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Backlash as Australia’s ‘gaffe-prone’ ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed to key trade role

The decision to appoint a ‘gaffe-prone’ former Australian prime minister as Britain’s post-Brexit trade envoy has been blasted by critics.

Tony Abbott is said to be joining the Board of Trade in an advisory role with a mission to help drum up deals around the world.

But the appointment of the right-wing Brexiteer, 62, was condemned by Labour international trade spokesman Emily Thornberry, who called him an ‘offensive, aggressive, leering, gaffe-prone misogynist’.

Trade Secretary Liz Truss will be president of the board, and Mr Abbott – who was forced out of power by his own party in 2015 after just two years in charge – will be appointed to an advisory role, it is understood.

The Oxford graduate will play an advisory role in Britain’s post-Brexit global trade mission after the Brexit transition period ends. 

The appointment is yet to be officially confirmed, but a Government source told the Sun: ‘We are delighted to have him.’

There were reports that Miss Truss and Mr Abbott had agreed the appointment over breakfast on Wednesday after he was granted permission to break the Australian travel ban to fly to the UK. He is expected to return to London – where he was born – next week.

Current Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said last night the appointment was a ‘good hire’ by Boris Johnson as he seeks trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US.

Mr Abbott is a staunch monarchist and friend of the PM who addressed last year’s Tory Party conference, warning that failing to leave the EU would be ‘defeat on an epic scale, hardly matched since the Norman invasion’.

He has also spoken out against the Black Lives Matter movement and was memorably branded a misogynist in a speech by former prime minister Julia Gillard.

Pointing to Mr Abbott’s record on the environment, women and immigration while in power, Miss Thornberry said: ‘On a personal level, it is shameful Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, aggressive, leering, gaffe-prone misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas.

‘And on a professional level, this is someone with no hands-on experience of negotiating trade agreements, who denies the climate change we believe should be at the heart of our trade policy, and who clearly has no concept of the importance of Britain’s trade with the EU.’

Mr Abbott was ousted as prime minister by fellow Liberal Party MPs after a string of gaffes and amid plunging opinion poll ratings.

It is unclear whether his new position will be paid or unpaid.

His role will be to advise Ms Truss on reform of the global trading system, it is understood.

It will not be linked to negotiating free trade deals.

 

As excuses to cancel dinner go, the text message sent by Tony Abbott to a British friend newly arrived in Sydney is hard to beat.

‘Sorry to do this at short notice, mate, but I’m trying to put out these damned bush fires.’

He wasn’t joking. The former Australian leader and volunteer fireman had flown hundreds of miles to New South Wales after record-breaking temperatures and severe drought triggered massive fires that raged for months last summer.

It was in accordance with Abbott’s swashbuckling style.

For years, Australian politicians have scrupulously avoided being photographed on the beach in anything other than the baggiest of board shorts. Not Abbott.

In 2009, the then leader of the opposition centre-right Liberal party appeared in a pair of ‘budgie smugglers’ – tight Speedos – pounding through the surf.

The pictures went viral but Abbott, a fit fiftysomething at the time, evaded ridicule when it emerged that he was training with his local lifesaving club. Such a vision didn’t put voters off and Abbott served as prime minister between 2013 and 2015.

His knack of generating headlines – and the occasional gaffe – is legendary; from consuming a raw onion whole, skin and all, to show his appreciation to agricultural workers, to warning ‘the housewives of Australia’ that under the rival Labor party it would cost more to do the ironing or dismissing ‘so-called settled science’ on climate change as ‘absolutely c**p’.

He has campaigned for boats carrying migrants to be sent back at sea, for asylum claims to be processed off shore, and set up a military-led border control.

Misogyny is high on the list of his alleged crimes and misdemeanours: in 2012, the then PM Julia Gillard accused him of sexism after he made comments about her being childless and unmarried.

One year later and by then PM himself, he appointed himself minister for women’s issues, too, in what was seen as a brazen riposte to his feminist critics.

A staunch Catholic who trained for the priesthood as a young man, Abbott, now 62, led the campaign against gay marriage in Australia, and has consistently voted against relaxing the laws on abortion and stem cell research, earning himself the nickname of the ‘Mad Monk’.

Abbott, who was born in London and emigrated to Sydney with his parents aged two, has always maintained a strong bond with Britain. After graduating in economics from Sydney University, he attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

He trained as a journalist before his political ambitions took root, working for Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy until he became an MP in 1994, a seat he held until last year.

In 2015, Abbott was ousted as PM and a recent book about his premiership included the revelation that party members confronted him and his chief of staff Peta Credlin over a ‘perception’ they were having an affair (which they both denied).

Quite what Brussels will make of the Brexit advocate in his reported new guise as a post-departure adviser remains to be seen. But he’s not an unknown quantity, having negotiated with the EU as Australia’s PM.

His appointment has, predictably, angered Labour with shadow international business secretary, Emily Thornberry, saying that his ‘only experience of trade agreements was turning up to sign the treaties [former Australian trade minister] Andrew Robb negotiated for him’.

But a friend of Abbott said last night: ‘He couldn’t care less about the insults. He’s tough, clever, and he’s done business with the EU. We’re lucky to have him.’

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