Tony Abbott may have the right expertise for the Board of Trade, but his past comments shouldn’t be downplayed

3 Sep

With everything else going on at the moment – the pandemic, a record number of migrant Channel crossings in one day and the Tory revolt over Huawei – it might come as something of a surprise to ministers to be quizzed over none other than Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister.

He’s reportedly being considered to be joint president of Britain’s relaunched Board of Trade. There has been some confusion over this, with suggestions he has already accepted the role, but Downing Street has not confirmed it. Perhaps because the development has caused a fair bit of controversy. Keir Starmer has said “I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and don’t think he’s the right person for the job“, and Caroline Noakes wasn’t much politer. On BBC Politics Live she said he was a “misogynist” and that it would be “awful” for him to represent Britain on the world stage.

While some members of the public may not have heard of, let alone be offended by, Abbott, his past comments on women and homosexuality have been well documented. Many will remember Julia Gillard, the 27th prime minister of Australia, giving her famous “misogyny speech” of 2012, in which she said of Abbott: “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. That’s what he needs.”

So what was she referring to? Her speech pointed out various examples of when he had offended her, and his casual misogyny has been expanded on elsewhere. In August 2013, as one example, he was asked what qualities a female candidate, Fiona Scott, had in common with a previous MP, while campaigning in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay. In response he said, “They’re young, feisty, I think I can probably say have a bit of sex appeal”.

Some of his other remarks have been documented by The Washington Post. In 2010, he claimed, for instance, “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up”, and he also said “I probably feel a bit threatened” by homosexuality.

In 2014, he was accused of sexism again after he told a local TV station: “As many of us know… women are particularly focused on the household budget, and the repeal of the carbon tax means a $550-a-year-benefit for the average family.”

In short, it’s not particularly difficult to find a selection of backwards statements by him. So it’s not surprising the Government is now on the defence.

Matt Hancock is one of the first ministers to be grilled on the reports. Speaking to Sky News, he said: “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 got a huge area of expertise. I bow to nobody in my support for everybody to love who they love, whoever that is. But we need to have the best experts in the world working in their field”.

Liz Truss also said: “I’m not going to spend my time talking about comments other people have made in the past” when asked about him, and blasted Labour for its hypocrisy, given that the party’s former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, had “called for the lynching of one of [Esther McVey] and never apologised for it”.

They’re fair responses, and yet it’s impossible to get away from that question – should someone who makes these comments be appointed to such an esteemed role? Even if their sentiments have nothing to do with trade.

Having just watched Mrs America, a fantastic series on the BBC about the Equal Rights Amendment in America, it struck me how much things have changed for women – especially in how they are viewed – and also, how much some things haven’t changed at all. There are still misogynistic attitudes that go unchallenged.

It brings me back to Abbott… Some people may dismiss his comments. They may say “get over yourself”, or “this is just another example of political correctness gone mad” or that his views simply reflect his Catholicism. Some people may even like that he’s blunt, viewing it as a nice change from the usual sanctimonious remarks of politicians.

And then there are those who he’s actually speaking about, wondering why we’re still hearing these things. Sure, Abbott may be the best candidate for the role. It’s just shame in 2020 that we make these trade-offs.