Australian Financial Review
by Greg Earl
Andrew Robb struck a regretful note as he confirmed his departure from politics in federal Parliament on Thursday, reminding his colleagues he had started late in the place at the age of 53.
"And I feel in some ways I have been in a hurry ever since," the Trade Minister observed, no doubt pondering if he might have been overseeing the farewells if things had proceeded differently during the leadership tumult on both sides of politics since he entered Parliament in 2004.
But Robb's declaration that he wants one more career before he turns 68, only underlines what a diverse series of jobs he has already managed since starting out as a dairy farmer's son, turned Victorian government agricultural economist.
And in his standout career as the minister for four trade agreements in three years, he has shown the benefits of bringing pragmatic experience in and out of politics and business, to the diplomatic negotiating table and broader government.
Before entering Parliament Robb had headed the Cattle Council of Australia and the National Farmers' Federation, then moved up through the Liberal Party machine to run John Howard's 1996 election campaign, only to go back into business for a lucrative consulting career in Australia and Asia, including consulting to Kerry Packer.
This might be his legacy to a Parliament of increasingly younger political apparatchiks who can't call on work experience from Queensland sale yards to the backrooms of the Thai government when they make decisions about Australia's interests in the rising Asian era.
Malcolm Turnbull anointed Robb as Australia's greatest trade minister for knowing when to cut a deal with South Korea, Japan, China and then the United States over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something his Labor predecessors had struggled with despite doing much of the legwork.
But historians will still be debating how four deals now, when such deals are the flavour of the month, stack up against the watershed 1957 agreement with Australia's former enemy Japan by the Country Party's revered trade minister John McEwen, which set up the postwar resources industry.
Extending the mournful tone about his late start, Robb revealed: "I must say, there were many times in the last 12 years that I thought I might have miscalculated coming … into this place."
But when Robb sealed his first trade pact with South Korea amid the political chaos that followed the Abbott government's much maligned first budget, he underlined how a sense of having only a short time in office can bring real focus to a minister.
Robb's reputation as a trade minister would be further burnished if Australia can actually make some progress on a trade deal with India after tough negotiations for the past year, although that is looking less likely. Nevertheless his record so far will be handy when he hangs out his shingle in a likely future career opening doors for business.
But his third reflection about spending a long time in Opposition, both as a Liberal official and then MP, before snaring the ministerial job tailor-made for him, managing trade, investment and tourism, skated over some major challenges.
He lost the ballot for the deputy leadership to Julie Bishop after the 2007 election loss. She still has the job.
He returned from sick leave managing his depression in 2009 to kneecap then Opposition Leader Turnbull's inglorious negotiations with the Rudd government over a climate change deal.
And then in the run-up to the 2010 election, as the Coalition's policy development manager and finance spokesman, he struggled with the presentation of some policies in a poll that went down to the wire.
But that was all ancient history as he declared on Thursday: "There is a lot to learn in this place to be effective and to learn how to influence decisions and to get them through."