Former Trade Minister Andrew Robb is to become the new chairman of Australia’s premier regionally focused organisation, Asialink.
He will be the first chief who does not come from Asialink’s great patrons, the Myer family. Sid Myer is stepping down after 11 years in the role.
Mr Robb is also set to become a player in the corporate field on his own account. He is establishing, with 50 per cent ownership, an investment fund seeking to kickstart projects he has long supported, especially in agribusiness where “the opportunities for Australia are spectacular”.
Mr Robb’s business partner will be Ashok Jacob, a former chief executive of the Packer family company Consolidated Press Holdings and now executive chairman of Ellerston Capital.
The former Liberal heavyweight, who retired from politics earlier this year after landing three trade agreements with Australia’s biggest Asian partners, will be the executive chairman of the new fund — which does not yet have a name.
He believes the Trans Pacific Partnership, in which he also played a major negotiating role, should be “left in the top drawer” despite US president-elect Donald Trump’s antipathy — because he believes pressure will build from American business to revisit it as, for instance, the tariff gap widens in Australia’s favour for selling beef to Japan.
He rejected criticism after he became a “high-level economic consultant” with Chinese company Landbridge, which operates Darwin Port, “implying I had switched sides”.
He said his involvement with the company was “about making things happen”, such as the six-star hotel and the industrial estate that Landbridge was also building in Darwin, as well as a role using his knowledge and contacts to help it globalise.
Mr Robb told The Australian at the weekend during a visit to Beijing: “I’m trying to engage in activities that cross over.”
He wants to help make Melbourne-based Asialink, which also has a Sydney office and already holds 300 events a year, “even more truly Australia-wide”.
And he will seek to use its authority to ensure “Australia seizes its big opportunity” to engage more effectively with Asia, including economically following the completion of the FTAs — to be joined, he anticipated, by a deal with Indonesia, for which he praised his successor Steve Ciobo.
Since the new trade arrangements have been put in place, he said, “there has been a revolution in terms of selling stuff, but virtually no investment into any parts of the region”.
“As a result, we are not putting down any roots into these countries. The linkages are pretty well one-way, even in education — which should be the principle vehicle — and despite the excellent New Colombo Plan” that funds Australian students for spells in Asia.
Mr Robb is also chairman of the Perth-based Australian School of Management, “which has a big focus on joint ventures in the region. The margins might not be quite so high but the numbers are huge.”
He would like to see degrees jointly badged with Asian institutions, for which Australians might spend a semester or a year at the Asian campus.
He said that taking a senior role with Asialink and other Asia-focused bodies and businesses would help him to maintain and use the links he had built in the region through his years in government and business.
He anticipates that when he is travelling in Asia, Asialink will help provide platforms to speak on behalf of Australian engagement. “If I am to continue to encourage people I know to invest in Australia — and in Asia — I could have more influence with them if I put my money on the table too, if I had skin in the game.”