Health Secretary Matt Hancock has tried to brush off questions over homophobic and misogynistic comments made by Tony Abbott, who is being tipped as a post-Brexit trade leader.
When confronted by Sky News presenter Kay Burley over Abbott’s record, Hancock insisted the former Australian PM is “also an expert in trade”.
Abbott, who was ousted by his own party just two years into his tenure as Australia’s leader, is rumoured to have been hired by Boris Johnson to assist with new trade agreements – despite a history of publicly discussing deeply controversial views.
Burley reeled off a list of Abbott’s previous comments, including assertions that he feels “threatened” by homosexuality and women are “physiologically unsuited to leadership”.
But Hancock responded: “As far as I understand it the proposal is that Mr Abbott supports the UK on trade policy, which is an area in which he’s got a huge amount of expertise.
“I bow to nobody in my support for everybody to love who they love, whoever that is, as you know and as we’ve talked about a lot, but we need to have the best experts in the world working in their field and as the former prime minister of Australia obviously Mr Abbott’s got a huge amount of experience.”
Doubling down on her question, Burley responded: “Even if he’s a homophobic misogynist?”, an assertion that Hancock claimed he “didn’t think is true.”
Burley again reminded Hancock of Abbott’s past record, to which the health secretary said: “Well, er, he’s also an expert in trade.”
“So one plays off against the other, is that really what you’re saying health secretary? Come on,” Burley continued.
“Well no, what I’m saying is we need experts in different areas and the former prime minister of Australia is obviously an enormous expert in the field of trade. It doesn’t change my views,” Hancock said.
Burley added: “So we can forgive his comments about women, and about letting the elderly die of Covid–19, and about his views on the gay community even though I believe his sister is gay? We can forgive all of that because he’s good at trade?”
Changing the subject, Hancock responded: “Well I’m doing everything in my power to prevent a second wave and protect people from coronavirus...” – a diversion that was quickly picked up on by Burley, who repeated her question.
“Well, Kay, I think the best thing to say is that I’m totally focused on the coronavirus crisis and the future of the NHS and social care. That is my area.
“I do know that Mr Abbott is very good and very experienced in trade.”
The way in which Hancock avoided commenting on Abbott’s past statements aside, it has also been pointed out that while the former Australian PM might have experience in trade, he probably couldn’t be described as an “expert”.
Dmitry Grozoubinski, former Australian trade negotiator and founder of specialist website Explain Trade shared the video of Hancock claiming Abbott was an expert, writing “In what universe?”
He added: “By his own admission his contribution to Australian FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] was to tell negotiators not to sweat the technical details and to just get ’er dun.
“I’m not saying he has no experience to contribute on trade, but ‘expert’ is pushing it.”
UK shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry also recently raised concerns around Abbott’s proposed appointment to lead post-Brexit trade deals, describing the choice made by government as “staggering”.
“On a personal level, I am disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas,” she told The Guardian.
She added:“And on a professional level, this is someone whose only experience of trade agreements was turning up to sign the treaties [the former Australian trade minister] Andrew Robb negotiated for him.
David Henig, director of think tank European Centre For International Political Economy, wrote on Thursday: “Abbott isn’t an expert in trade, and there are many experts in trade who are neither a homophobe, a misogynist, or to add one on, a climate change denier. But it isn’t about who is an expert is it?”
It’s not the first time ministers have found themselves caught up trying to avoid awkward questions about Abbott’s past.
In late August Liz Truss, international trade secretary and the minister for women and equalities, refused to discuss whether or not Abbott was a suitable appointment as a representative for the UK.
Asked by ITV reporter Harry Horton, “Why is it right that someone who’s widely viewed as sexist, homophobic and a climate-change denier should be representing Britain around the world?”, Truss responded: “What I’d say about Tony Abbott is that he’s a former prime minister of Australia.”
“Australia is a key ally of the United Kingdom and he has done a very good job in areas like trade,” she added.