Questioned on Sky News, the Health Secretary said on Thursday he did not believe that Abbott was homophobic or misogynistic, and, when pressed, added: “He’s also an expert in trade”.
Abbott is in talks to become joint president of the relaunched Board of Trade but critics have raised numerous concerns, including over his belief that coronavirus restrictions should be lifted.
He has previously said that he feels “a bit threatened” by homosexuality, opposed same-sex marriage, and was accused of misogyny by fellow former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.
Hancock, wearing an NHS badge with the LGBTQ rainbow flag, was pressed over the suitability of Abbott, who led his nation from 2013 until he was ousted by his own party in 2015.
“I bow to nobody in my support for everybody to love who they love, whoever that is,” he said.
“But we need to have the best experts in the world working in their field and the former prime minister of Australia has a huge amount of experience.”
Hancock said “I don’t think that’s true” when pressed about allegations of homophobia and misogyny.
But Sky’s Kay Burley said “He’s a homophobe and he’s a misogynist”, to which Hancock replied: “He’s also an expert in trade”.
International trade minister Greg Hands said no appointments had been confirmed but he welcomed Abbott in his willingness to “help this country out”.
Opposition MPs were highly critical of the defence, with shadow minister Peter Kyle saying ministers “don’t even pretend not to embrace bigots anymore”.
Labour MP Marie Rimmer added: “Surely there’s trade experts who aren’t homophobic and misogynists? Britain deserves better than Tony Abbott representing us on the world stage.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Abbott’s coronavirus views were “deeply offensive and wrong” and he was not fit to be a trade envoy.
“But Tony Abbott, before these comments, is a misogynist, he’s a sexist, he’s a climate change denier,” she told Sky News.
“Trade, in many respects, should reflect our values – there should be ethics attached to any country’s trading profile.”
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