Acting against our economic interests

< Back to the Business Network Home Page

Tim Harcourt is The Airport Economist – host of the TV program and author of the books. Tim is the J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics at the UNSW Business School. He was also the first chief economist of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) for over a decade.

Tim has been an International Adviser to 3 Federal Cabinet Ministers and 2 Premiers. He is also an Expert Panel Member, Minimum Wage Review, for the Fair Work Commission.

In this wide ranging discussion on the Republic and trade we talk about:

  • The many ways the British have hurt Australia’s economy since Federation.

  • The huge conflict of interest for the Queen as advocate for Australia.

  • Some of the major benefits of a move to a Republic.

The discussion

Steve Pell: Tim, tell me about your personal reasons for supporting a republic?

Tim Harcourt: It might seem counterintuitive in some ways. I mean people assume I'm Anglo Saxon by background because I've got the name Harcourt, but my ancestors were called Harkowitz

My grandpa was actually training to be a rabbi, but he was an atheist, which made that occupation a bit difficult. And he tried to join the Bondi Icebergs as Harkowitz and they wouldn't let him in so he changed it to Harcourt. So he said he went from the Goldbergs to the Icebergs, that was his joke.

So I always tell people that like my ancestry is very much a melting pot of Australia. So I've got Romanian and Hungarian and Irish convict and English and Scottish and Jewish and Lithuanian and my wife’s American and my kids are born in China and Taiwan. I've just always wanted an Australia that reflects what brings us all together as Australian.

And I always felt that the institutions that we inherited from Britain are really good. But the Crown sort of puts one group of society a little bit ahead of another for no real reason.

Steve Pell: That definitely resonates for a lot of people, but typically to get a change of the constitution, you need a sense of agitation that there's something that's not right.

You look at the gay marriage debate and it was that palatable sense in the community that ‘something's not right here’. I'm interested in kind of how we get that sense of agitation across the broader population that there's something wrong.

Coming back to your area of expertise it sounds like you would argue that there really is something broken with the Monarchy when we get to trade. Specifically in the way the Monarchy advocates for Australian versus UK interests?

Tim Harcourt: Correct. The monarchists will say the head of state is the Queen. And there’s numerous examples of the Queen hurting our economic interests. Because her or her representatives will actually negotiate or lobby China or India or Japan, for UK firms against Australian firms. So how can we have a head of state that lobbies against us?

Steve Pell: In her book, Karen Dolby tells the story of the Queen watching England beat Australia in the cricket “jumping up and down with delight exclaiming, ‘I’ve won, I’ve won!’”. It just reinforces the point; we expect an Australian head of state to be consistently advocating for team Australia, and the Queen is not. Our Monarch acts and behaves as a British head of state, not an Australian head of state.

If we go a little broader, can you give me a little bit of the history. My understanding here is that the Brits have been handicapping Australian trade since before Federation?

Tim Harcourt: So whenever the colonial governments wanted to send Agent Generals around the world to lobby for their interests, the Brits consistently cut them off at the knees.

After Federation, from Billy Hughes and Andrew Fisher onwards Australian governments were very keen to get Australian embassies and Australian trade offices established around the world. This was in the US as early as 1916, in Shanghai, in the 1920s in Tokyo in the 30s and even in Batavia, what we call Indonesia now in the 1940s. And whenever we set up an Australian trade office or trade commissioner, the Brits would try and close it down.

When we were making significant inroads into Japan, with cotton, wheat and wool, the Brits wanted us to impose tariffs on Japan to look after Manchester. So in the first hundred years after Federation, we were involved in a lot of disputes which were about British vs Australian interests.

Those disputes slowed down our progress in Asia. So as much as we're tied with Britain constitutionally, in the trade arena over a long period of time they have acted against our economic interests.

Steve Pell: At the time, what was the rationale from the Brits for shutting down those trade offices and imposing tariffs?

Tim Harcourt: Britain was worried about losing market share. So they wanted Australia to look more towards Manchester than Tokyo. And they also didn't really like the idea of Australia having an independent foreign service and an independent trade commission. The Brits really preferred the dominions to follow British interests and just toe the line. Even the 1957 commercial agreement that we signed with Japan was subject to a last minute effort of the British to lobby Menzies not to sign it.

