Australia’s controversial ex-Prime Minister and vocal Brexit supporter Tony Abbott is set to take on a new role for Boris Johnson, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.
FORMER AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister and serial political saboteur Tony Abbott is being readied for what will prove to be one of the more comic appointments in recent times — as President of Britain’s Board of Trade. The timing is important — Abbott has been picked to steer trade deals that are meant to miraculously materialise for a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
The original story of this announcement appeared in The Sun, a press outlet sketchy and unreliable at the best of times. The paper understood that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had sought Abbott’s addition to a team of ‘global “friends” to bang the drum from Brexit Britain’. But the former Australian Prime Minister will not have exclusive control of the reins, having to share them with current Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
Abbott has been a loud pro-Brexit voice throughout the painful process, though he started out backing the cause for Britain to remain in the European Union.
In April 2016, he argued in The Times that Britain should remain in the EU family for reasons of correcting it:
“There’s much to dislike about the EU but very little that would be improved if Britain left.”
Then he moved off the reservation; as a born again Brexiteer, he has repeatedly dispelled fears about a No-Deal Brexit from the European Union, suggesting irrelevantly and incongruously that Australia was doing rather nicely without being in the EU.
In The Spectator Australia in March last year, Abbott wrote:
‘As a former Prime Minister of a country that has a perfectly satisfactory ‘no deal’ relationship with the EU, let me assure you: no deal would be no problem.’
This no-deal scenario did not stop Australia ‘doing about $70 billion worth of trade with the EU in goods and services’. This is unmoored logic of the most startling sort and would only make comparative sense had Australia ever been a member of a trade bloc, negotiating as a trade bloc.
At the Tory Party conference held last year, Abbott did his little bit of ingratiating for Johnson, reminding his audience that “no deal is no big deal, let’s face it”. The times were “daunting” but also “stirring... because a great country is grasping for freedom. If any country is capable of standing on two feet it is Britain”.
In such moments, Abbott shows himself to be drunk with a heady brew of anglophilia:
“This country has the mother of parliaments, the world’s common language and the history of the industrial revolution.”
In a piece for The Telegraph published on 31 January, he celebrated Britain’s formal exit with hyperbolic ecstasy:
‘As a big moment in geopolitics, it ranks with the fall of the Soviet Union.’
He congratulated the Little Englanders such as Nigel Farage who had ‘single-mindedly been crusading against the arrogance and interference of the EU for almost three decades’.
Abbott has never tired of brandishing his impeccable anti-EU credentials, poking fun at the bureaucrats in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg as petty tyrants while celebrating Brexiteers as brave liberators:
‘The revolt of the British electorate against Brussels’s encroachment shows, yet again, that there’s nothing inevitable in the course of history.’
He has lauded nationalist anti-immigrant movements in Europe, many hostile to the EU program. He has praised the demographic politics of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whom he regards with a degree of reverence in seeking to address the “extinction” crisis brought about by “our failure to produce more children”. Abbott’s point on multiplying is obviously not directed at the swarthy races — he fears that white Christian Europeans aren’t doing their procreative bit in the bedroom to keep European civilisation safely afloat.
Reaction to his appointment was swift and did not sit well with the UK’s Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry:
“I just find this appointment absolutely 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.
If it wasn’t so downright humiliating, it would be almost hilarious.”
Thornberry might be missing the point. A good deal of the Brexit movement was motivated by Little England feeling tea and scones nostalgia and a burning sense of telling Johnny Foreigner to sod off. In certain instances, it was a crude refitting of the British Empire for modern purposes, the jingo let out of the closet with scant awareness about the role of Europe. Such parochialism matches the Abbott formula well.
The Mad Monk also sports a streak not dissimilar to Johnson — a talent for reputational self-harm and blunder. His remark in October 2017 that environmental policies seeking to address climate change were akin to the practices of “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods” could have been easily scripted by the imprudent Johnson.
For his part, Johnson boasts an extensive archive of cultural insensitivity.
His remarks on the British Labour Government in 2006 endure:
“For ten years, we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party.”
Johnson’s response to the furious PNG High Commissioner to London was to “add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apology”.
Like moths to a flame, Abbott and Johnson are inexorably drawn to controversy. Abbott is now the subject of an exemption from Australia’s fairly tight travel regime, from which he can attend a golf tournament in Wales, repair to Italy and scoot back to London to speak to old friends at the Policy Exchange.
A spokesman from Australia’s Border Force explained it thus to the Sydney Morning Herald:
“Decisions by the ABF Commissioner to grant exemptions for travel must be balanced against the Government’s intent for imposing the travel ban and the health risks imposed to the Australian community by international travellers.”
Between 20 March and 31 July, the Australian Border Force received 87,600 applications seeking exemption from the travel ban. Only 15 per cent of requests were approved.
Given such figures, Labor Senator Penny Wong fulminated, linking cool government shortcutting with hard coronavirus realities:
‘Now Tony Abbott leaves for a breakfast meeting about a plum foreign government job. But other Australians can’t visit dying relatives.’
A Twitter user with the handle @Ria_Oxburgh wrote of a friend who ‘was refused permission to travel to her father’s funeral in the UK. But international travel for Abbott’s job interview is essential. The hypocrisy is boundless.’
A spokesman for Abbott insists that travel costs are being met privately, including the mandatory two weeks of hotel quarantine he will have to undertake upon his return. But there is something strikingly fitting in all of this: the man of convention and rules, hectoring others who take issue with them, while happily being exempted himself. All for Britain.
Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.
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