Andrew Robb pushes aside pessimism and backs China
Andrew Robb is one of Australia’s most famous depressives. He wrote a book about his experience, about the black dog that visited him every morning for 43 years, paralysing him into inaction for longer and longer each day until he decided to confront his illness.
So it might come as a surprise that he’s one of the country’s greatest optimists.
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
He has a downbeat voice and hangdog face – at one stage he clenched a pen in his teeth on his daily drive to work in the hope that it would lift his face into a happier look – but he has a soaring optimism.
It’s not hard to picture him, as federal director of the Liberal party and later as a Cabinet minister, walking grimly into a room to deliver the message of doom to three leaders of the Liberal party, two of them prime ministers.
Former trade minister Andrew Robb. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It’s much harder to imagine him as a wedding singer and café crooner in 1970s Melbourne accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, performing a version of Mr Bojangles good enough to win the heart of the girl who became his wife to this day, Maureen.
Robb is not only passionately positive about Australia and its future, he’s also vastly optimistic about Australia’s region. Indeed, at the very moment when the world has entered a fearful funk about the future of China’s economy, Robb is preparing to join a trade mission to the Middle Kingdom.
“It does seem odd,” Robb agrees, the coexistence of his depressive condition and his huge optimism, “but I’ve always been an optimist and an enthusiast and someone who takes on too many things at once.”
His enthusiasm must be contagious. As trade minister, he led big delegations – 320 companies to the US, 350 to Indonesia, 450 to India and 700 on his last mission to China – but none approaches the size of next week’s – 1200 companies to China, the largest Australian mission anywhere, any time.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and then prime minister Tony Abbott witness the signing of the Declaration of Intent on the Australia/China Free Trade Agreement at Parliament House in Canberra. Trade Minister Andrew Robb signs the agreement with China. Photo: Kym Smith
Yet this week’s international headlines included: “China jitters could trigger global market bloodbath, IMF warns”, courtesy of London’s Telegraph; “Global shockwaves from China are only going to get worse, IMF warns”, thanks to Canada’s Financial Post; and The New York Times contributed: “As China’s economic picture turns uglier, Beijing applies airbrush.”
The fashionable pessimism doesn’t paralyse Robb into inaction. On the contrary, he thinks there’s never been a more exciting time for Australian firms to pursue business opportunity in China.
The man that Malcolm Turnbull dubbed the “best trade minister in Australia’s history” has two reasons.
One is the market opening agreement that he negotiated with China:
It’s not hard to picture him … walking grimly into a room to deliver the message of doom to three leaders of the Liberal party, two of them prime ministers.
“We have something from China that no one else has, and it plays to all our strengths,” he says.
The time to capitalise on this is now, while Australia still has market access advantages granted to no other country.
He lists the China Free Trade Agreement as one of the four most satisfying accomplishments of his life.
The second reason he’s so bullish on China?
Its building and manufacturing boom was a great gift for Australia’s mining industry, but its services boom is just beginning:
“Nearly 80 per cent of Australia’s economy is services, and nearly 90 per cent of our jobs. Services are our strengths and they are just coming into strong demand in China.”
The slowdown in China is real – “there will be ups and downs”. But in the most prospective market for Australia, the customer is less vulnerable:
“With the size of the market, the opportunities for us are at the premium end and that’s where we are having success because we have such strong brands.
“With China, we can only supply the top 1 or 2 per cent. Wealthy people will continue to demand for their families quality that’s not available in China.
“That matters with health. First it’s their diets, then it’s their health care, and then it’s ensuring their kids’ education. These are our strengths.”
World business sentiment on China flipped from blue-sky to blitzkrieg in a heartbeat.
For instance, Robb points out, “everyone used to talk about how China had to make the transition from being a production-based economy to a consumption-based one. It’s now happening – China’s growth has gone over 50 per cent on the consumption side – but no one is talking about it.”
Next week’s mission will be his last in government. Robb, 65, is leaving politics at the election.
He won’t be leading this mission; his successor trade minister, Steve Ciobo is now in the chair. But Turnbull kept Robb on as special trade envoy. Because he has unfinished business.
This weekend, for example, he’s in Singapore, trying to conclude a Closer Strategic Partnership “to bring our relationship with Singapore closer to the type of relationship we have with New Zealand, not just trade but across the board.”
