My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on calling this timely debate. These are early days, as many noble Lords pointed out, in our thinking about what we might do to resolve the difficulties that will be created by Brexit. Our ideas will inevitably be preliminary and incomplete. However, I decided to speak in this debate because it is valuable to identify the possibilities for doing this by expanding our interactions with the Commonwealth, even if, as was pointed out by the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Watson, the EU and the Commonwealth are quite different constructs. I will focus narrowly on what we might do with Australia, but what I say applies equally to other developed Commonwealth countries. I apologise for this narrowness, but the breadth of the Commonwealth has been talked about a great deal.
I grew up in Australia and while I have not lived there for almost 60 years, I have over the past 20 years been involved in a number of activities, especially in Melbourne. To declare my interests, I was for several years a member of the Melbourne University council and have been a member of the advisory board of the Melbourne Energy Institute. I have held a Sir Louis Matheson visiting professorship at Monash University for the last six years and this year am acting as a consultant to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. CSIRO is the 6,000-person federal government agency for scientific research in Australia. Its chief role is to improve the economic and social performance of industry for the benefit of the community. I have also chaired an advisory council for New Horizons, a $400 million government-funded collaboration between Monash University and CSIRO. So I have been involved in a broad spectrum of engineering and scientific research activities in both academia and industry, and it is my observation that there is considerable potential for increased interaction with the UK. Put another way, there is very little interaction now.
I am also the non-executive president of the Australian Music Foundation, having in my youth been a singer and held a choral scholarship at Cambridge. The foundation, chaired by Yvonne Kenny, the opera singer, is a charity that helps highly talented young Australian musicians to further their studies and careers, especially in the UK. It has limited resources but accomplishes a great deal, although again it leaves a large reservoir of untapped potential, showing that the potential for increased exchanges spans the cultures.
Since the middle of the 19th century, there have been extensive interchanges between universities in the UK and Australia. Indeed, Australia’s oldest universities were to a large extent based on British ones. These exchanges spread in the 20th century to researchers in government and industrial laboratories. It is an understatement to say that there is a special relationship between Australia and Britain. It is my view, having lived around the world, and for the longest in the United States, that the culture of Australia is closer to that of the UK than any other country in the world—and I have not even mentioned cricket. This relationship has been sustained despite the UK’s membership of the EU, although there is little doubt that educational, academic and industrial research exchanges would have grown more with the Commonwealth and especially with Australia over the last 44 years if the UK had not joined the EU. This is also the case more generally with trade, as pointed out by many noble Lords and the Minister.
Now there is the opportunity to take another look at how we can expand our educational, industrial and cultural exchanges with Australia. We could attract more students to our higher education institutions, enhance our research base by attracting more post-doctoral researchers and tap into Australia’s rapidly increasing industrial and educational interactions with China and India. Australia is broadly in the same time zone as China and is taking advantage of this, rapidly expanding its interactions with Chinese industry and educational institutions. I know several Americans who moved to Australia because its proximity to China makes it so much easier to pursue Chinese interests.
There are areas of scientific interest where we have similar aims to Australia, ranging from the Square-Kilometre Array to biotechnology and medical advances. Melbourne is regarded as one of the world’s top biotech hubs having, for example, produced the first cochlear implant, invented by Professor Graeme Clark in Melbourne in 1979. There are world-class and leading projects on bionic eyes and X-ray imaging, to name just two research areas. Next week at the All-Party Parliamentary Engineering Group, which I co-chair with Laurence Robertson MP, we are debating medical imaging with three remarkable engineers and scientists from the Crick here in London, from Cambridge and from Melbourne. These researchers all know each other well but do not collaborate directly. There is great potential for increasing research collaboration with Australia, perhaps through joint ventures with joint funding.
Many schemes support student exchanges with Australia, but there is potential for expansion. In fact, some of these exchanges, such as the scholars supported by the Menzies Foundation, now receive less support from the UK Government than they did because the Chevening money was withdrawn several years ago. We should look into how we can expand our exchanges to make up for the reduction in overseas student applications we are already seeing as Europe shifts its attention away from the UK.
Industrial joint ventures aimed at the Chinese market are another possibility. High-technology advances in a variety of industrial sectors might be better brought to Far Eastern markets through collaborations with Australian companies, rather than trying to do it directly and ending up having to compete with them.
In conclusion, this is the time to renew and expand our academic and industrial interactions with Commonwealth countries, and especially with Australia. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018 provides an ideal opportunity to do this.