It's quite interesting I'm writing this book on Australia and Asia over time and what’s become evident is the real heroes of the republican movement are the ministers from what was then the Country Party and what is now the National Party. Doug Anthony is probably the most pro-republican person I know, because he saw first-hand the Brits continually trying to cut Australia and New Zealand off at the knees.

Steve Pell: That’s a fascinating and important perspective. I think it’s easy for some conservatives to paint a picture that the republic is a progressive and left aligned issue. But there’s really strong arguments and support on both sides of politics.

Tim Harcourt: I think the republican movement can only be successful if it's bipartisan. Otherwise it seen too much of a Labor thing. I think probably on the conservative side, the real champions of the Republican have been the Country party because they've been the trade ministers.

Steve Pell: And that's because they've seen the contradictions in UK trade policy?

Tim Harcourt: Correct, exactly right. Particularly Doug Anthony and Tim Fisher have been pretty active republicans.

Steve Pell: You’ve talked about in the past the idea that Australia has been successful in Asia in spite of the British. Can you explain what you mean there?

It’s worth remembering that some British trade agreements have really hurt us. The Ottawa agreement in 1932 caused the great depression to be a lot worse by giving British imperial preference around the world. That screwed Argentina and that really slowed us down with Japan. So it’s not just trade missions and trade offices, but also some of the trade agreements that Britain imposed upon us have put us back. So the Brits have really not helped us trade wise historically.

Then since World War 2 we’ve become quite economically active in Asia. Blackjack McEwen signed the agreement with Japan in 57, Gough went to China in 71 as opposition leader and later as prime minister and then Hawke and Keating really forged that strong tie with the Asian region. It was all done with British resistance. And now it's done with Britain not playing any role at all. And if anything I think one consequence of Brexit is that the British have let us off the hook because we've done pretty well in China and Japan and Korea because the British have been tied up fighting with Brussels. And once they Brexit they probably will do a lot more work in Asia so we'll have our competition again and we'll really see who's side the British crown is on.

Steve Pell: To be clear, your perspective is the problem isn’t that Britain has a pro-UK strategy, it's that the monarchy is being pulled across purposes? Is that right?

Tim Harcourt: Our head of state shouldn't work against our interests. So it's either time to become a republic or tell the Brits “our head of state is not work against our interests internationally”. It's an amazing question why it's never been brought up before.

What the hell is the Queen doing, sending members of her family to lobby against us if she's our head of state. She should remain neutral. Well, I mean maybe she's allowed to be pro-British against a German contract, but how can she do it against us?

Steve Pell: Do you imagine when she receives the head of state from another country she's talking about Australia in the same breath as England?

Tim Harcourt: No, no, not at all. That's the exact point. I think probably a hundred years ago they would have. I think they probably talked about the resources of the Commonwealth Empire, the sheep runs in Australia and the resources in Canada. But there’s no way that’s the case today.

Steve Pell: Tim, what do you think would be the biggest benefits we'd see from a move to a republic?

Tim Harcourt: Outside of trade, the role of our head of state will make more sense than it does at the moment. And we can celebrate a national day of the republic that’s not contentious.

Steve Pell: We do see this every year around Australia day. One of the arguments the resonates most across the community for a republic is because then we would all have a national day to be proud of together.

Tim Harcourt: That wouldn't be divisive.

Steve Pell: That wouldn't be divisive. It brings us all together. It's not seen as a celebration of white Australia or Anglo Australia. It's inclusive of Aboriginal history, it’s inclusive of everyone who’s come to Australia from countries other than England.

That argument tends to get forgotten around this time of year, but you'll see it come up a lot around Australia Day. Many people feel like they’re being made to feel ashamed for celebrating Australia Day. They want a day to be proud of.

Tim Harcourt: It could solve that. I love the flag, I love Australia day and I love ANZAC day and I don't think personally I am being anti-Aboriginal or anti-Japanese by doing so. It’s not like I've forgotten or don't want to be reminded of past wrongs. But I still feel that of all the countries in the world, we're pretty good, and I should be able to celebrate that.

Steve Pell: We should be able to celebrate Australia without it being divisive. It really frustrates me as well.

Tim that's been a really great conversation. Thanks again for your time

Tim Harcourt: Okay, lovely to talk to you Steve.

This interview is part of a series featuring prominent Australians talking about a Republic. You can find more interviews and subscribe at