studying the success of his Australian counterpart, the recently elected new prime minister Anthony Albanese, who in 2022 brought an end to almost a decade of conservative rule. On the right, there is a clear through-line from Australia’s tough approach to refugees to the UK government’s controversial Rwanda asylum plan. Across a range of areas, British politicians have copied solutions from the Antipodes. 

John Howard has been revered in British conservative circles since the 1990s, when he mentored the young William Hague, then leader of the Tory party; Howard also served as something of a southern lodestar for Iain Duncan Smith. The personal and ideological rapport between the leaders of the British Conservative and the Australian Liberal parties didn’t stop there. Malcolm Turnbull not only went to Brasenose, the same Oxford college later attended by David Cameron, but shared the same moderate and modernising inclinations. Theresa May, a friend of Turnbull’s from their university days in the early 1970s, credits the Australian with urging her husband, Philip May, to propose.

Boris Johnson got on roaringly well with Scott Morrison, a fellow post-truth prime minister who exhibited some disturbingly Trumpian traits. Johnson also hit it off with the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, an arch Anglophile, London-born and Oxford-educated, and even appointed him as an official UK trade adviser. Before becoming prime minister, Liz Truss likened British-Australian ties to the “great romance between Kylie and Jason” on the soap opera Neighbours.

More lasting than these personal affinities has been the policy transfer. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than on immigration, the hot-button issue of these nostalgic and often nativistic times. The UK’s points system, which was introduced in embryonic form by Tony Blair’s government in 2002, mimicked the Australian scheme formalised in the late 1980s. The Rwanda plan to deter asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel by threatening to transport them 4,000 miles away to central Africa was inspired by Australia’s “Pacific Solution”, the offshore processing of asylum seekers intercepted in the Indian Ocean who are then held in detention centres. (One such base on Manus Island was shut down after the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea, which had jurisdiction, ruled it unlawful.) The United Nations Refugee Agency has repeatedly slammed the Australian approach, which has left so many refugees languishing in legal limbo. Yet this policy has enjoyed bipartisan support in Canberra, where politicians point to how it has stopped the boats and broken the people smugglers’ business model—despite the mammoth financial, moral and reputational cost. 

Nowadays the joke in Whitehall is that if you want a minister to be interested in a policy recommendation, then you should label it as the “Australian model”. That badge has also become handy in selling policies to the electorate. When, during its negotiations with Brussels, the Johnson government looked like it was heading towards a no-deal Brexit, ministers spoke of an Australian-style trade arrangement in an attempt to sugarcoat the brutal economic reality. 

The joke is that if you want a minister to be interested in a policy then you should label it the “Australian model”

The imprimatur of conservative Australians is also coveted. In February 2022, then home secretary Priti Patel asked the former Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer—a staunch monarchist who was educated at Radley College and Newcastle University—to oversee a review of the UK Border Force, presumably to make sure that it emulated the Fortress Australia model. Patel’s successor as home secretary, Suella Braverman—with her “I have a dream” remarks on the Rwanda policy and her tabloid-friendly exclamations about an “invasion” along the southern coast—has even out-Aussied the Aussies.

“What really surprised me was how much Australia’s views on domestic and global politics were so eagerly sought in Britain,” says George Brandis, an Oxford-educated veteran of the Liberal–National coalition governments. Brandis served as a minister under Howard and in the cabinets of Abbott and Turnbull, and recently finished his posting as Australia’s high commissioner in London. The Johnson government’s 2021 National Security and Investment Act, aimed at curbing Chinese influence, was almost a carbon copy of Australia’s foreign interference law passed three years earlier. During the Trump years, the Foreign Office came to view the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, its Canberra counterpart, as a more reliable guide than the State Department when it came to dealing with China and navigating the wider Indo-Pacific region. Under Joe Biden, the US, UK and Australia have become yet more closely aligned through the Aukus nuclear security pact, much to the annoyance of the French.

In the modern-day Lucky Country, conservative thinkers also saw a vision for post-Brexit Britain: a prosperous nation, fiercely protective of its borders, with a close relationship with America, which can succeed independently in a region of occasionally disapproving neighbours. Or, to borrow a (John) Howardism, a country relaxed and comfortable with itself. It was a flawed prospectus: in reality, Brexit unleashed a version of the political chaos that followed the Howard era, when Australia saw five prime ministerships in the space of just eight years.

Under Rishi Sunak, the Australian influence will probably not be so strong as it would have been under Liz Truss. Truss’s Downing Street chief of staff was Mark Fullbrook, who worked for more than a decade alongside Lynton Crosby. But one of the lessons Sunak might continue to draw from the “Wizard of Oz” playbook is that elections can still be won from the most improbable of positions. The Liberal–National coalition won a miracle victory in 2019 despite all polls suggesting a drubbing. 

