In conversation with His Excellency the Honourable George Brandis QC, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom

As the United Kingdom seeks to strengthen its ties with the Asia-Pacific region as part of its Global Britain agenda, the relationship with Australia will be key.

Thanks to their shared culture, language and values, the UK and Australia are old friends who already enjoy one of the strongest bilateral partnerships and people-to-people relations.

This is evident in the British Council’s polling of young people’s perceptions of G20 nations – Australians and Brits consistently show the highest levels of trust in and attraction to each other’s countries and people. 

With trade talks kicking off last month, the focus of UK and Australian officials is now squarely on how to boost the economic relationship. However, the countries will also be looking to maximise their cooperation in other areas, against a backdrop of the recovery from COVID-19 and increasing challenges to the international system.

In the cultural sphere, Australia and the UK have been working together on a bilateral UK/Australia Season 2021-22. This Season will see arts and higher education institutions collaborating around the theme 'Who Are We Now?'. It will explore the two countries’ creative innovation and diversity, and what it means to be partners in the face of global challenges. 

Earlier this month British Council Chief Executive Sir Ciarán Devane spoke with Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, the Honourable George Brandis QC, to hear his reflections on the opportunities for bilateral cooperation, the role of soft power in the post-COVID-19 era, and the importance of cultural diplomacy in an age of great power competition.

Soft power of leadership

New polling data has emphasised the enduring strength of the Australia-UK relationship. This year’s British Council youth perceptions poll showed yet again that young Australians and young British people strongly admire each other’s countries. At the start of our conversation, High Commissioner Brandis says that these findings are reinforced by Australia’s own polling.

A recent poll run by the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute on Australians’ attitudes to global affairs showed that 84 per cent of Australians regard the UK as a trustworthy nation. This was higher than any other country in the poll, with Japan a close second at 82 per cent. 

Brandis is unequivocal about the foundations of the special relationship between the two countries. He thinks that the UK is particularly strong in soft power, and 'is viewed by most nations as a benevolent, trustworthy and moral nation whose foreign policy is marked by all of those characteristics'.

Standing up for liberal democratic values

In an age where international relations are facing increasing strain from great power rivalry and social polarisation, the High Commissioner believes that the soft power of liberal democracies such as the UK and Australia is key.

Brandis said that it was important for nations to stand up for their political values on the world stage, particularly when they are under threat. Cultural diplomacy is, he says, a vital part of broader diplomatic efforts in this regard, especially in countries like Australia and the UK, which define themselves by their freedom.

The rich cultural scene in both countries, he notes, is an important manifestation of these values, firstly because their richness is in part created by the free liberal values of society, and secondly because these values are expressed through culture.

He says that Australia and the UK had common values that they could be proud of. 'We have to be exemplars and, as exemplars with very similar values, we have to continue to collaborate as well as we have been doing.'

Both countries’ humanitarian response to COVID-19, he says, was another illustration of these values in action. In contrast to what he describes as the more 'opportunistic' humanitarian activities of some countries, Brandis sees Australia’s aid response in the South-Western Pacific, and Britain’s provision of international medical assistance, as  signs of the generosity and benevolence which he believes characterises British and Australian diplomacy. 

In an age of rising social polarisation and increased international tensions, Brandis also points to the benefits of cultural and educational exchange for building bridges between different societies.

Activities like international arts festivals and study opportunities, he says, provide a platform where people from different counties can come together to see the world through different eyes. 

Soft power and cultural cooperation in the era of COVID-19 

In the wake of COVID-19, these shared cultural experiences and direct human interactions are needed more than ever to build trust and understanding in a more fragile world. However, these are exactly the kind of activities that are set to become much harder in the short to medium term as people move around less.

So, what role does the High Commissioner see for cultural relations at this time? He says the most immediate need is to sustain the cultural institutions, arts companies and practitioners who are struggling at the moment. Yet, he is impressed by the innovative ways in which the performing arts have gone online during the crisis, and also thinks that the absence of live performance has enhanced our appreciation of it. He believes that the British Council is an asset for UK soft power in these times: 

'I’m quite admiring personally of the very self-conscious, effective and well-coordinated integration in an agency like the British Council of so many aspects of British soft power.'

One priority, he says, is the UK/Australia Season which had been in the planning before the COVID-19 crisis. The British Council, Australian government and the many other agencies involved are determined to deliver it at the earliest opportunity in Autumn 2021. 

The strategic significance of trade

Brandis hopes that closer bilateral cooperation on cultural diplomacy, like the UK/Australia Season, will herald closer collaboration in other fields.

Negotiations on a free trade agreement began last month, with the expectation that a deal will significantly boost the existing £18.1 billion worth of goods services traded between the two countries annually. The agreement is an important step in the UK’s new status as an independent, free trading nation post-Brexit.

'Delivering this agreement is our priority right now,' says Brandis. In his view, the trade agreement has a broader significance beyond the prospect of increased economic returns.

Trade, like culture, is another set of relationships which bring people together through mutual understanding. He stresses the importance of the FTA not only in economic terms, but says that, like the joint cultural diplomacy work, it will help bring the UK and Australia more closely together.

'At this time when there is so much contestation in the international system, and rival views of what a good society is, I would very much like to see even closer convergence and collaboration between countries that share so much like Australia and the United Kingdom.'

As their relations begin a new chapter, increased exchange in culture, as well as trade, present valuable routes to a deeper strategic partnership. 

With thanks to His Excellency the Honourable George Brandis QC, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Alison Baily, Senior Policy Adviser, British Council