Setting out free-trade credentials, Australian ex-PM coy on UK role

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Australia's former Prime Minister Tony Abbott attends Britain's annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Australia’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott attends Britain’s annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham

LONDON (Reuters) – Australian former prime minister Tony Abbott declined on Tuesday to be drawn on reports he will become a trade adviser for Britain, but set out his free-trade credentials and made clear he favours deals between “like-minded countries”.

There has been no official confirmation of media reports that Abbot, a Brexit supporter, will become a member of Britain’s Board of Trade but his possible appointment has stirred criticism from opposition lawmakers.

Abbot said he could not comment until the appointment was made official, but the right-wing head of Australia’s government between 2013 and 2015 used a speech at the London-based Policy Exchange think tank to set out his approach to trade.

“I am obviously a supporter of freer trade, particularly freer trade between like-minded countries with comparable standards of living,” he said. “So a free-trade deal between Australia and Great Britain would be, I would like to think, an absolutely unambiguous good for everyone.”

If Abbott does take the post, he could become one of several members of the Board of Trade which is headed by trade minister Liz Truss and, the government says, “champions exports, inward investment and outward direct investment to deliver economic growth and prosperity across … the United Kingdom”.

The trade policy chief for Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, Emily Thornberry, has said it would be “absolutely staggering” if Prime Minister Boris Johnson were to appoint Abbott, saying he has “no hands-on experience of negotiating trade agreements.”

But many members of the governing Conservative Party would welcome Abbott’s appointment. Several have said his support for Britain’s departure from the European Union underlined his credentials in promoting the country.

Others have praised his critical view of China and on Tuesday he advised caution in pursuing a free-trade agreement with Beijing.

“I think it (free trade) is a different issue where countries have got widely divergent standards of living,” he said. “I certainly think it’s a different issue where you’ve got a country like China, that sees trade as a potential strategic weapon and can turn things on and off like a tap.”

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