And Australia will doubtless remain a source of ideas. Sunak is on record as favouring the kind of arrangement legislated for by the Morrison government, which effectively forces social media giants such as Facebook to reimburse media publishers for use of their content. 

In the aping of Australia, the British right is merely playing catch-up. Progressives have been plundering Australian policy for decades. When Blair flew to Australia for a News Corporation conference on Hayman Island in 1995, he received tutelage from prime minister Paul Keating on how to deal with Rupert Murdoch. From an early age, the Aussie influence was formative to Blair. Three years of his childhood were spent in Adelaide, where his father taught at one of the universities. At St John’s College, Oxford, he became close friends with Geoff Gallop, a Rhodes scholar who went on to become the Labor premier of Western Australia, and Peter Thomson, an Australian Anglican theologian. It is tempting to think of Blair as Britain’s first Australian prime minister—especially when you add in the “call me Tony” informality and sunniness.

Perhaps not coincidently, it was on Australian soil that Blair delivered an early treatise on the state of the Labour party, in a lecture at Murdoch University in Perth shortly after he came third in his first bid for parliament at the 1982 Beaconsfield byelection. During a phase when the SDP was thought to be in the ascendant, Blair chided the Bennite left for clinging to an obsolete ideology. More surprisingly, however, he also took aim at the right-wingers in his party, claiming they had “basked for too long in the praise of the leader writers in the Financial Times, Times and the Guardian.” Blair suggested a fusion bringing together left and right. 

The election victory the following year of Bob Hawke provided Labour thinkers with a political and governing prototype. This charismatic former trade unionist liberalised markets, embraced privatisation and championed wealth creation while at the same time expanding the welfare state. But Labour leader Neil Kinnock showed little interest in Australian ideas, and for years turned down repeated offers of a meeting with Keating, who was leading economic policy for Hawke’s government at the time. “He never saw me and we used to get the drip back that we were labour fakers, that I was overtaken by some sort of alien orthodoxy,” Keating reflected later. Blair, by contrast, was captivated. “There was a direct influence,” says Gallop. “He liked this idea that you could do social justice and economic efficiency.”

Lessons in third way politics were first delivered in an Aussie twang rather than an Arkansas drawl

It is commonly thought that Blair and Gordon Brown were primarily imitators of Bill Clinton’s New Democrat agenda. But lessons in third way politics were first delivered in an Aussie twang rather than an Arkansas drawl. The Antipodean influence, while less flashy, was arguably more substantive.

“Australia basically invented the third way,” says Tom Bentley, a Briton now based in Melbourne, who ran the thinktank Demos before working for the government of Julia Gillard in Canberra. “Tony Blair and Gordon Brown constructed a British version of it. Hawke and Keating created a new standard of success that New Labour was really interested by.”

During the Blair years, then, the transmission belt of ideas cranked into high gear. Geoff Mulgan, who ran Blair’s policy shop in Downing Street, freely admits to having been an avid copier of Australian ideas. The most flagrant example of policy pilfering came in the aftermath of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when British athletes managed to win a solitary gold medal. Instructed by Blair to improve Britain’s Olympian standing, Mulgan sought to replicate the Australian Institute of Sport, a medals factory established after the Aussies had done disastrously at the Montreal games. Other, less showy, ideas were borrowed as well. New Labour’s regional development policies aped city-based strategies that evolved in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. When the Blair government sought to boost the nighttime economy through arts and culture, again it looked to the vibrant laneways of Melbourne. The drive to modernise infrastructure through public-private partnerships used an Aussie route map.

Good on you, mate: Boris Johnson is one of several Tory leaders to have worked with Lynton Crosby © Alan Davidson/Shutterstock Good on you, mate: Boris Johnson is one of several Tory leaders to have worked with Lynton Crosby © Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Good on you, mate: Boris Johnson is one of several Tory leaders to have worked with Lynton Crosby © Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Why, then, has Australia become such a wellspring of ideas? Kate Harrison Brennan is a colleague of mine at the Sydney University Policy Lab (whose founding director was Marc Stears, Ed Miliband’s former chief speechwriter and Liz Truss’s one-time tutor at Oxford). She thinks the unique challenges faced by a frontier nation, such as how a comparatively small population could thrive on such a large land mass, have spurred creativity. “Australia is perceived as being a serious innovator,” says Harrison Brennan, whose doctorate is from Oxford. The element of a fresh start also plays a part. “Not much was expected of us, and that produced a ‘renegade team’ that did things differently.” For example, Australia constructed “Generation 2.0 of the welfare state,” she says—a hybrid model, not so reliant on government, that provided greater scope for innovation. More generally, one should “never overlook the significance of personal relationships and cultural ties” between Britons and Australians when it comes to one country copying the approach of the other.

