The UK government is under growing pressure to dump former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as a trade advisor before he has even been appointed to the role.
Scotland’s leader has described him as a “misogynist” and a “sexist” and in the latest awkward encounter for a government minister, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was forced to defend Mr Abbott’s conduct on the UK’s Sky News.
“He’s a homophobe and a misogynist,” declared Sky presenter Kay Burley.
“Well, he’s also an expert in trade,” Mr Hancock replied.
Ms Burley referred Mr Hancock, who was wearing a rainbow “NHS pride” badge, to Mr Abbott’s comments about homosexuality in 2010, in which he said he would “probably feel a bit threatened”.
She also asked him to consider Mr Abbott’s 1998 comments, in which he asked:
“What if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”
Ms Burley asked the Health Secretary whether a “homophobic misogynist” was fit to represent the country.
“We need an expert in different areas and someone who is the former prime minister of Australia is obviously an enormous expert in the field of trade,” Mr Hancock said.
Mr Abbott has flown to the UK ahead of his expected appointment to the UK’s Board of Trade, which will advise the government on future negotiations.
A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “no decision” had yet been made on the appointment, which will be up to Downing Street.
Conservative MP Caroline Nokes condemned the expected appointment on Tuesday.
“This is such a bad idea, I’m not sure I can come up with words for how awful I think it is,” she told the BBC.
“He’s a misogynist, he has very poor views on LGBTQ rights and I just don’t think this is a man who should be anywhere near our Board of Trade.”
Her comments were echoed by former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said he would be “surprised” if Mr Abbott was made a trade envoy.
Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer also criticised the move.
“I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and don’t think he’s the right person for the job,” Sir Keir said.
“If I was PM, I wouldn’t appoint him.”
Mr Abbott’s potential future boss, Trade Secretary Liz Truss, who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, said last week her views on Mr Abbott’s past comments were not “remotely relevant”.
“He’s a former prime minister of Australia,” she said.
“He’s done an excellent job on trade.”
However, on Thursday she attacked Labour MPs who have criticised Mr Abbott’s potential appointment.
“The reality is they would rather virtue-signal and indulge in tokenism … than take real action to improve the lives of women,” she told the House of Commons.
A spokesman for Mr Abbott said the former PM “does not respond to personal abuse”.
Abbott’s comments aren’t new to Australians
These controversies have been the subject of debate in Australia many times before.
Mr Abbott’s 1998 comments, questioning whether men were better suited to authority, were previously defended by his colleague Julie Bishop.
“He’s asked a question — I don’t see that as sexist,” she said in 2012.
At the time, she also said former prime minister Julia Gillard’s famous speech in which she labelled him a misogynist was “utterly dishonest”.
In 2013, his daughter Bridget told News Corp it was “totally untrue” to suggest her father believed men were superior to women.
Mr Abbott’s sister Christine Forster, who is gay, has openly criticised her brother’s views on same-sex marriage.
However, in 2018, Ms Forster told Australian Story Mr Abbott and his wife Margie had welcomed her into their home.
“They got their heads around the whole bombshell probably quicker than any other members of my family,” she said.
COVID-19 comments labelled ‘disgraceful’
Mr Abbott has also come under fire for his comments about COVID-19 made in a speech to London’s Policy Exchange think tank on Tuesday, where he said that some older people should be allowed to die naturally.
“Every life is precious and every death is sad, but that has never stopped families sometimes electing to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course,” he said.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the comments were “disgraceful”.
“The idea that anyone would take that view is offensive and wrong,” she told Sky News on Thursday.
“Tony Abbott is a misogynist, he’s a sexist, he’s a climate change denier.
“In my view, he’s not the kind of person who should be a trade envoy or any kind of envoy for the United Kingdom.”