Former Australian PM Tony Abbott keen to contribute 'expertise' as UK trade adviser

5 September 2020, 06:51 | Updated: 5 September 2020, 09:31

The former Australian Prime Minister has been appointed to a key trade role
The former Australian Prime Minister has been appointed to a key trade role. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

The controversial former Australian prime minister says he is looking forward to contributing his "expertise" in global commerce to help Britain in his new role as adviser to the UK Board of Trade.

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has been appointed to a key UK trade adviser role, despite controversy over comments he had previously made.

Mr Abbott has been made an adviser to the relaunched Board of Trade, despite critics raising numerous concerns, including over his belief that coronavirus restrictions should be lifted.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson came out in support of the 62-year-old, Mr Abbott - who led Australia from 2013-15 - said he was "only too keen" to help the UK and looked forward to helping facilitate trade deals "between Britain and other countries, including Australia".

"A UK-Australia trade deal, maximising the movement of goods, services and people is clearly in the best interests of both our countries," Mr Abbott said in a statement on Twitter.

"It's important for the wider world that Britain make the most of its post-Brexit opportunities and I am proud to be playing a part."

"My government finalised trade deals between Australia and China, Japan and Korea. I'm looking forward to bringing that expertise to bear as Britain works towards mutually beneficial improvements with its major trading partners."

The appointment of Mr Abbott, who has also said coronavirus restrictions should be lifted, seems to have caused divisions even among his fellow Board of Trade appointees.

Anne Boden, founder of the online-only bank Starling, tweeted to say she was "pleased to be advising the Board of Trade" and said it was "important that we have challenging voices" speaking to ministers.

But the financial-technology expert added that she supported diversity and "so did this woman", linking to a 2012 speech by another former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, in which she accused Mr Abbott of being a misogynist in the country's equivalent of the House of Commons.

Wales-born Ms Gillard quoted the then-leader of the opposition as having asked during a discussion "What if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?"

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss will be president of the Board of Trade, and Conservative MP for Yeovil Marcus Fysh will serve as deputy president.

Ms Truss said: "The new Board of Trade will play an important role in helping Britain make the case for free and fair trade across the UK and around the world.

"At a time of increased protectionism and global insecurity, it's vital that the UK is a strong voice for open markets and that we play a meaningful role in reshaping global trading rules alongside like-minded countries.

"The new Board will help us do that, bringing together a diverse group of people who share Britain's belief in free enterprise, democracy, and high standards and rules-based trade."

The other advisers are Karen Betts, Anne Boden, Daniel Hannan, Patricia Hewitt, Emma Howard Boyd, Michael Liebreich, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, William Russell and Dr Linda Yueh.

Mr Abbott previously said that he feels "a bit threatened" by homosexuality, opposed same-sex marriage, and was accused of misogyny by fellow former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he “doesn’t agree” with controversial comments made by Mr Abbott but said he “doesn’t agree with everyone who serves the Government in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country.”

The PM said Mr Abbott was a "guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia".

Asked during a visit to Solihull about allegations the Australian former prime minister is a sexist, homophobic, misogynist, climate change denier, Mr Johnson said: "There's going to be an announcement I think in due course about the composition of the Board of Trade.

"I don't, obviously don't agree with those sentiments at all, but then I don't agree with everyone who serves the Government in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country.

"And I can't be expected to do so.

"What I would say about Tony Abbott is this is a guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia.

"It's an amazing country, it's a freedom-loving country, it's a liberal country. There you go, I think that speaks for itself."

International trade minister Greg Hands said he welcomes former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott in his willingness to "help this country out".

Emily Thornberry MP, Labour’s Shadow International Trade Secretary, responding to the confirmation of Tony Abbott’s appointment as an advisor to the Board of Trade said: “There are two factors that should have immediately disqualified Tony Abbott from this role.

“First, his history of offensive statements is so long and repetitive that it speaks to serious defects in his character, which is not one I think should be representing Britain on the world stage.

“And second, the fact that he has no experience of detailed trade negotiations, no understanding of Brexit, no belief in climate change, no concern for workers’ rights, and no compunction about killing off Australia's car industry mean, to my mind, that he has no credentials for this role.

“Tony Abbott is therefore the wrong appointment on every level, which begs the more important question of why on earth Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have given him the job.

“However, with this shambolic excuse for a government, we may continue to be appalled and disappointed at their serial incompetence, but we should never any longer be surprised.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer earlier said: "I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and I don't think he's the right person for the job. If I was prime minister I wouldn't appoint him."

Prominent LGBT figures including Sir Ian McKellen and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies also signed an open letter alongside environmental activists to criticise Mr Abbott's record and ask the Government to reconsider.