“Prosperity and reform attract policymakers’ attention,” says Anne Tiernan, an expert in Australian governance. Incredibly, until the pandemic, Australia had avoided recession for almost three decades, a success attributed to the modernisation of its economy in the early 1990s. “The 28 years of uninterrupted growth that followed Australia’s economic reforms were obviously going to make people ask, ‘what lessons can be learnt?’” Nor is it just the Australian economic model, Tiernan says. “As a Westminster-style system that is also a federation, Australia offered a useful point of reference for Britain as it pursued greater devolution.”

Are there political and policy lessons now for Keir Starmer, especially after the Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s victory in May 2022’s federal election? An obvious lesson to draw is that pragmatism trumps principle in progressive politics. Albanese is from the left of his party, a John Prescott-like bruiser who almost emerged from the womb fighting conservatism. As leader, however, he has undergone an extreme political and physical makeover. His dramatic weight loss came after a car crash early in 2021, which served as a wake-up call. Albanese reported thinking “This is it” a split second before the impact—longevity has loomed larger since. 

Albanese, the Labor leader, ran a “small target campaign”, with less for his opponents to aim at

His political shapeshifting stemmed from the fear that Labor faced an existential threat after losing the 2019 election, which the party thought was in the bag. The main takeaway from the election post-mortem was that it had been a mistake to run on such an ambitious programme of reform. So Albanese offered a meagre menu of manifesto pledges and ran what Labor strategists delighted in calling a “small target” campaign, with less for his opponents to aim at.

Labor also benefitted from voter disfavour towards an exhausted and incompetent nine-year-old government and a widespread loathing of Morrison. Though Albanese faced a prime ministerial plausibility problem from day one of his campaign, when he was unable to recall either the interest or unemployment rates, he was judged more trustworthy than Morrison.

Maybe Starmer will pull off his own victory against Sunak. But “Albo”, as he is commonly known, is arguably more likeable and less opaque than his UK counterpart. Raised by a single mother in public housing, he has a personal backstory that people also find endearing. Then there is his obsession with rugby league, which has not only boosted his Australian everyman credentials but also made it harder for conservative opponents to tag him as a metropolitan elitist. Though occasionally tongue-tied and beset by stage fright during the campaign, he was nonetheless seen as authentic. “Starmo” is not “Albo”.

A model of success: Australia’s Anthony Albanese on election night in 2022 © WENDELL TEODORO/AFP via Getty Images A model of success: Australia’s Anthony Albanese on election night in 2022 © WENDELL TEODORO/AFP via Getty Images

A model of success: Australia’s Anthony Albanese on election night in 2022 © WENDELL TEODORO/AFP via Getty Images

Maybe the unhurriedness of Albanese’s three-year campaign for the prime ministership offers a guide. His aim, as he frequently put it, was to be kicking with the wind in the final quarter—a metaphor drawn from rugby league and Australian rules football. He managed the timing exquisitely. “Patience and stamina really do matter,” says Tom Bentley, who thinks there are other lessons for Starmer. “Pick your ground and stick to it. ‘Albo’ was criticised for not putting enough up and having a small target strategy, but it worked for him.”

Australian Labor’s victory in 2022 could hardly be described as giving them a thumping mandate. The party narrowly won a parliamentary majority with its lowest primary vote since the 1930s. But in a country where only three previous postwar Labor leaders had ousted a Liberal prime minister, a win is a win is a win. Moreover, from the moment of victory Albanese signalled a more ambitious approach. On election night, he championed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a proposal for constitutional reform that would grant First Nations people a more central voice after centuries of being silenced, neglected and marginalised.

For Sunak, the Liberal defeat offers its own lesson. Trust had gone in the basic competence of the Conservative government. Australians had tired of the culture wars. Morrison sounded shrill, desperate and bereft of ideas. The new Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, a right-wing former policeman currently polling badly, looks like a one-man job security scheme for Albanese. So while some Liberals believe they were not sufficiently conservative enough at the last election, Dutton’s unpopularity suggests that that is the wrong conclusion to draw from their defeat.

Much is naturally being made of Rishi Sunak’s Indian heritage, but doubtless he will also cast his gaze further east, as all his recent predecessors have done. For gone are the days when it required excellent peripheral vision to notice what was happening in Canberra. In British policymaking circles, the land down under is now front and centre.