Australia’s political leaders have told President Michael D Higgins that they see the United Kingdom’s chances of creating new post-Brexit trade agreements as “extraordinarily difficult”.
Mr Higgins said politicians he met in Australia, including Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria, had told him that the prospects of trade deals with Ireland or the EU were “higher on everyone’s agenda” since Brexit, while the possibility of “a whole new form of trade agreements” with the UK were tougher.
The fourth formal day of engagements for the president’s State visit to Australia was dominated by business and economics. He spoke at a lunch to Irish and Australian business owners and managers at an event hosted by Enterprise Ireland at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the city’s main sporting venue.
The lunch was attended by 55 Irish companies, including 22 companies in Australia for the first time. The trade mission aims to grow markets beyond the UK to help protect firms from business lost to Brexit.
Mr Higgins told the companies that the global trading environment had been changed by Britain’s decision to leave the EU and the changes from the Trump administration’s approach to commerce.
“We would be doing this anyway,” said the President of the biggest trade delegation Enterprise Ireland has brought to Australia, “but obviously now it takes on an element of importance because all of the international trading environment is entirely changed.”
First Australian economist
Later, in a lecture to the University of Melbourne, Mr Higgins challenged rigid economic doctrine and teaching around neoliberalism. He pointed to the narrow economic thinking that contributed to the Irish Famine as a lesson of how modern economists should be less wedded to models for prescriptive solutions.
He spoke at length during his 48-minute lecture about Cavan-born William Edward Hearn, who taught at the university in the 19th century and was considered the “first Australian economist”.
Hearn’s ideas, he said, were formed by the experiences of the Famine and he was part of “an extraordinary generation” of Irish political economists who pursued “different intellectual agendas”.
Mr Higgins said that the rhetoric of neoliberalism, which elevates individual self-interest and “at times produces a near contempt for those who fall behind,” was “even more pervasive as its policy prescriptions”.
“A glimmer of hope,” he said, was that international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, a supporter of neoliberal policies, had begun to question “once sacrosanct policy positions”.
If Hearn felt “a moral impulse”, drawn from wide scholarship, to address the issues of the day, “surely those gifted with the opportunity to do so might benefit from his examples in our urgent times of change, and help recover the rich possibility of political economy and better, more inclusive, sustainable policies.”
A planned follow-up questions-and-answers session with Mr Higgins was abruptly ended after a member of the audience suffered a medical emergency.
Asked afterwards by reporters about mistakes being repeated in the property market and whether greater economic literacy could address Ireland’s housing and homelessness crisis, Mr Higgins said that it was “a mark of a decent society to have a good housing programme”.
“It is not for me as President to make the case but it is for the public to actually ask of politics how you can manage the economy to deliver particular social outcomes,” he said.
“That’s a very healthy debate; you cannot really live on going from rage to rage.”