LONDON (Reuters) – Australia’s former prime minister, Tony Abbott, declined on Tuesday to be drawn on reports he will become a trade adviser for Britain, but set out his free-trade credentials and made clear he favours deals between “like-minded countries”.
There has been no official confirmation of media reports that Abbott, a Brexit supporter, will become a member of Britain’s Board of Trade but his possible appointment has stirred criticism from opposition lawmakers.
Asked about the role, the right-wing head of Australia’s government between 2013 and 2015 said he’d “had some discussions with members of the British government and I’m more than happy to help” but nothing was official as yet.
Abbott was speaking to British lawmakers about strengthening multilateral organisations. But he also used a trip to London to set out his approach to trade and to underline the importance of an agreement between Britain and Australia.
“I am obviously a supporter of freer trade, particularly freer trade between like-minded countries with comparable standards of living,” he told the Policy Exchange think-tank.
“So a free-trade deal between Australia and Great Britain would be, I would like to think, an absolutely unambiguous good for everyone.”
He added that he could not comment on reports of his new role until it was made official.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that “no decisions about the Board of Trade have been made”.
The Board of Trade is headed by trade minister Liz Truss and, the government says, it “champions exports, inward investment and outward direct investment to deliver economic growth and prosperity across … the United Kingdom”.
The trade policy chief for Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, Emily Thornberry, has said it would be “absolutely staggering” if Johnson were to appoint Abbott, saying he has “no hands-on experience of negotiating trade agreements”.
Both Thornberry and Conservative lawmaker Caroline Nokes called Abbott a “misogynist”, repeating the 2012 accusations of Australia’s then prime minister Julia Gillard regarding comments by Abbott such as that men might be better adapted to authority.
Abbott rejects accusations of misogyny and questioned whether he had ever made the comments when asked about them by lawmakers on the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Many members of the governing Conservative Party would welcome the appointment of Abbott, who urged Britain not “fear a so-called hard exit” from the European Union, saying Australia had been doing trade with EU countries on a “no-deal basis”.
Several Conservatives have said his support for Brexit underlined his credentials for promoting it.
Others have praised his critical view of China. On Tuesday, he advised caution in pursuing a free-trade agreement with Beijing.
“I think it (free trade) is a different issue where countries have got widely divergent standards of living,” he said. “I certainly think it’s a different issue where you’ve got a country like China that sees trade as a potential strategic weapon and can turn things on and off like a tap.”
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Estelle Shirbon, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Catherine Evans)