The controversial appointment of Australian former prime minister Tony Abbott as an official trade adviser for the UK has sparked questions as to how he will manage conflicts of interest.
The UK government officially confirmed Abbott’s appointment on Friday, defying a barrage of criticism over accusations of misogynistic and homophobic comments, and his views on the climate emergency.
Boris Johnson defended his appointment on Friday, saying: “I obviously don’t agree with those sentiments at all but then I don’t agree with everyone who serves the gov in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country.
“What I would say about Tony Abbott is this is a guy who was elected by the great liberal democratic nation of Australia.”
But in Australia, parliamentarians have questioned whether Abbott’s inside knowledge of the Liberal party – which is part of the ruling Coalition government and which he led as prime minister from 2013 to 2015 – presented a conflict of interest in his new role.
Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney general of the opposition Labor party, said on Saturday: “It’s up to the Morrison government to explain how a former Liberal PM can now work for a foreign power advising on matters potentially in direct conflict with Australia’s commercial interest.
“And how conflicts arising from Mr Abbott’s intimate knowledge of Australia’s trading interests and strategies, gained during his years as minister and prime minister, will be managed.”
Other parliamentarians went further. Rex Patrick, an independent senator from South Australia, labelled Abbott’s appointment a “disgrace” and called for the former prime minister to be forced to register as a foreign agent under Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
He said Abbott should be stripped of “most” of his travel and office allowance. “Australian taxpayers shouldn’t subsidise a foreign agent,” Patrick said on social media.
But Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, congratulated Abbott on his appointment and wished him “every success” in securing a new free trade deal between Australia and the UK.
“Mr Abbott will no doubt be aware of the routine requirements for former cabinet ministers under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme,” he said. “In the first instance, it is up to each individual to determine whether or not their circumstances meet the registration requirements.”
In the lead-up to his appointment to the unpaid position, Abbott attracted criticism from Tory MPs, charities and LGBT and environmental activists, after being among nine external advisers appointed to the Board of Trade. The board, revived by Theresa May, is intended to help shape the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy.
Abbott was a controversial prime minister of Australia from 2013 until he was ousted by Liberal party colleagues in 2015. He once described abortion as “the easy way out” and has suggested men are better adapted than women to exercise authority. A prior opponent of equal marriage, Abbott has also suggested climate change is “probably doing good”, and likened policies to combat it to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.
Indeed Abbott, who gave a controversial speech railing against Covid “health dictatorships” in the UK this week, seems to have caused divisions even among his fellow Board of Trade appointees.
Anne Boden, founder of the online-only bank Starling, tweeted to say she was “pleased to be advising the Board of Trade” and said it was “important that we have challenging voices” speaking to ministers.
Pleased to be advising the Board of Trade – it is important that we have challenging voices at such an important body. I support diversity and so did this woman
But the financial technology expert added “I support diversity and so did this woman”, linking to a famous 2012 speech by another former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, in which she accused Abbott of being a misogynist in the country’s parliament.