By Morgan Perry | Political Editor
Former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has attracted controversy after he was announced as a member of the UK Board of Trade.
Mr Abbott joins several industry leaders as they seek to navigate the UK through the rough seas of post-Brexit trade deals.
Comments made by Mr Abbott in the past, however, have seen him branded a “misogynist” and a “homophobe”. Mr Abbott has also faced criticism from some claiming that he is a climate change denier.
His critics have questioned whether this is the type of image or impression the UK Government wishes to present on the world stage. Despite the criticism, however, Number 10 has continued to defend the former Prime Minister’s new position.
When hard-pressed by Sky News’ Kay Burley, Health Minister Matt Hancock dismissed the criticism. Despite comments that have been seen as controversial in the past, Mr Abbott is “an expert on trade” said Mr Hancock.
Perhaps most memorably, during his time as opposition leader in Australia, Mr Abbott was publicly accused in a speech of being a misogynist by then-Australian PM, Julia Gillard.
The speech, which took place in the House of Representatives, has been described as the “most unforgettable Australian TV moment”.
In another incident involving Ms Gillard, Abbott was pictured alongside protesters holding posters and signs outside the Australian Parliament and chanting “ditch the witch”, among other sexist slogans.
Mr Abbott was also previously quoted saying that “what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing … when they switch the iron on, [costs] are going to go up.”
Abbott later acknowledged that the comments represented an outdated stereotype and was pictured ironing his own shirt for TV news cameras.
On climate change, Abbott’s position is clear: “coal is good for humanity” he announced at the opening of a new coal mine in 2014.
The former PM appeared to be unaware of evidence that demonstrates that emissions from burning coal for power and fuel have a direct contribution to global warming and climate change, leading some to brand him a climate change denier.
Last year, despite evidence to suggest there are damaging effects to be had as a result of climate change, Mr Abbott claimed that the world was “in the grip of a climate cult”.
In a television interview, Mr Abbott stated that he felt “threatened” by the concept of homosexuality and later stated that it challenges “the right order of things”.
The 2017 campaign for same-sex marriage in Australia saw Mr Abbott describe the concept of extending marriage to same-sex couples as “political correctness”.
Mr Abbott’s sister, Christina Foster, who is in a same-sex relationship, defended Mr Abbott amid criticism in the UK. She described the claims as “nothing short of dishonesty”.
In her tweet, Foster made no direct reference to Mr Abbott’s previously homophobic comments, however.
“Supporting diversity” or “attacking his religion”?
The UK Board of Trade features several industry leaders.
Mr Abbott is joined by the likes of Karen Betts, the head of the Confederation of British Industry’s International Trade and Investment Council, and Dr Linda Yeuh, an academic and economist from the London School of Economics.
The Board has also been joined by Anne Boden, CEO of fintech Starling Bank, and the Right Honourable Patricia Hewitt, a former Labour MP and Health Secretary.
Daniel Hannan, a former MEP, has been appointed to the Board. Hannan is a staunch supporter of leaving the European Union and the President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Mr Hannan has claimed that those who criticse Mr Abbott’s homophobic comments are “attacking his religion”.
Though, whilst Abbott has been defended by some of the board’s members, not all have been so supportive.
In announcing her role on the Board, Anne Boden tweeted that she “supported diversity”. “So did this woman” Boden added, with a link to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech.
“Beggars can’t be choosers”
Mr Abbott is seen as a controversial appointment both here and Down Under.
In Australia, he achieved low approval ratings during his two short years in office and was later forced out of his premiership in a leadership battle. His appointment to the UK Board of Trade has resulted in on-air jibes and jokes from Australian news presenters.
Some have further criticised Tony Abbott’s record on trade.
Despite the insistence of the UK Government that he is an “expert on trade”, Australia’s trade balance during Abbott’s time as Prime Minister decreased dramatically, in spite of securing trade deals with the likes of China and South Korea.
Poeple in the UK are worried that Tony Abbott’s controversial past could overshadow his ability to help the Board secure post-Brexit trade deals, and may damage the country’s image overseas.
But so far, despite the criticism from the public, there has been no announcement to reverse the decision to appoint a controversial figure to such an integral and internationally-facing UK body.
However, given the record of the current Conservative government, there’s still time for a potential U-turn.twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics. Politics Morgan Perry