Tony Abbott called the deal “just about the best deal in the world” and acknowledged that the “British farm lobby” is “worried about competition”.
Agreed in principle earlier this year, the deal has been criticised by farmers across the UK, who believe they are at risk of being undercut by cheaper food imports produced to lower standards.
Speaking at an event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank alongside Trade Secretary Liz Truss, Mr Abbott said “it’s very important that Britain does build new deals and does so as quickly as possible,” following Brexit.
He went on: “I would like to think that the Britain Australia deal will increasingly be a model for future British deals because it will eventually eliminate all tariffs and quotas, it will include far more movement of people for work not welfare and it will include much more mutual recognition of standards of qualifications.
“So in terms of enhancing deeper economic engagement other than the deal between Australia and New Zealand it’s probably just about the best deal in the world.”
Campaigners and food producers have all raised concerns about the deal and possible compromises on food quality, particularly the idea of hormone-fed beef being available in the UK - and animal welfare.
Mr Abbott went on: “The British farm lobby [...] is worried about competition, I think many in the Australian financial sector are worried about competition as well but in the end this is where Governments don’t just have to reassure, they have to lead, sometimes by making sensible adjustments and while under this deal trade will eventually be entirely tariff and quota free, there is quite a long lead time, especially for British agriculture to adjust.”
The NFU said they “are very concerned about the potential impact on domestic beef, lam and sugar products if they are undercut” by imports.
Regional director Adam Bedford said: “We are talking about enormous import volumes here and it’s not clear that the planned safeguards will have any effect. For example, the fifth year of the tariff safeguard on lamb would only kick in if Australian producers had already shipped over 150% of the UK’s current import requirement. As the government finalises the deal and negotiates how the tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) will be administered and how safeguards will operate, we are calling for direct engagement with the food and farming industry to ensure that distortion of our domestic market is minimised.”
He urged Government to “work with British farmers to ensure that they can continue to produce high-quality food in the face of imports produced in very different systems” and added: “We recognise the advantages of striking independent trade deals and being able to sell our fantastic British produce abroad, but to achieve this we need a strategy to improve our trade diplomacy, including boosting the number of specialist staff focusing on agri-food exports, as well as measures to improve the productivity and competitiveness of UK farming.”
A spokesman for the Department for International Trade said: "UK farming is at the heart of our trade policy and we have been clear that any trade deal we agree would include protections for sensitive UK agricultural sectors.
“Trade deals like the one agreed in principle with Australia will pave the way for us to access regional trading blocs like CPTPP and we will continue to work with the farming industry to help our farmers take advantage of these dynamic markets.”