The Weekly Times
ARGUABLY, Australia’s most recent past trade and investment minister has disproved his own career advice.
After just 2½ years in the role, there’s no doubt Andrew Robb has left a lasting impression on Australian trade.
The CV of his tenure is well-known, but worth repeating: free-trade deals clinched with Korea, Japan and China; the controversial 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership finally negotiated; agricultural subsidies axed between World Trade Organisation nations.
It’s a list most governments could – and did – only dream of; many were long-sought deals never quite done, never quite won, despite years of persistence. The hyperbole that followed, then, seemed well-founded: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared Robb Australia’s “most successful trade minister in our history”; former trade minister Warren Truss said he “stood in awe” of Robb’s achievements; while Public Affairs Asia named him policymaker of the year for 2015.
That last one almost brings a blush to the cheek of the 65-year-old – before he deflects the attention. “I was surprised to start with but it was a good reflection of all the people involved,” Robb says in his Parliament House office. “OK, I’ve been leading it, but there’s a huge team behind me with these different negotiations.”
It’s a telling remark, that acknowledgment of his colleagues, only beginning to hint at the efforts involved behind the glowing resume. The reality is more than 200 nights a year spent overseas. It’s 80 investment roundtables in 27 countries. It’s countless hours travelling international airspace, on top of 7000 domestic flights over 12 years serving as a federal MP.
Little wonder Robb describes the past few years as “a roller coaster”. But then, he was always in a hurry to get going – entering Parliament in 2004 at the age of 53, he says he was something of a late arrival to the game and there was “a sense of urgency” to learn the ropes.
Yet it’s simplistic to imply Robb’s achievements in the trade arena are some overnight success story. His interests in the field were laid bare in his maiden speech to the Parliament.
“The growing emphasis on trade agreements negotiated bilaterally between two countries is not only in Australia’s immediate best interests, but also a harbinger of real progress on trade liberalisation on a global basis,” he declared in 2004.
From modest beginnings in country Victoria, each new twist in Robb’s career path seems to have added to his arsenal: negotiating with unions as executive director of the National Farmers’ Federation; the cut and thrust of politics as federal director of the Liberal Party; the demands of the private sector, including working for Kerry Packer; even the determination to beat the depression that plagued him for 43 years.
“In a way he’s had a lifetime preparing himself for the role of Trade Minister of Australia,” mused NFF president Brent Finlay. “Just the way he conducts himself – he’s forthright, he’s open, he’s honest, he’s a great communicator.”
Similar adjectives repeatedly crop up whenever anyone who has worked at close quarters with Robb speaks of him. Colleagues agree his work ethic is second to none, that his focus is always devoted to the subject at hand.
Even now, as he stands aside as trade minister and prepares to retire at the forthcoming federal election, there’s an undeniable spark as he discusses one element: agriculture.
“I think if we play our cards right, the next 10, 20, 30 years will be spectacular,” he says. “My sense is agriculture’s time has come, not only because of our geographic position but because it’s what we’re best at.” It seems a sweeping statement but coming from Robb, there’s an experience behind his words. Agriculture has been something of a constant in his life, starting from his early years growing up on a dairy farm at Epping, on Melbourne’s northern outskirts.
The shopping centres, hospitals and housing estates that would pop up as urban Melbourne inevitably sprawled were still decades away. Epping in the 1950s was a general store, a pub and service station, a council chamber and primary school.
Robb’s parents, Frank and Marie, moved there from their sheep property in the tiny hamlet of Flowerdale. Education was paramount for their children – there’d eventually be nine of them – prompting the move closer to Melbourne. It was never great dairying country. These were farms of necessity: producing milk close to Melbourne to supply city-dwellers with fresh product before it went bad.
“As soon as the tankers arrived, they brought milk in from Gippsland and the North East – they were dairying areas and they could produce it far cheaper,” Robb says. An early economics lesson, perhaps, though this was a subject Robb wouldn’t be introduced to until many years later.
By the early 1960s, times were tough and the Robbs sold the farm and moved to Reservoir. Robb’s father spent the next 15 years working in a factory – an adjustment, Robb says, from which he never really recovered. “If you’ve spent 40-odd years as a small-business owner and independent, and he grew up on the land as well … to end up doing 12-hour day shifts, then night shifts, it’s not easy,” he says. “But they never complained, that’s the way it was and it was a happy upbringing.”
