Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has been appointed to the UK Government’s relaunched Board of Trade despite a furious backlash.
The Department for International Trade announced this evening Mr Abbott has been made one of the board’s advisers.
He had been widely tipped for the role but Downing Street was under intense pressure not to go ahead with the move because of comments he has made in the past.
The confirmation of his appointment came after Boris Johnson had defended him and said he is a ‘guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia’.
The Prime Minister said he did not agree with Mr Abbott’s views on some issues ‘but then I don’t agree with everyone who serves the Government in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country’.
Sir Ian McKellen had earlier led calls from environmental and equality activists for the Government not to appoint Mr Abbott to the role.
An open letter signed by Sir Ian, as well as Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T Davies and 24 other activists, urged ministers to reconsider the appointment and claimed Mr Abbott is ‘not fit to be representing the UK’.
Mr Abbott is a climate change sceptic who recently said he believes coronavirus lockdown rules should be scrapped, arguing that nature should be allowed to ‘take its course’.
He has previously said he feels ‘a bit threatened’ by homosexuality and opposed same-sex marriage. He was accused of misogyny and sexism in Australia’s parliament by the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, in 2012.
Ms Gillard said this morning she stood by every word of what she said about Mr Abbott eight years ago but would not be drawn on whether he should be appointed to the trade envoy role, saying it was a ‘decision for the UK Government’.
However, allies of Mr Abbott leapt to his defence with his sister saying it was ‘nothing short of dishonesty’ to label her brother a ‘homophobe and a misogynist’ while former colleagues described him as a ‘giant of Australian politics’.
Boris Johnson today defended Tony Abbott as ‘a guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia’
Mr Abbott, the former prime minister of Australia, has been appointed to the UK Government’s relaunched Board of Trade despite a growing backlash over his past comments
The Department for International Trade said the new Board of Trade will meet quarterly and use its influence to ‘help Britain make a stronger case for free trade on the international stage’.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the board will bring together a ‘diverse group of people who share Britain’s belief in free enterprise, democracy, and high standards and rules-based trade’.
But the decision to appoint Mr Abbott as one of the board’s 16 advisers is likely to cause a political firestorm.
Asked during a visit to Solihull this afternoon about accusations Mr Abbott is a sexist, homophobic, misogynist, climate change denier, Mr Johnson said: ‘There’s going to be an announcement I think in due course about the composition of the Board of Trade.
‘I don’t, obviously don’t agree with those sentiments at all, but then I don’t agree with everyone who serves the Government in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country.
‘And I can’t be expected to do so. What I would say about Tony Abbott is this is a guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia.
‘It’s an amazing country, it’s a freedom-loving country, it’s a liberal country. There you go, I think that speaks for itself.’
An open letter from activists said Mr Abbott had ‘vigorously campaigned against the ultimately successful referendum in Australia to allow same-sex couples to marry’ and ‘suggested that climate change is “probably doing good”‘.
The letter said: ‘For all these reasons and more besides, this man is not fit to be representing the UK as our trade envoy.
‘If the Government is truly committed to an outward-looking future for Britain, to tackling climate change, and to creating an equal society for all, it should reconsider its proposed appointment of Tony Abbott.’
Ms Gillard’s comments about Mr Abbott back in 2012 have resurfaced amid the ongoing controversy over his appointment to the UK trade role.
She told Sky News this morning: ‘I said everything I needed to say about that back in October 2012 and that speech is still doing the rounds all of these years later and I stand by every word of it.
‘But I don’t think I need to add to it so I put my views on the record, of course it is not for me to work out who should be the UK trade envoy or specialist.
‘This is a decision for the UK government and ultimately for the views of the people of Britain so I will leave all of that to you.’
Mr Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, defended her brother in a statement posted on Twitter.
She said: ‘It is nothing short of dishonesty for commentators and politicians who do not know Tony to label him a ‘homophobe and a misogynist’ for the purposes of scoring cheap political points.
‘As a woman who has always been part of his life and who came out to him as gay in my early 40s, I know incontrovertibly that Tony is neither of those things.’
Sir Ian McKellen signed an open letter along with other environmental and equality activists calling on the UK Government not to appoint Mr Abbott to a trade envoy role
Former Australian PM Julia Gillard accused Mr Abbott of being a ‘misogynist’ in a speech in 2012. She said today that she stood by what she said but would not be drawn on whether he should be made a trade envoy
Mathias Cormann, a senior coalition minister who served under Mr Abbott, said the former PM is ‘clearly a giant of Australian politics who has made a great contribution over a long time’.
Mr Abbott served as premier in Australia for just two years before being ousted by his own Liberal Party in 2015.
Number 10 had previously declined to comment on the ‘political debate’ surrounding Mr Abbott while ministers had insisted no appointments had yet been made.
The Prime Minister’s deputy official spokesman said at lunchtime today that ‘no final decisions have been made about the Board of Trade’ and he would not be drawn on when an announcement could be made.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News this morning: ‘I hate to bring us back to reality but he hasn’t been appointed to anything and as far as I know there haven’t been any appointments made.
‘There are lots of people with whom their comments I vehemently disagree but I’m not into defending people who are not actually carrying out any role for the British Government.’