The UK government is facing increased pressure over its proposed appointment of Tony Abbott as a trade envoy because of his views about women, equal marriage and climate change, with Labour calling for the idea to be scrapped.
“I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and don’t think he’s the right person for the job,” Keir Starmer said in a TV clip. “And if I was prime minister I wouldn’t appoint him.”
The Labour leader’s comments come after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, expressed some apparent discomfort at the appointment, declining to endorse the former Australian prime minister’s views.
Later, the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, was chastised in the Commons by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for refusing twice to engage with questions from Labour about Abbott’s suitability.
The government has yet to confirm that Abbott is to be appointed to the Board of Trade to help with post-Brexit trade deals, but has also not denied this will happen.
Abbott’s attitudes to women, including describing abortion as “the easy way out” and suggesting men are better adapted than women to exercise authority, made international headlines in 2012 when the then-Australian PM, Julia Gillard, used a widely shared speech in parliament to castigate his views.
He has also suggested climate change is “probably doing good”, and likened policies to combat it to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.
Answering trade questions in the Commons, Truss, who is also the minister for women and equalities, refused to answer questions from two Labour MPs on Abbott’s views.
Asked by Ruth Cadbury about his apparent misogyny, Truss instead talked about Labour’s “absolute hypocrisy” given previous comment by Labour MPs and the fact it had never had a female leader, saying the party would “rather virtue signal and indulge in tokenism rather than take real action to improve the lives of women”.
When Christian Matheson asked whether Abbott’s climate change scepticism meant this would not be a focus for future trade deals, Truss again evaded the question, instead calling those on the left “intolerant of anyone who doesn’t agree with them, but are prepared to defend anything from their own friends”.
This brought a reprimand from Hoyle, who told Truss: “I think we’ve got to remember we actually answer questions rather than keep asking them.”
Questioned earlier on Abbott’s views during a TV interview, Hancock stressed the former PM’s “huge amount of expertise” in international trade but repeatedly cited his own contrasting opinions on areas like equal marriage.
Asked whether he believed Abbott was a “fit and proper” person to take on an official UK role, Hancock declined to concur.
He told Sky News: “I think the best thing to say is that I am totally focused on the coronavirus crisis and the future of the NHS and social care. That is my area. I do know that Mr Abbott is very good and very experienced in trade.”
At one point Hancock did disagree with the idea that Abbott was a “homophobic misogynist”, saying: “I don’t think that’s true.” But when some of the former PM’s views were put to him, Hancock added: “He’s also an expert in trade.”
Hancock argued that the main issue in appointing Abbott was his experience in trade: “As far as I understand it, the proposal is that Mr Abbott supports the UK on trade policy, which is an area in which he has a huge amount of expertise. I bow to nobody in my support of everybody to love who they love, whoever that is.
“But we need to have the best experts in the world, working in their field, and as the former prime minister of Australia, obviously Mr Abbott has got a huge amount of experience.”
Asked if his trade expertise negated his views, Hancock said: “What I’m saying is that we need experts in different areas, and the former prime minister of Australia is, obviously, an enormous expert in the field of trade. It doesn’t change my views.”
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Abbott’s coronavirus views were “deeply offensive and wrong” and he was not fit to be a trade envoy. “But Tony Abbott, before these comments, is a misogynist, he’s a sexist, he’s a climate-change denier,” she told Sky News.
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