Tony Abbott and Boris Johnson (Images: AAP/Joel Carrett, AP/Dennis Van Tine)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken a great deal of flak for appointing Tony Abbott as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade — an appointment confirmed over the weekend.

So why is Johnson prepared to lose political capital for the sake of giving an (unpaid) role to Abbott? Brexit is at the heart of it — along with a host of libertarian and unaccountable think tanks.

The path from Johnson to Abbott goes primarily via an influential Tory operator, Daniel Hannan, who is an ex-Conservative Member of the European Parliament and a leading Eurosceptic figure.

Hannan, like Abbott, has an advisory role on the UK Board of Trade. Prior to that, Hannan brought Abbott onto the international board of his pro-free trade organisation the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT). Here Abbott joined with other out-of-office conservative politicians, including former NZ finance minister Ruth Richardson and former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga.

The IFT’s board includes a collection of wealthy British venture capitalists and entrepreneurs as well as lords. It describes itself as a “private, not-for-profit, non-partisan research organisation”. Like most other right-wing think tanks it does not declare the source of its funds, saying only that it relies on contributions from individuals.

The IFT and Hannan played an important role in Johnson’s Brexit strategy. As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson came under fire for waiving the standard £6000 ($10,000) room fee for IFT’s official launch which was held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The episode demonstrated that Johnson would flout ethics and cut corners for those who offered political support and advanced his ambitions.

Hannan was also a founding member of Vote Leave, a pro-Brexit campaigning organisation set up in 2015. Johnson confidante, Dominic Cummings, was another founding member.

Hannan put out a lifeline to Abbott after Abbott lost his seat in the 2019 election. But Hannan’s close links with Abbott go back to at least 2012 when Abbott was opposition leader. Hannan called Abbott “my favourite Anglosphere politician” in a piece penned for the UK’s conservative Telegraph newspaper.

“For some Lefties, a brilliant man with demotic appeal is a class traitor; their sense of betrayal is compounded by the fact that Abbott is a Roman Catholic who inexcusably refuses to be either Labor or republican,” Hannan wrote. “To top it off, the Liberal leader is guilty of what are, in the eyes of Australia’s bien pensant elites, the three unpardonable heresies of our age: he believes in God, opposes eco-taxes and wants to scrap restrictions on free speech.”

As Abbott came under attack last week for being a misogynist and a homophobe, yet another right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, came to his defence.

“Abbott’s appointment is becoming totemic. Will the government stare down the critics by going ahead with the appointment or capitulate to the woke mob?” asked head of research Matthew Lesh.

The Adam Smith Institute, as its name suggests, is a free market think tank, founded, it says, “in the 1970s, as post-war socialism reached its high-watermark”. It tells a familiar story: “independent, non-profit and non-partisan,” working to promote its ideas through “research, publishing, media outreach, and education”.

Like the ITF, the Adam Smith Institute does not declare its funding sources. 

Since leaving the PM’s office, Abbott has spoken at the conservative US Heritage institute. As we reported earlier this year, he has been backed in the UK by wealthy Australian hedge fund owner and UK resident Sir Michael Hintze.

Hintze, knighted by the Tory government in 2013, has been a generous donor to the UK Conservatives Party — and Boris Johnson in particular – and is a trustee of the Institute of Economic Affairs, yet another influential libertarian think tank with opaque funding arrangements. Records show Hintze donated £100,000 to the Vote Leave campaign.

Abbott has now emerged — if it wasn’t apparent before — as a product of global right-wing think tanks which operate with anonymous money and little or no accountability.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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