Of all the kids, Robb was the most disappointed to leave the farm. He always thought he would end up farming but faced a common problem: the capital just wasn’t there.
So he indulged his interest with a diploma in Agricultural Science at Dookie College. A lark at times, living away from home for the first time and getting up to mischief with 119 other lads in the course (Dookie was an all-male college at the time – something of “a deficiency” of the school, Robb grins).
It was here he found his aptitude for economics. He would go on to enrol in an economics degree at LaTrobe University, studying in the evenings as he worked full-time as an animal health officer in the Victorian Department of Agriculture.
Ambition and drive were qualities instilled in him as a child, as things to be nurtured, and without that degree, “it would have been a ceiling”, Robb says.
Instead, he moved on to be an agricultural economist. It was with the Department where he first learned the fine art of negotiation. He was sent to consolidate the tobacco growers at Myrtleford, in Victoria’s North East, into one manageable organisation – a task easier said than done when dealing with fiery, independent Italians defending their livelihoods.
“I realised the importance of not being moved by the vehemence or threats of opposing negotiators,” Robb wrote in his 2011 memoir, Black Dog Daze. “Once a decision is taken, most people accept it … I quickly learnt that if I didn’t give as good as I got, they wouldn’t respect me.” Vital experience, he says, that has stood him in good stead.
At 28, Robb moved to Canberra for postings as an economist with the NFF, and then director of the Cattle Council of Australia. “I really found my feet in the cattle industry,” Robb wrote. “I could be mustering, down on the wharves, in the parliament, at the saleyards or abattoirs, dealing with industrial disputes, on cattle studs in Victoria or negotiating with meat-industry executives. It was fantastic work.”
Later, as NFF executive director, he would be involved in two major industrial disputes of the 1980s. The Mudginberri abattoir dispute over worker rights took 27 court cases and a $10 million fighting fund to win. The Wide Combs shearing dispute, meanwhile, was ferocious in another way – “shearing sheds being torched and paid thugs intimidating communities” over the right to adapt to a new farm technology.
Leaving the NFF in 1990 after three years – again, two years shy of his own “make a mark” time limit – wasn’t the plan, but the federal Liberal party came knocking. Six years and one unloseable election later, John Howard’s Coalition was elected, and Robb, considering his job done, began to look for the next challenge, this time in the private sector.
He wouldn’t return to the agricultural sphere in quite the same way, but those skills, knowledge and interest once forged aren’t easily forgotten.
“He understands agriculture, he seems to have a genuine understanding of all the issues, even those you would not expect him to have at times,” says Noel Campbell, immediate past president of Australian Dairy Farmers. “This guy took a genuine interest in what you were about.”
Campbell was there as Robb negotiated the touch-and-go TPP, and recalls being called in to the final negotiations in Atlanta. “It was 3am and Robb was still there. Then it was 5am, and he was still there,” Campbell says. “He was very highly regarded amongst other negotiators – if he said something it was recognised he meant it and he wasn’t playing games.”
Campbell and Robb worked closely on the China free-trade agreement, lauded as the best deal for the dairy industry in years. Throughout it, Campbell says Robb always made time for every commodity.
“We’ve butted heads with the guy, we’ve had our times when obviously we’re just pushing our own wheelbarrow and we’ve had to back off,” Campbell says. “He has the ability to be tough but very honest about what can be achieved.”
NFF president Brent Finlay agrees. “There was one meeting in Melbourne,” he remembers, “and a few members had concerns they (the Government) might push the China deal through, but there wasn’t much on the table for commodities at that stage. That was probably the sternest conversation we’ve had,” Finlay chuckles. “He was very frank about what our expectations should be, not promising things he couldn’t deliver, and we all respect him for that. It gave us a real sense of confidence.”
Not every commodity or industry is a winner in every deal, Finlay accepts that. But “there’s a real feeling Andrew brought with him, that he gets personally quite close to the people he’s negotiating with”.
“Success breeds success and the outlook now for the Australian agriculture industry has certainly changed in the last few years and we have Andrew Robb to thank for that.”
Notably, Robb was the first to hold the investment portfolio in tandem with trade and having carriage of the two is something he believes contributed to his success.
Trade is government to government, but investment allowed him to deal directly with the international businesses needed to make those trade deals worthwhile.
“If all I did was trade negotiations and other trade activities, I wouldn’t have much involvement with the business sector overseas,” he explains. “I’ve met so many CEOs and chairmen of some of the biggest companies that invest in Australia. Some of them have been investors for a long, long time, and yet they’d never seen a minister.”