And then there’s India. “We could conclude a free trade agreement in six to eight weeks. It’s on track for a good agreement.”
Robb has already distinguished himself as the standout economic performer of the Coalition government by signing market opening deals with Australia’s three biggest export markets.
As his Labor predecessor graciously acknowledges: “Andrew devoted enormous energy to the physically demanding task of finalising trade negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea,” says Craig Emerson, as well as concluding negotiations with the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. “He leaves a fine legacy as a proud Australian.”
Robb hopes to add India, now the fastest growing economy in the world and one that’s perhaps 30 years behind China in its development, between now and the day Turnbull calls the next election.
His top tips for successful negotiating? He has four. First is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the negotiator on the other side of the table. “It sometimes takes a while to understand the pressures they’re under.”
Second is that a successful negotiation requires both sides to win.
Next, play it straight and “don’t play games” because as soon as the other side realises, trust is lost.
Finally, each negotiation is different and a good negotiator learns from his past successes and failures.
Australia, he says, has “the opportunity to set ourselves up with the world’s best living standards for generations, and it’s not just China.
“For the first time since European settlement, the main drivers of global growth are in our backyard, in our timezone, and that’s going to be the case for the rest of this century.
“It’s China, but it’s also Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia. This is a phenomenon we’ve never known.”
How did a chronic depressive master his condition? He knew he was in trouble because his depression had encroached further into his day as the years went by. It had been an early morning thing. He’d dealt with it by waiting it out, and then throwing himself into his work when the pall lifted.
But by 2009, when he was an opposition frontbencher under Turnbull’s first watch as leader, it was lasting into the early afternoon.
When colleagues despairing of Turnbull urged Robb to challenge him for the leadership of the Liberal party, he told them he’d think about it:
“But the only thing I could think about was depression. I thought that if I put my hand up, I would make a goose of myself.”
He worried about seeking help because he knew it could make him vulnerable politically.
When he finally took the risk and saw a psychologist, it led to “one of the sweetest moments of my life – when he said to me, ‘stop talking, I know what this is and it’s fixable.”
It wasn’t easy. He recalls the six months he took off work as he experimented with different drug treatments as being among the worst times of his life. He felt wretched until he found the right one.
But today he counts the decision to confront his mental illness as one of the four most satisfying events in his life. It ranks with the China trade deal, with his part as head of the National Farmers’ Federation in winning the Mudginberri meatworks dispute against the meat workers union, and his work as Liberal party director in John Howard’s thumping 1996 election victory.
Robb was deeply gratified to learn that his case had inspired a surge in the number of middle-aged executive men, in particular, seeking help for depression.
In the end, only the former Labor leader Mark Latham attacked Robb. He wrote a column asking whether the Coalition could be trusted with the nation’s finances “when its would-be finance minister needs a ‘magical chemical cocktail’ each day to function in his job?”
The current Labor leader, Bill Shorten, didn’t abuse him for seeking treatment but praised him from the dispatch box: “Because of you and your honesty, other people will have better lives. There is not much more that a member of this Parliament can claim to do.”
The hardest political message Robb had to deliver, he says, was when, as Liberal party director, he had to tell his leader, Alexander Downer, that he was a hopeless case and had to resign.
Downer took it “like a gentleman” and did the right thing, opening the way for Howard to take the leadership bloodlessly.
But when it came time for Robb, as a cabinet minister, to give Howard the same advice, the prime minister was not interested. He hung on till the bitter end. Robb still thinks Peter Costello would have defeated Kevin Rudd in 2007 and kept the Liberals in power.
Likewise, Tony Abbott ignored the advice of Robb and his colleagues when they told him he had to get rid of his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and his treasurer, Joe Hockey, if he hoped to remain prime minister. “There’s every likelihood he’d still be leader if he’d taken our advice,” says Robb.
Robb’s advice for Malcolm Turnbull? Above all, “the people want hope”. Implement the reforms Australia needs to take advantage of its tremendous economic opportunity, he says. Liberalise the economy, deliver tax reform, deliver workplace reform, lift the education sector, build the very fast train from Brisbane to Melbourne and create new cities in the process.
But, above all, says Robb: “You have to have a program. Not overnight, but people want to see a clear direction and they want hope. Hope is fundamental to life. When you get out of bed in the morning, you hope you have a good day.”
He’s brought his personal black dog well in hand. Now it’s Turnbull’s time to do it on a national scale.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.