Terry Barnes was Tony Abbott’s senior adviser when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.
The ferocious attack on Tony Abbott by Kay Burley of Sky News, asserting he is a homophobe and a misogynist, and therefore unfit to be appointed as a senior trade adviser to the British government, was as unfair as it was personal.
Joining the likes of Emily Thornberry, Caroline Nokes and Nicola Sturgeon (with Keir Starmer clambering aboard their moral judgment bandwagon) in unleashing her fury on hapless Matt Hancock, Burley made clear that she treated as fact the received wisdom of the Left – that Abbott is a Neanderthal from a less enlightened time. Poor Hancock, taken aback, weakly defended Abbott as being “good at trade” while not challenging any of Burley’s unattributed claims about Australia’s former Prime Minister.
It is wrong, however, to assume that Abbott’s image, framed by his political enemies, is the actual man. Yes, he is flawed – who isn’t? – and yes, he has said unwise, even stupid, things in the past – who hasn’t? But his British critics should at least try to know that man before launching into him.
On his alleged homophobia, Abbott indeed opposed same-sex marriage, and in 2010 said in a television interview that he felt “threatened” by homosexuality as a challenge to the traditional social order. But it was Abbott who initiated a process for resolving Australia’s fraught same-sex marriage debate by a national plebiscite, a process eventually implemented by his nemesis and successor as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
Some of Abbott’s closest friends are gay. And when his sister, Christine Forster, came out as gay Abbott supported her and welcomed her new partner, now wife, into his family, celebrating their same-sex wedding with them.
As for misogyny, Abbott respects strong, charismatic women. As Prime Minister, he had complete confidence in his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, a woman so formidable that she is to Dominic Cummings what Wodehouse’s Aunt Agatha was to Bertie Wooster, and whose inquisitions of ministers would make Burley’s rounding on Hancock look tame.
Abbott’s permanent secretary as John Howard’s Health minister was an equally tough woman, for whom he was prepared to resign if Howard moved her. He respected and supported their ambitions and those of other women, including his own wife and daughters.
It was another former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s “I will not be lectured on misogyny and sexism by this man” speech in 2012 that has most tarred Abbott with a misogyny brush.
But nobody remembers the context of that fiery speech: Gillard was lashing out against attacks on her flawed judgment when the Speaker she had appointed had himself been forced to resign for saying truly disgusting things about women. Her pent-up frustration over her political predicament bubbled over that day, but her words resonated and, unfortunately for Abbott, stuck hard.
Ironically, Abbott is being attacked so fiercely for his social views when, in reality, he is remarkably easy about people disagreeing with him. Unlike some other politicians who cannot admit defeat, he accepts in good grace being on the losing side of an argument; his unquestioning acceptance of Australians overwhelmingly voting for same-sex marriage in the 2017 plebiscite is a case in point.
And if Hancock cared to look at Abbott’s record in his own portfolio, he could have observed that, as Health minister Abbott was a champion of hugely boosted investment in Australia’s NHS equivalent.
Furthermore, he had the foresight, in the mid-2000s, to ensure Australia had a national pandemic plan, and operational readiness for a pandemic, that has helped save Australia from the full ravages of Covid-19 felt so tragically in Britain, Europe and the United States.
Instead of asserting why Abbott is wrong for Britain merely in terms of out-of-context comments from years ago and his entrenched public image, consider instead why Abbott would be good for his mooted trade role.
As I wrote om this site last week, as Prime Minister he oversaw the finalising of three major bilateral trade deals, with China, Japan and South Korea, as well as pursuing a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. He is a skilled negotiator who can reconcile competing interests and, being British-born, spent formative years in Britain and studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he has a deep affection for his homeland and a genuine and passionate determination that Britain successfully makes its way in a post-Brexit world.
If Boris Johnson resists the increasing pressure to dump him, Abbott will be a great asset in facilitating Britain’s re-emergence as a fully independent trading nation.
As Christine Forster said this week of her brother: “In reality he is a man of great compassion and intellect, an unabashed conservative but with great compassion and respect for others, and an indelible sense of doing what is right”. It is sad that his uninformed critics in British politics and the media do not afford him the same courtesy in return.