China Correspondent Beijing
You’ve got a fat, indexed pension. You’re no longer at the beck and call of often inconvenient constituents. You can turn off your mobile at night if you feel like a long sleep. But you’ve been kicked out of your job. It hurts. After years at the centre of every social event you attend, you’re just one of the crowd, joining queues rather than being ushered through.
No matter which party wins the election, one thing is certain: there will be losers. What do they do next after taking a breather?
Andrew Robb, one of the more successful ministers in the Coalition government — due in no small part to the completion of the three free-trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — has chosen to command his own fate.
Tomorrow he steps down as member for the Victorian seat of Goldstein after 12 years in parliament. At 64, he’s planning on launching yet another career.
Post-politics, few parliamentarians develop stellar new careers but most at least keep busy. On Robb’s side of politics, John Howard is a successful writer; Peter Costello chairs the Future Fund, which he helped to establish, and the Nine Network; Alexander Downer resumed his diplomatic career to become high commissioner in London; and Jeff Kennett chairs Hawthorn AFL Club and champions mental health charity Beyondblue with aplomb.
On the other side, Julia Gillard is an academic; Kim Beazley was a distinguished ambassador who has joined a think tank; Kevin Rudd is a global sage on the American scene; Bob Hawke is Australia’s most prominent China comprador; Paul Keating is a speaker, academic, writer, company director and adviser to investment bank Lazard; and Peter Garrett is returning to music.
They are some of the best known recent politicians, those whose sustained celebrity usually can command some kind of afterlife. For backbenchers and parliamentary secretaries or assistant ministers, the next step isn’t so obvious, especially for those who have known only politics as a career, whether their first steps were with a union, a corporate law firm or a think tank.
Those who imagine that boards of corporations or non-government organisations are straining to recruit politicians are prone to disappointment. The skills of a politician tend to be a mismatch with those of a director, who needs to be a team player with an eye for detail.
Companies also are disinclined to risk alienating those on the other side of the political divide.
Robb, despite having played the political game hard — including as director of the federal Liberals, running election campaigns, winning with Howard in 1996 to restore the party to power after 13 years in the wilderness — made few enemies on either side.
He knows how to rub along with people. He grew up as one of nine children on a dairy farm at Epping in Melbourne’s far north. He was an economist with the Victorian Agriculture Department, became executive director of the National Farmers Federation and the Cattle Council of Australia, deputy director of the federal Liberal Party, chief of staff to Andrew Peacock as opposition leader, director of the party for six years, then a business consultant and director including of the Garvan Medical Research Foundation.
He was elected to parliament in 2004, becoming vocational and further education minister before the party’s defeat in 2007. “I had lots of political experience but I still had a lot to learn as an MP,” he says. And he had to tread water in opposition for six years.
After he was beaten 44-25 by Julie Bishop in a caucus ballot for deputy leader, he became opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, then finance.
Then, with government in 2013, came his finest hour, as trade and investment minister — the first Liberal to be given the job in a Coalition government. After announcing his departure from parliament, he agreed to take up the special role of trade envoy. In that role he clinched an enhanced deal with Singapore and participated in Australia Week in China.
So, what’s next? Robb has been offered company directorships but is taking none of them. Instead, he will do just what he did for the three years before entering parliament, “setting up my own business as a self-trader with secretarial support, and making myself available to work with companies and other organisations”. He intends to help Australian firms trade and invest in the Asia-Pacific region, and to help Asia-Pacific firms do the same in Australia.
Staying on as a minister would have involved increasing time in Latin America and Africa develop ing stronger business connections, taking him out of Asia, the scene of his free-trade successes, where he feels an especial affinity.
“I didn’t want to look back later and see that, despite the architecture being put in place, it wasn’t being fully used,” he says. “I think I’m as well placed as anyone to help companies from both sides make the most of it.”
Agriculture, the sector in which Robb has spent most of his life, “has re-emerged into a very sweet spot”, he says. “Because of the free-trade agreements, we’re in a unique position to capitalise.”
On his list: work involving northern Australia, the very fast train, aged care, vocational training, and exploitation of the country’s fossil fuel reserves “in a way that is compatible with carbon dioxide issues”. With wife Maureen, he also is involved “at the investment level” with the Boathouse, a Sydney cafe and catering business, set up by their daughter Pip and her husband Andrew Goldsmith.
When asked about his biggest success, Robb changes gear. The trio of FTAs in a single year are not mentioned. “Obviously confronting my depression is the best thing I’ve done,” he says. “It’s a big high, though at the time that wasn’t obvious. But I did become very determined to see it through.”
Seven years ago he stepped down from the opposition frontbench for three months to address the depression triggered by a mood-dictating syndrome, diurnal variation. He spoke openly about it and wrote a book, Black Dog Daze: Public Life, Private Demons. “It had bedevilled part of my life for 43 years,” he says, “and finally I summoned the courage to confront it.” His confidence in his psychiatrist was a crucial element in turning the tide through the trial-and-error process of discovering suitable medication, he says.
Throughout he stayed in parliament. “Confronting it doesn’t mean you can’t keep on with your job. And you can go on to even higher levels of responsibility, which I have obviously done. I think that episode demonstrated that the stigma issue didn’t have to be a barrier.”
Now, he says, “as I travel around the world, I also see that Australia is viewed as a global leader in mental health issues, and I would like to help advance that leadership to help the many millions in the region around us who are suffering from those problems.”
After Robb recovered, he was given trade and investment portfolio. The trade side involved negotiating government to government, but the investment side hurled him into dealing with a business community with which he was long familiar. He hosted more than 80 investment round-tables in 28 countries.
“Some companies which had invested in Australia for 70 years had never met a minister,” he says.
Robb is sage enough to realise that, in an institution as competitive as parliament, talent and ambition sometimes have to take a back seat to luck and good timing.
“My ambition was certainly to become treasurer,” he says. “But by the time I returned in good form to the frontbench, all that had been settled.”