Tony Abbott. Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images

Why is Tony Abbott such a hate figure?

Tony Abbott wants to tilt post-Brexit Britain towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Artillery Row

He has not yet been formally appointed, nor is it clear what the title of his role would be. But the expectation that Australia’s former prime minister, Tony Abbott, is poised to advise a new Board of Trade on negotiating Britain’s future trade deals has predictably excited incredulity and disgust.

To Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Abbott would be “an absolutely staggering appointment. 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.”

This is how a senior British politician dismisses an Anglophile former prime minister of one of Britain’s friendliest allies. Would a Tory Cabinet minister not be reproached for insulting any of the European Union’s recent leaders with personal abuse of this kind? Perhaps an Australian who whilst a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford had the audacity to organise a protest in favour of Britain’s retaking the Falkland Islands and went on to be a director of Australia’s organisation campaigning to keep the monarchy is a phantom of scarce comprehension to the MP for Islington South and Finsbury.

Yet, it is not just Labour frontbenchers who are horrified that a conservative-minded Australian should help British interests (although they did not see a problem with Mark Carney, a liberal-minded Canadian, running the Bank of England). The Conservative MP, Caroline Noakes, also warned against allowing Tony Abbott anywhere near the Secretary of State for International Trade.

“Liz Truss is one of the few women to hold a big job in this government,” Noakes points out. “She is president of the board of trade and is being told she is going to jobshare with a bloke from Australia. He is a misogynist, he has very poor views on LGBTQ rights”.

A very poor view on LGBTQ rights means that Abbott advocated implementing whatever the majority verdict would have been on a referendum on legalising gay marriage. It is unlikely to be a major feature of his advisory services to the Board of Trade, so why is this suddenly relevant? Angela Merkel voted against same sex marriage in Germany in 2017 without any British politician calling for Mrs Merkel to be shunned.

But it is tellingly de haute en bas of Noakes, the chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, to dismiss as a “bloke from Australia” a man whose academic qualifications are rather more impressive than her own. Removed from the cheap caricature, Abbott has a long history of commitment to the rights of indigenous people and in June this year the Queen bestowed upon him the Order of Australia for his life of public service.

Today, this “bloke from Australia” (who was born in London to an English father) appeared by Zoom before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He was there to discuss how the UK might strengthen its role in multilateral organisations. Inevitably, the opening exchanges were about his supposedly imminent appointment as a trade adviser, which he batted away by stating he “had some discussions with members of the British government. I am more than happy to help but there is nothing official as yet.”

Labour’s Chris Bryant focussed on his audacity in taking a flight (with the Australian government’s permission) during coronavirus whilst the SNP’s Stewart McDonald suggested his criticism of some of the more extreme lockdown measures by the authorities in the state of Victoria meant he was echoing the language of the far right. Labour’s Claudia Webbe attributed to him a line about men being more temperamentally suited to leadership roles than women. Unsportingly, Abbott suggested her quote had been misattributed to him.

After these introductory barbs, which Abbott brushed aside as good-natured banter, it fell predominantly to the Conservative members of the committee to ask him about bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Abbott was only prime minister of Australia for two years, but in bilateral diplomacy it was time he used effectively – concluding for his country trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea. His record in these deals is dismissed by Emily Thornberry as that of “someone with no hands-on experience of negotiating trade agreements” – presumably because he also had a trade team to work on the detail. This is a bit like dismissing Winston Churchill’s wartime premiership as that of a bloke with no direct experience of doing the fighting against the Wehrmacht.

Abbott touched upon where the trade-off reside between commercial benefit and engaging with or shunning countries with poor human rights records. The likelihood of a comprehensive UK-China trade deal is now vanishingly small so with Beijing the point is perhaps academic. Judging by Abbott’s clear condemnation of Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs and the suppression of rights in Hong Kong, it is possible that if he were Australia’s prime minister now he would not have concluded a trade deal: “Maybe we were looking at China through overly rose-coloured glasses back then” he conceded, “but certainly we are not now.” He suggested to the Committee that Magnitsky sanctions targeting “senior leadership in Beijing” may now be an appropriate response.

like dismissing Winston Churchill’s wartime premiership as that of a bloke with no direct experience of fighting the Wehrmacht.

In looking to conclude a UK-Australia trade deal, Abbott recommended goals similar to those that had guided Australia and New Zealand: no tariffs, mutual recognition of standards and qualifications and free movement “for work but not for welfare.” Prompted by the committee’s chairman, Tom Tugendhat, Abbott set out what he saw as the really consequential pivot for post-Brexit Britain – joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). He insisted that British participation would be warmly welcomed by Australia and Japan, giving renewed momentum to creating a deeper and wider Trans-Pacific Partnership for which British membership “would be a great boon to the wider world.”

Diverted by the Brexit debate, few Westminster politicians gave much notice to the CPTPP which proceeded in 2017 without the United States. But if Britain’s trade agreement ambitions are serious in the Asia-Pacific region then it is time they listened to politicians like Tony Abbott who can explain what is involved. If Boris Johnson does appoint him, it will be a signal that the UK is serious about Asia-Pacific for the first time since Edward Heath’s government ignored the request of friendly governments there in order to throw-in Britain’s lot with European integration.

If nothing else, Abbott’s words to the committee today should be a reminder that the self-loathing that now animates a rich seam of British society is not universally shared elsewhere:

No country has made as great a contribution as these islands: the world’s common language; parliamentary democracy, the industrial revolution, the emancipation of majorities. All of this originated here in Great Britain. I think this is something you should be incredibly proud of. Certainly, as part of the wider English-speaking family, I’m very conscious of it. And I have to say, I’m very grateful of it.

That’s why, I suppose, most Australians gave a cheer – some louder than others – but most Australians cheered mightily when Britons voted back in 2016 to look to the wider world as much as they look to their friends and near neighbours in Europe.

Contrasting this outlook with the unbending hauteur of Michel Barnier, it remains intriguing that it is Tony Abbott that Britain’s self-identifying liberals want to send home.

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