One of the most impressive qualities of Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership so far has been his ability to land blows on the government without seeming political. He’s a lawyer with the demeanour of a bank manager: he’s just telling you how things are. That has served him well in his broadsides against ministers’ handling of Covid-19. But in his rounding on the Prime Minister’s preferred trade envoy, Tony Abbott, he has faltered. The charge that the former Australian PM’s views make him unsuitable for the role sounds like something cooked up by younger, less worldly advisors and foisted upon the Labour leader. I like to tell myself the same thing about his taking a knee in the Shadow Cabinet room.
Abbott stands accused of sexism, misogyny and homophobia. ’I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and I don’t think he’s the right person for the job, and if I was prime minister I wouldn’t appoint him,’ says Sir Keir. Progressives with as shallow an understanding of Australian politics as that of their own country know Abbott through the prism of Julia Gillard’s famous speech in which she declared that: ‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man, I will not.’ There’s so much more to him than that. There’s the budgie smugglers, too.
Gillard’s speech was a landmark in Australian parliamentary rhetoric and, while it was a cynical piece of political theatre by an embattled prime minister, it was a thumping Abbott was long overdue. He is a great conservative dogmatist, the man you call in when you need battle lines drawn, but he lacks tact, sensitivity and nuance. Somehow, he reached the premiership of a trillion-dollar economy without ever leaving the seminar room. His need to enrage the left, a habit acquired behind enemy lines at Sydney Uni, too often got the better of his judgement. He does hold outdated views about men and women’s roles but they are a traditionalist’s lament of the Sixties and the Pill rather than a reactionary’s desire to drag women back to the hearth.
His ruthless, scandalise-the-enemy approach to the opposition leadership from 2009 to 2013 led him into any number of stupidities but his shadowing of Gillard was at times truly obnoxious. Failing to challenge supporters who branded the Labor prime minister a ‘witch’ and a ‘bitch’ was poor political hygiene, and urging the unmarried Gillard to ‘politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself’ was a snide dig. But echoing the language of a talk-radio shock-jock who claimed Gillard’s recently deceased father had ‘died of shame’ was cold and cruel. Abbott is fond of saying that politicians are volunteers while their loved ones are conscripts, but no one enlists to be taunted about the death of a parent.
So, back home Tony Abbott is seen as a bit of a prick by his opponents, but no more so than any other Coalition hate-figure. He has espoused conservative views about gender roles and sexual propriety, but nothing obviously motivated by bigotry. He is a fairly conventional right-winger and would be on the right of the Tory Party or in the mainstream of the GOP. I wouldn’t vote for him as prime minister (I met him briefly once, he’s a personable bloke but not my cup of tea politically), but there is nothing in his government service or ideological pronouncements that makes him unfit to serve as our trade envoy. Considering some of the countries we’ll have to cut trade deals with post-Brexit, his social views will probably go down well in certain quarters.
Whether he is qualified for the trade role is another matter. His government had three major trade pacts to its name — the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, the Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement — but much of the heavy-lifting in each was done by Abbott’s trade minister Andrew Robb. Of course, a former prime minister can open more doors than a former trade minister and Downing Street evidently believes Abbott can do a job of work for them. If they can get him to keep his mouth shut and forgo the sort of captain’s calls for which he is infamous, maybe he’ll reward that confidence.
What seems to me the height of chutzpah is the Labour leader offering himself as a sound judge of character for appointments to high public office. One of the reasons some of us warned against electing Jeremy Corbyn leader, then against keeping him in the job, then against standing, campaigning or voting for his Labour Party, is that doing so robbed Labour of the moral high ground on every other issue. Sir Keir Starmer thinks Tony Abbott’s past makes him an unsuitable UK trade envoy? Wait till I tell you about the guy Sir Keir tried to make UK prime minister. Twice.
I don’t know if Abbott will be any good as a trade envoy but I’m fairly certain Sir Keir Starmer is in no position to be setting moral parameters for such appointments. Boris Johnson will not be lectured about political ethics by this man, he will not.