That investment is crucial to Australia’s economic success – and something Robb has unashamedly championed. It’s a reality, he says, of our place in the world. In the grand scheme of things, Australia is a small economy with a small consumer market, and it cannot afford a lot of the major infrastructure needed to stay competitive. And nowhere is this truer than agribusiness. Foreign investment is relied on to upgrade transport routes, processing plants, farm technology and the consolidation of farms, which have contributed to making agricultural products the country’s second biggest export.
“I’ve always pondered why it is that a lot of domestic investors in the cities in Australia are not interested in investment in agriculture,” Robb says. In part, he believes it’s the risk involved. Local investors are looking for short-term returns, whereas overseas investors are in it for the long haul.
But more than that is the lack of affinity between urban Australians and the bush. Sure, there’s a certain “romantic” view of life on the land, Robb says, but “when it comes to the reality of what farmers confront”, there’s little true understanding.
“We’re one of the most urbanised countries in the world despite being a huge landmass … most people have had no real exposure to agriculture,” he says. “There are lots of people from the city who have never seen a cow in their lives.”
He offers a simple example: how many people travel overseas each day aboard A380s oblivious to the veritable treasure trove of food, wine and other agricultural products in the cargo-hold beneath their seats?
That concept – of paddock to plate, via processors then planes, or ports – is an everyday reality many don’t realise. So how then, Robb asks, can they invest?
“All these things contribute – if people don’t understand agriculture, if they can’t put themselves in the shoes of people in the bush, then lots of decisions, including public policy decisions by governments, don’t properly consider the circumstances of people in the country.”
It’s against this backdrop that foreign investment becomes all the more vital. The current resistance to Chinese investment by some quarters is, he says, nothing unusual.
“When the Foreign Investment Review Board was originally set up, it was in response to public condemnation of the US coming in and buying all our manufacturing,” he muses. “Now, that wasn’t actually happening but the same response occurred.
“It’s interesting, it doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s the country that saved us in World War II or other countries, there’s always this reaction. But the thing is history shows they can’t take the farm away.”
Robb is optimistic of Australia’s agriculture future. Surrounding the country are developing nations in search of clean, green protein and to maximise that, Robb says, Australia must bank on its best capabilities.
“Forget the mass market part of the region and go for the premium end,” he says. “We couldn’t even supply the premium end alone because the region’s so big.
“There are opportunities there but we need the investment to properly capitalise on it. Get the scale right, get the low-cost transport, process it in a premium way, produce it in a premium way … my sense is agriculture’s time has come.”
Robb remains in Parliament as Special Trade Envoy, a chance to not only mentor his replacement, Steve Ciobo, in the trade portfolio, but to also keep working on other deals in the mix.
Agreements with India and Singapore look promising, while another with Indonesia is finally making some headway after stalling for four years. Meanwhile, the TPP is still to be ratified and the European Union has shown interest in starting bilateral talks with Australia.
It begs the question: with so much achieved, and so much yet to be achieved, why is he leaving now? Robb answered that question five years ago, in his memoir.
“I think in most jobs, you’ve got five to seven years to make your mark and bring your own view to things,” he wrote. “Then it’s time to move on, even if you have done a good job.”
1951: Born in Flowerdale, Victoria, before moving to a dairy farm at Epping
1964: Family farm sold and the Robbs move to Reservoir
1969: Diploma of Agricultural Science at Dookie Agricultural College. By 1976, Robb also attained first class honours in economics from LaTrobe University
1972-79: Victorian Department of Agriculture animal health officer and agricultural economist
1980: Moved to Canberra to work as an economist for the National Farmers’ Federation
1981-84: Cattle Council of Australia executive director
1985-90: National Farmers’ Federation executive director
1990-97: Liberal Party federal director during 1993 and 1996 election campaigns
1997-2004: Private sector work including senior executive for Kerry Packer’s PBL, board member of Sinclair Knight Merz, CEO of Acxiom Australia
2003: Awarded Order of Australia and Centenary Medal for service to agriculture and politics
2004: Elected federal member for Goldstein
2005-07: Chairman of the Government’s workplace relations taskforce, Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multiculturalism, Minister for Vocational Education
2007-13: Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Shadow Minister for Finance
2013-16: Trade Minister
2016: Appointed Special Trade Envoy