Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to backtrack over the appointment of Tony Abbott as a trade adviser, amid growing condemnation of his misogynistic and homophobic comments and his dismissal of the climate crisis.
Facing the prospect of another potentially embarrassing U-turn, Downing Street insisted on Thursday that “no decisions” had been taken over the choice of the former Australian prime minister.
It came after the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, raised serious concerns about Abbott’s suitability for the role – misgivings echoed by human rights groups Amnesty International and Liberty, the TUC, women’s equality body the Fawcett Society, and environmental campaigners Greenpeace.
Abbott had been expected to join the Board of Trade, a historic body revived by Theresa May’s government to advise on Britain’s post-Brexit trade policy around the world.
It is understood his name was on a list of potential candidates for the Board of Trade approved by No 10 several weeks ago, but a final announcement has since been delayed. The post is not expected to be paid.
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 the climate crisis is “probably doing good”, and likened policies to combat it to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.
Most recently, he railed against Covid “health dictatorships”, saying the economic cost of lockdowns meant families should be allowed to consider letting elderly relatives with the coronavirus die by letting nature take its course.
The Guardian has learned that Emily Thornberry, the shadow international trade secretary, who has called Abbott a “Trump-worshipping misogynist”, wrote to her opposite number Liz Truss, challenging her to explain the mooted post.
In a letter copied to the cabinet secretary, Thornberry posed 25 questions, including whether the post was advertised in accordance with cabinet office guidelines, and whether the job was discussed when Truss appeared alongside Abbott at recent public events.
“Where a very high-profile and – if we are frank – controversial external individual looks set to be appointed to a government role of immense importance, and the public are naturally eager to understand not just why but how,” Thornberry wrote.
Thornberry has also questioned Abbott’s trade expertise, saying the detail of negotiating Australia’s bilateral deals was left to its then trade minister, Andrew Robb.
Truss was chastised by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, on Thursday for failing to engage with questions from Labour MPs about Abbott’s suitability for the post. She railed instead at Labour’s record in failing to appoint a female leader.
An ally of Truss played down the row, highlighting the fact that several of the comments for which Abbott has been criticised are historic, and some had been shared by mainstream Conservatives. “Half the cabinet voted against gay marriage,” they said.
A growing number of high-profile campaign groups have joined calls for his appointment to be blocked.
“The sorry list of Tony Abbott’s comments on everything from climate change to gay marriage should disqualify him immediately from any government role,” said Greenpeace’s executive director, John Sauven. He said Abbott’s views “are in stark contrast with the majority of UK public opinion”.
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “A bigot like Tony Abbott is completely unfit for the job. The government must ditch Abbott and give a proper role for trade unions in trade advisory groups.”
Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society, one of the country’s foremost feminist organisations, said she was “puzzled as to why the government thinks” Abbott is a good candidate.
Her comments were echoed by the director of the Women’s Budget Group, Mary-Ann Stephenson, who said Abbott was doubly unsuitable. Appointing someone who holds such views would send out a signal “about what sort of country you are, and what sort of behaviour is acceptable”, she said.
Stephenson added that Abbott’s views suggest he would be unlikely to pay sufficient attention when striking trade deals to workers’ rights and environmental standards, as well as consumer rights, protecting public services and other issues.
“Those have a particular impact on women because they’re more likely to work in low paid sectors or sectors that have poor labour standards, they’re more likely to be dependent on public services and they’re the main people who are responsible for managing household budgets,” she said.
Eloise Stonborough, head of policy and research at Stonewall, said: “During a year that has brought new and unprecedented challenges to the LGBT community, it is more important than ever that our public representatives are fully committed to equality for all lesbian, gay, bi and trans people here and across the world.” And the LGBT Foundation called Abbott’s views “hugely outdated and out of step”.
Allan Hogarth, of Amnesty International UK, said the UK should “stand for tolerance, diversity and human rights – not bigotry, homophobia and sexism” and called for the government to explain how Abbott’s views square with those values.
Sam Grant, of Liberty, called the proposal a “red flag, reinforcing existing concerns about this government’s commitment to protecting our rights after Brexit”, adding that the UK could ill-afford “fresh alarm over the protection of rights that were hard won”.
Health secretary Matt Hancock appeared to signal some discomfort about the appointment in a TV appearance on Thursday morning, stressing the former Australian PM’s “huge amount of expertise” in international trade but repeatedly citing 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.”
“I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and don’t think he’s the right person for the job,” Starmer said in a TV clip. “And if I was prime minister I wouldn’t appoint him.”
Tony Abbott: what he has said
In a famous speech on misogyny she faced while serving in public office, the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard said of Abbott: “He has said – and I quote – in a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros. The leader of the opposition says: ‘If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?’”
Abbott told a book launch earlier this year:
While I’m all in favour of stay-at-home-mums if that’s their choice, I do think that a properly conservative government, acknowledging that having a family is one of the most wonderful things that anyone can do, would make it easier for women in the workforce to have more kids.
That is a real problem in every western country: middle class women do not have enough kids. Women in the welfare system have lots of kids. If you’re very wealthy you can afford to have as many kids as you want.
The journalist Liz Jackson reported that Abbott had said in the 1970s:
I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.
Summarising his views on sexuality, Abbott told the Australian TV station Channel 9 in 2010:
I probably feel a bit threatened [by homosexuality], as so many people do. It’s a fact of life.
Asked to expand on those views in a later interview with ABC, he said:
There is no doubt that it challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things. But as I also said on [Channel 9], it happens, it’s a fact of life and we have to treat people as we find them.