Australian Financial Review
by Primrose Riordan

Back in 2009, former trade minister Andrew Robb, now lauded for signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean free trade agreements, thought his career was over.

After years of struggling to get out of bed, he had finally gone to a psychiatrist. “It kept getting worse and worse as I got older. When I finally confronted [my depression] I assumed that this was probably the end of my political career,” he says.

He reckons that owning up to his mental health problems would have cost him his job in the past. But it was this openness and his eventual recovery that motivated him to throw himself back into politics and show mental illness can be managed.

“I was able to continue with my career and even assume more responsibility,” he says.

Political fight

It’s a far cry from the highs of signing major deals languishing for years in the too-hard basket as trade minister. Robb managed to get the South Korean deal signed amid former prime minister Tony Abbott’s difficult first budget in 2014, and then, after a big political fight with the Labor Party and the unions, he signed the China Free Trade deal in 2015. It had been 10 years in the making.

He said two factors helped seal the deals. The first was adding investment to the trade portfolio for the first time – which allowed him to understand what was at stake on both sides – and the second had to do with understanding more about the pressures his opponents faced during negotiations.

“There’s never been an investment minister for Australia on either side of politics. In the three years, I did something like 85 investment roundtables in 28 countries. Not only that, I met in Japan a lot of the principals, the CEO and the chairmen of the big trading houses.

"Some of them have been operating in Australia for 100 years or more and I went in and, in a sense, paid my respects. In terms of the free trade agreement it helped me understand [the process] in a way my predecessors probably didn’t have the opportunity to. That is, I would find out what they wanted as a business sector for their minister in a negotiation and I found out a lot more about the pressures that were on the person sitting across the table from me in a negotiation,” he says.

After leaving politics in February, Robb joined investment bank Moelis & Company.

What the judges said:

The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement is the most generous trade agreement China has entered into with any country, including much bigger ones. He has done a lot of work to promote the issue of depression and open it up; he’s an inspiration to a whole lot of people. He’s also done a lot in bringing tourism investment into the country.

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