- Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is said to be poised to advise the UK government on post-Brexit trade.
- Multiple reports indicate that Abbott, a friend of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, will join the UK Board of Trade.
- Opponents in both Australia and the UK have accused Abbott of misogyny and climate-change denial.
- A former colleague of Abbott in the Australian Parliament said his appointment was being “viewed with bemusement.”
- The opposition UK Labour Party said the appointment was “absolutely staggering.”
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Politicians in the UK and Australia have reacted with confusion and dismay to reports that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has appointed Tony Abbott to advise Britain on its post-Brexit trade arrangements.
The Sun newspaper on Tuesday evening reported that Abbott, who served as Australia’s prime minister from 2013 to 2015, would serve as copresident of the UK Board of Trade as Johnson’s government seeks free-trade agreements with countries like Australia, the US, and Japan.
The Australian journalist Bevan Shields reported that Abbott would be an adviser, not copresident. A senior source in Canberra seconded this, telling Business Insider that Abbott would serve in an advisory capacity. There has been speculation about Johnson bringing Abbott into the fold for some time, The Guardian reported.
Abbott is a vocal supporter of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, having originally advised Brits to vote Remain. He is a popular figure within UK Conservative circles and has spoken with packed rooms of party members at Conservative party conferences.
The UK government revamped the Board of Trade to coincide with the UK’s exit from the EU. Its job is to promote Britain’s status as an independent trading nation to the world as it tries to sign several trade deals in the coming years.
Economists, however, have lambasted Abbott for downplaying the economic risk on of a no-deal Brexit to the UK.
In a column for The Spectator last year, he said a no-deal Brexit would be “no problem” as Australia had a “perfectly satisfactory ‘no deal’ relationship” with the EU. “A no-deal relationship with the EU has not stopped Australia doing about US$70 billion worth of trade with the EU in goods and services,” he said.
Economists pointed out that unlike the UK, Australia does not rely on complex, just-in-time supply chains to import food, medicine, manufacturing goods, and other products from Europe and that UK trade with the EU dwarfs Australia’s trade with the bloc.
A former senior colleague of Abbott in the Australian Parliament said the appointment “is being viewed with bemusement” in Australia given what is widely seen as a lack of credentials to advise on trade.
“Abbott is not a commercial guy, at all,” the person told Business Insider. “He’s a very much a political person. I suspect Boris wants us him to go out there and talk about how great Brexit is.”
Abbott’s record of misogyny and climate-change denial
Abbott, who was born in South London, was ousted as Australian prime minister in 2015 after losing a leadership challenge to his fellow Liberal Party parliamentarian Malcolm Turnbull.
He is a controversial figure in Australian politics, not least because of accusations of sexism.
In a speech to Australian parliamentarians including Abbott in 2012, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives – he needs a mirror.”
When asked in 2013 to compare Australian MP Fiona Scott to her predecessor Jackie Kelly, Abbott said both were “young, feisty, I think I can probably say have a bit of sex appeal.”In 2010 he was accused of being “stuck in the past” after suggesting that Australian housewives were most responsible for ironing clothes.
Labour Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry said the appointment was “absolutely staggering.”
“I am disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas,” Thornberry told Politico.
In a statement, she added: “This is someone with no hands-on experience of negotiating trade agreements, who denies the climate change that we believe should be at the heart of our trade policy, and who clearly has no concept of the importance of Britain’s trade with the EU.
“He was ousted by his own colleagues after just two years in power, and rejected by his own constituents just last year. They are the people who know him best, and wanted rid of him, yet here we are now, hiring him to negotiate our trade deals around the world.”
Abbott has also disputed climate science. In 2009 he said climate change was “absolute crap,” and in 2017 he said rising global temperatures “might even be beneficial” because more people died from cold snaps than heat waves.