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Paid maternity leave? ‘Over my dead body!’ Introducing Abbott: the man who could sway post-Brexit trade deals

5th September, 2020

Anthony Forsyth, RMIT University and Labour Law Down Under Blog

I wrote this post for my friends at the UK Institute of Employment Rights, where it was first published at:

Before news of his proposed appointment to the UK Trade Board last week, many Britons knew little about former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Yet, by Monday he had already called Britain’s Coronavirus response a type of “hysteria”, insinuated that today’s generations are ‘cowardly’ and linked these weaknesses to ‘entitlement’ among the young.

To bring us up to speed with Abbott’s other strong opinions, Professor Anthony Forsyth of the RMIT University of Melbourne shares the Australian experience…

‘Well done Boris, good hire.’

That’s how Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, greeted the news that one of his predecessors, Tony Abbott, had been appointed to the UK Government’s Board of Trade.

Abbott will have a key role, advising Boris Johnson’s Government on Brexit and Britain’s trade deals with overseas countries.

His anti-union, anti-worker record is therefore an issue of deep potential concern for Britons. It’s already been noted that Abbott, speaking of his time overseeing Australian trade agreements, saw the priority as ensuring ‘that we weren’t side-tracked by peripheral issues such as labour and environmental standards’.

But first, what else do you need to know about Tony Abbott?

His UK appointment comes as no surprise to Australians, who have long witnessed Abbott’s grovelling adoration of the ‘mother country’.

Abbott was born in London, moving to Sydney at the age of two. He studied PPE as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the early 1980s. In his time there, according to The Guardian, he was not only a rugby player bit also a ‘fighter, networker [and] Thatcherite’.

In 1993, Abbott became the first Executive Secretary of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, a group formed to fend off then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s push for Australia to become a republic.

In Keating’s eloquent turn of phrase, Abbott and his ilk perpetuated the 1950s era attitude of ‘doffing the old hat and tugging the forelock’ of the British establishment: ‘I mean, if it was left to these people we’d still have knighthoods’.

Sure enough, it was this very mentality that brought Abbott undone after a short period as PM. He had entered Parliament in 1994, and served as a minister in various portfolios in John Howard’s governments, before being elected Leader of the Opposition in 2009. He became PM when the Coalition defeated Kevin Rudd’s divided Labor Party in September 2013.

Abbott oversaw a disastrous, austerity-style federal budget in May 2014, including severe cuts to expenditure on welfare and public education. It was deeply unpopular, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘offending the egalitarian streak that still runs deep in the Australian psyche’.

Then, on Australia Day (26 January) 2015, Abbott sealed his own fate. He announced that Australia was bestowing its ‘highest honour’ – a knighthood – on Prince Philip. In a decision even one of his own Cabinet colleagues described as ‘total craziness’, Abbott’s self-proclaimed ‘captain’s pick’ demonstrated just how out of touch he was with modern Australia.

It also set in train internal divisions within the Liberal Party that ultimately saw Abbott replaced as PM by Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015. He went to the backbench, but in the May 2019 election, lost the formerly safe Liberal seat of Warringah on Sydney’s north shore to Zali Steggall, an independent. She won on the back of a grass-roots community campaign which got pretty nasty.

No doubt a factor in the result, his vocal advocacy of the ‘no’ cause in Australia’s 2017 plebiscite on gay marriage was at odds with the views of the majority in the electorate. In the end, a lot of locals wanted to see the back of Tony.

So what should the unsuspecting British population be on the lookout for once Abbott takes up his new role? In short, his record on workers’ rights is appalling.

As Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in the early 2000s, he championed the Howard Government’s attack on construction industry unions via the Cole Royal Commission. It recommended a specialist system of regulation for the building industry, including strict limits on industrial action backed up by tough penalties, which remains in place today.

By the time Howard launched his most ferocious attack on workers and unions in the form of the 2005 Work Choices legislation, Abbott had moved onto the health portfolio. Soon after becoming Opposition Leader in 2009, he declared that Work Choices was ‘dead, buried and cremated’. Even he realised that it was electoral poison to so fundamentally disrupt the long-established rights of Australian workers to fair treatment in the workplace, a decent minimum wage and job security.

Abbott later claimed he had been one of only two ministers who opposed Work Choices in John Howard’s Cabinet. But as the ACTU has pointed out, he had laid the foundations for Work Choices through a range of earlier Howard government measures undermining collective bargaining and the role of unions.

In any case, Abbott as PM found other avenues to undermine the position of workers. He opportunistically latched onto a corruption scandal in the Health Services Union to justify a wider crack-down on ‘union power’. In 2014, he put this plan into action by establishing the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. At one point its head, former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon, was embroiled in controversy over an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party dinner. It later emerged that Heydon had been on the panel that awarded Abbott his Rhodes scholarship many years earlier.

At the end of 2015, the Heydon Royal Commission recommended the setting up of a new regulator for trade unions and their officials, the Registered Organisations Commission. By this time, Abbott had been deposed as PM, leaving Malcolm Turnbull’s government to implement the recommendations. Nevertheless, the creation of yet another anti-union arm of the Australian state remains part of Abbott’s legacy.

One other blot on the Tony Abbott record is especially deserving of mention: his visceral opposition to a scheme providing women workers with paid parental leave entitlements. As Employment Minister in 2002, he stated that compulsory paid maternity leave would happen ‘over this government’s dead body, frankly’.

Yet this also reveals Abbott’s frequent propensity for chameleon-like behaviour: by 2010, the Labor Government had introduced a taxpayer-funded scheme providing for 18 weeks’ paid parental leave. As part of his pitch to become PM in 2013, Abbott promised to improve on this through a 26-week paid leave system. Now, he wanted everyone to believe he was a convert to the feminist cause. In February 2015 (just after the Prince Philip debacle), he abandoned the policy as it had become too costly.

So Tony has never been one for consistency. When introducing new anti-terrorism laws as PM, he invoked the notion of ‘Team Australia’, saying: ‘Everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first, and you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team’.

I wonder how that squares with now being a member of ‘Team GB’. The answer is: everything about Tony Abbott’s career tells you where his true loyalty has always resided – to ‘Queen and (mother) country’.

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