Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott is being lined up to become a UK government trade adviser, prompting condemnation from Britain’s opposition Labour party.
Mr Abbott, a controversial rightwinger and climate change sceptic, was Australia’s leader from 2013 to 2015, when he was ousted by his colleague Malcolm Turnbull. He has since lost his Sydney seat in the federal parliament.
He is now expected to become a member of the “board of trade” which was set up by former international trade secretary Liam Fox to provide advice every three months.
But the body has been largely dormant having not met since May 2019 — before the incumbent Liz Truss’s time in office. The board’s membership has comprised politicians, academics, trade experts and businesspeople.
The international trade department on Wednesday did not disclose the current members and declined to comment on a potential role for Mr Abbott. But government figures played down a report in The Sun newspaper that Mr Abbott would be Britain’s “new trade deal supremo”.
They insisted he would, if appointed, be just one of a large number of members of the board of trade with Ms Truss remaining its sole president.
However, the appointment would be hugely controversial in the UK given Mr Abbott’s chequered record.
Emily Thornberry, shadow international trade secretary, called the move an “absolutely staggering appointment” given his lack of hands-on trade deal negotiating experience.
“On a personal level, it is shameful that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, aggressive, leering, gaffe-prone misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas,” she said.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, told journalists on Wednesday that Mr Johnson had made “a good hire” with the appointment of Mr Abbott. He would not comment on whether Mr Abbott would have to register as “an agent of foreign influence” under Australia’s foreign influence transparency register. “Well done, Boris. Good hire,” said Mr Morrison.
The 62-year-old Mr Abbott was born in London but was forced to renounce his British citizenship in 1993 to take a seat in the Australian parliament, where dual citizens are not permitted to sit. He is an anglophile, having studied at Oxford university in the 1980s, and is a staunch supporter of the monarchy and a latter-day convert to Brexit.
When he was Australian prime minister, Mr Abbott wrote an article for Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper declaring: “Britain’s challenge now is to save Europe, not leave it.” But after he was ousted as prime minister, he had a change of heart, declaring to a business breakfast meeting in London that he was “quietly thrilled” the British public had voted to leave the EU.
In a forward written for a report by the Free Enterprise Group think-tank in 2017, Mr Abbott wrote that “Brexit means that Britain is back”. “The country that gave the world the English language, common law and the mother of parliaments is once more to seize its destiny as a global leader,” he wrote.
Mr Abbott ’s prime ministership was punctuated by controversy due to his opposition to measures to tackle climate change, his opposition to gay marriage and hardline immigration policy, turning back asylum boats and locking up refugees on remote Pacific islands.
Arguably, the one area where his government can claim notable success was in trade, with the signing of three important trade deals — China, Japan and South Korea — during his stint as prime minister.
But his leadership of the ruling Liberal party came under attack following a series of controversial incidents, including a bizarre decision in 2015 to award a knighthood to Prince Philip without consulting his cabinet colleagues. His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, subsequently scrapped Australia’s knights and dames honours list, which Mr Abbott had revived upon taking office.
When he was opposition leader in 2012, Mr Abbott faced accusations of “misogyny” from then prime minister Julia Gillard in a famous speech that captured global headlines. This followed Mr Abbott’s criticism of Ms Gillard’s character while standing in front of “Ditch the Witch” and “Juliar: Bob Brown’s Bitch” placards at an opposition rally against a carbon tax.
“I was offended when the Leader of the opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch,” said Ms Gillard.