Boris Johnson 'doesn't agree at all' with Tony Abbott's controversial comments

4 September 2020, 15:39 | Updated: 4 September 2020, 17:17

By Megan White

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he “doesn’t agree” with controversial comments made by Tony Abbott as he came under pressure to scrap plans to give the former Australian PM a senior trade role.

Critics have raised concerns over plans to make Mr Abbott joint president of the relaunched Board of Trade, despite Downing Street insisting no decision has been made.

He has been accused of homophobia and misogyny, and has been criticised over his climate change scepticism and belief that coronavirus restrictions should be lifted.

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But Mr Johnson 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".

Mr Abbott is in talks to become joint president of the relaunched Board of Trade
Mr Abbott is in talks to become joint president of the relaunched Board of Trade. Picture: PA

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."

Labour has written to the Government urging it not to appoint Mr Abbott, saying to do so would be "completely unacceptable" because of his "offensive and outdated" views.

Mr Johnson during a visit to Solihull on Friday
Mr Johnson during a visit to Solihull on Friday. Picture: PA

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.

The letter, first reported by ITV News, said: "This is a man who described abortion as 'the easy way out' and suggested that men may be 'by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command'."

It added that Mr Abbott "vigorously campaigned" against Australia's successful marriage equality referendum in 2017 and said climate change is "probably doing good".

"For all these reasons and more besides, this man is not fit to be representing the UK as our trade envoy," the letter added.

It concluded: "If the Government is truly committed to an outward-looking future for Britain, to tackling climate change and to creating an equal society for all, it should reconsider its proposed appointment."

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who also signed the letter, said appointing Mr Abbott would "send the wrong signal".

He said: "Abbott's opposition to LGBT+ equality, denial of the dangers of climate change and suggestion that men are more suited than women to exercise power is not only offensive but harmful to Britain's image."

He added: "Given his poor record on green issues, it is feared that he will negotiate trade deals that water down environmental protections. He is the wrong man for the job."

Mr Abbott has previously said he felt "a bit threatened" by homosexuality and was accused of misogyny by fellow former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

He has been defended by his sister Christine Forster.

In a statement posted to Twitter, she wrote: "It is nothing short of dishonesty for commentators and politicians who do not know Tony to label him a 'homophobe and a misogynist' for the purposes of scoring cheap political points.

"As a woman who has always been part of his life and who came out to him as gay in my early 40s, I know incontrovertibly that Tony is neither of those things."

She concluded that her brother would be an "outstanding" UK trade envoy based on his track record as prime minister.

In a letter to International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said: "Tony Abbott's offensive and outdated views on women are well known, including characterising women as housewives who did the ironing and suggesting that uppermost in two female politicians' qualities for office were their 'sex appeal'.

"His views on homosexuality, including his admission that he feels threatened by the LGBT community, and that 'most people do', are both dangerous and divisive."

Ms de Cordova added: "This is yet another example of incompetence from this Government and a failure to respect the diversity of our communities.

"The Labour Party urges the Government not to make this appointment and look instead for an expert with views on women and equalities that better reflect our British values."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mr Abbott's coronavirus views are "deeply offensive and wrong" and he is not fit to be a trade envoy.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman on Thursday insisted "no decision" on the board's make-up had been made and declined to comment on "political debate" surrounding Mr Abbott.