But after news of Abbott’s appointment leaked, his past came back to haunt him. During his decades in Australian politics and a brief period he spent leading the country, he had gained an international reputation as a misogynist, homophobe and climate-change denier.
More recently, he became critic of covid-19 lockdowns, suggesting this week that governments needed to ask “uncomfortable questions” about letting elderly patients die.
To those who have followed Abbot’s career, the furor was not surprising. Despite his pedigree, the 62-year-old is known for crude comments and inexplicable gaffes: He once bit into a raw, skin-on onion like an apple as horrified reporters watched.
Now British politicians are making their own gaffes as they try to defend him.
“As the former prime minister of Australia, obviously, Mr. Abbott has got a huge amount of experience,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock during an interview on Thursday morning.
“Even if he’s a homophobic misogynist?” journalist Kay Burley asked.
“Well, I, I’m, I think that that is … I don’t think that’s true. I haven’t seen any,” Hancock said.
Burley jumped in: “I just told you what he said. I’m sure you don’t support some of his comments. He’s a homophobe, and he’s a misogynist."
“Well, er, he’s also an expert in, er, trade,” Hancock said.
News of Abbott’s planned appointment had leaked to the Sun newspaper in late August, which had captioned him “OUR WIZARD OF OZ.” The tabloid reported that the former Australian leader would soon be appointed joint president of a relaunched Board of Trade.
For British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it is a key position. Britain is still leaving the European Union and needs to negotiate trade deals with countries such as Australia. During Abbott’s time as Australia’s leader, between 2013 and 2015, he had negotiated trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China.
Abbott is an old-school conservative, in line with Johnson’s political party, and an Anglophile who had got his start in politics through his leadership of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, a body that aims to maintains links to the British crown.
But many in Britain’s opposition party, Labour, and even some members of Johnson’s government, don’t feel much kinship toward Abbott.
“It is shameful that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, aggressive, leering, gaffe-prone misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas,” said Emily Thornberry, a Parliament member in charge of Labour’s international trade platform.
Abbott’s ill-repute is not new. When he was leader of Australia’s Liberal Party in 2012, he had given a speech in front of offensive signs that called for Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, to resign.
“I was offended when the leader of the opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said ‘Ditch the witch,’ " Gillard said in a fiery speech to Australia’s Parliament. “I was offended when the leader of the opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s b----.”
Gillard’s speech later went viral around the world, even reaching the White House under President Barack Obama. Gillard later said she was disappointed that accusations of sexism did little to stop Abbott’s career. He became prime minister the next year.
Abbott spent less than two years in office. Amid his trade deals, his coalition government repealed a carbon tax that Gillard had championed (years before, he had referred to climate-change science as “absolute crap”).
During an interview with The Washington Post in 2013, he referred to the ships that had been bringing hopeful refugees fleeing war zones to Australia as a “massive illegal immigration racket.”
After being filmed smiling and winking during a radio interview when an impoverished and sick grandmother who said she was working on a sex hotline, his approval ratings plummeted to among the lowest in the world.
He was ousted as party leader in September 2015 by Malcolm Turnbull, considered a safer, more-moderate leader. As Abbott left office, his critics shared images of onions on social media — a reference to the 2015 incident, when he had bitten into a raw onion at a Tasmanian farm.
In 2019, Abbott lost his seat in Parliament representing what was once considered a safe seat for the Liberal Party in the Sydney suburbs to independent candidate Zali Steggall — a former Olympian athlete who championed climate-change action and who also happened to be a woman.
Abbott retired from the front lines of Australian political life. Less than a year, later he was dominating political news in Britain.
During an interview with ITV News last week, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss was repeatedly asked about the potential appointment of “someone who’s widely viewed as sexist, homophobic and a climate change denier.”
“What I’d say about Tony Abbott is that he’s a former prime minister of Australia,” said Truss, who is also minister for women and equalities.
Not all of Truss’s colleagues in the governing Conservative Party were so forgiving. “Is he the sort of man I want to be representing us globally? No,” Conservative Parliament member Caroline Nokes told the BBC on Tuesday.
Abbott doesn’t seem likely to change course. During a visit to London this week, he gave a speech at a think tank where he said there was “virus hysteria” and warned that some politicians sought a “health dictatorship” with lockdowns.
Pointing to the high economic cost of protecting the elderly from covid-19, he said governments needed to ask “uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with."
Abbot’s appointment has not yet been confirmed, either by him or the British government. It may now be in doubt.
On Thursday, he was grilled by lawmakers about comments he reportedly made in 1998 about men being more naturally suited to leadership than women and whether that would influence his relationship with Truss. The BBC reported that Abbott responded the remark “doesn’t sound like anything I’ve said."