Last night’s confirmation that Tony Abbott is joining the Board of Trade has been reported, bizarrely, with accusations that he is somehow misogynist or homophobic. There was little mention of why the British government actually headhunted him: his ability to achieve big free trade deals quickly. In his two years in office, he did more to help Australia’s exporters than any other leader in the country’s history, finalising free trade deals with what are (now) Australia’s three most important markets: Japan, China and Korea. He also initiated talks on a trade deal with the EU after his Labor predecessors lazily ignored the opportunity for years.
But as this is not very well known in Britain, it’s easier for critics to ignore it all and recycle these ridiculous claims. Who is there to come to his defence, given that no one really knows him in Britain? Who can give a different picture: about the nature of the man, or his qualification for the job? I was his international adviser for four years and I can tell you – the British government has just recruited an eminently-qualified trade adviser. I can also tell you how little foundation there is behind those smears.
1. ‘By physiology or temperament’
The claim that he is in some way a misogynist was most famously made by Australian Labor prime minister Julia Gillard in 2012 while Abbott was leader of the opposition. She dug up a partial quote from 1998 where he questioned why women were under-represented in positions of power. In debate, he had raised whether men are – by physiology or temperament – more likely to take jobs of authority.
The source? From 1998 when Abbott was at a round table that included Michael Costa, then a minister in New South Wales – he wasn’t making a statement but asking a question in a wide-ranging discussion.
Abbott: ‘If it’s true that men have more power, generally speaking, than women, is that a bad thing?’
Costa: ‘Clearly it’s a bad thing.’
Abbott: ‘Why is that, Michael?’
Costa: ‘I want my daughter to have as much opportunity as my son.’
Abbott: ‘Yeah, I completely agree, but what if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue commands?’
Costa: ‘Well see, I don’t believe that. What I do think is that we should never be in a situation where women have got to define their notions of success and self-worth by negating a traditional role. But in terms of the power structure I think it’s very hard to deny that there is an under-representation of women.’
He was testing the fairly-common idea that men tend to chase top jobs – a pretty far cry from declaring that men are best-suited for the top jobs.
Gillard also attacked him for comments he made once on a visit to the town of Queanbeyan outside Canberra, warning of higher electricity prices under her government’s emissions trading scheme – and trying to express that in household consumption terms. ‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it's going to go up in price, and their own power bills when they switch the iron on, are going to go up,’ he said. Perhaps this underestimated the role of men of Queanbeyan who doubtless do a lot of ironing. But does it expose the black heart of a sexist?
Gillard’s characterisation of Abbott’s views of women’s roles was obviously dishonest. In fact the women’s rights issue he was criticised for most at the time was his championing of a plan to improve the rights of working women by introducing what would have been one of the world’s most generous paid parental schemes, providing six months of leave on full wages for one parent in all couples (including those of the same sex). Gillard opposed the scheme and it was later shelved for reasons of cost.
Her charge that Abbott was somehow opposed to power being given to women is undermined by the fact that one of the major elements contributing to his losing the prime ministership was the widespread view that he had given his female chief of staff Peta Credlin too much power. Despite mounting calls for him to sack her, including from Rupert Murdoch, he remained staunchly loyal.
Gillard also liked to quote something he said speaking at Adelaide University in 2004 on the ethical role of a Christian politician. How to understand the high number of abortions, he said? Well, you can consider some of the personal circumstances. ‘To a pregnant 14-year-old struggling to grasp what’s happening, for example, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations. What seems to be considered far less often is avoiding situations where difficult choices might arise.’ So he was advocating alternatives to unwanted pregnancy in the first place. But this sentence in this speech has been truncated by his critics to six words: ‘abortion is the easy way out.’
4. Sex Appeal
Abbott gets on well with Boris Johnson, and shares with the British prime minister’s refusal to be strait-jacketed by politically-correct language rules. Ten years ago, for example, when enumerating the qualities of one of his party’s female candidates, he included ‘sex appeal’ among them. This may have made him seem old-fashioned, but the woman in question found it amusing and the comment could hardly be construed as misogyny.
5. Threatened by homosexuality
Abbott has also been accused of being a ‘homophobe’ for two television interviews in 2010 when he was being frank about his own feelings. He said he had once felt ‘a bit threatened, as most people do’ by homosexuality because ‘there is no doubt that it challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things’. Again, there can be little doubt that these views were influenced by his Catholicism – we’re talking about a man who once trained to be a priest. But in the same interview, he said: ‘it's a fact of life and we have to treat people as we find them.’ If you bought the Emily Thornberry or Kay Burley view of Abbott, you’d also be surprised to learn that when one of his longtime friends transitioned from male to female, she asked Abbott to introduce a documentary about her story. He gladly did so.
6. The gay marriage referendum
In 2017 Abbott became the de facto leader of the opposition case for legalising same-sex marriage ahead of Australia’s referendum on the issue, arguing that ‘it is not homophobic to maintain that, ideally, children should have both a mother and a father’. That was much more gentle than the line of Australian Labor hero, former prime minister Paul Keating, who said that ‘two blokes and a cocker spaniel don’t make a family’. But as a hero of the left, unlike Abbott, Keating’s never been attacked as a bigot over the issue. After Australia voted ‘yes’ to legalising same sex marriage, Abbott was again pragmatic. When his lesbian sister Christine Forster married the following year, Abbott sat in the front row and commented that it was ‘a great family occasion’, that he was very happy for his sister and her spouse and that he was ‘looking forward to having a new sister-in-law’. Forster has issued a statement calling the claims of misogyny and homophobia ‘dishonest’, describing her brother as ‘an unabashed conservative but with great compassion, respect for others and an indelible sense of doing what’s right’.
Beyond Abbott’s undoubted achievements, all who have had the privilege of working with him know that it would be hard to find a more decent, likeable or good-humoured figure in public life. And one of the qualities his detractors would prefer was ignored is his decades-long commitment to working to improve the life of the first Australians. The left likes to claim concern for the generally disadvantaged Aborigines as its issue. But Abbott, unlike any other senior political figure, over many years has stayed at remote Aboriginal communities on a regular basis – including when prime minister – to explore ways in which their welfare could be improved. Britain is lucky to have him.