Tony Abbott – free trader or freebooter?

Appointing an Australian  misogynist, homophobe and climate science denier as joint president of the UK Board of Trade may seem bizarre – but not when you look at Tony Abbott’s ideological affiliations.

Abbott is on the advisory board of the so-called Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), an opaquely-funded lobby group. It styles itself as a “non-partisan research foundation” that “makes the intellectual and moral case for free trade, and sees Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union as a unique opportunity to revitalise the world trading system”.

Whenever people use the adjective ‘free’ to describe something in the political arena, it is a good idea to ask: free for whom, and free from what?

The original ‘free traders’ were the Cornish smugglers who sought to avoid tax on contraband brandy and gin, and their cousins the privateers, who rode the high seas shunning the authority of governments. This is how some Brexiters imagine themselves – shunning authority and revelling in the status of ‘bad boys‘.

But the ambitions of contemporary ‘free traders’ go far beyond cocking a snook at customs men on moonlit Cornish beaches. Their aim is to maximise profits for transnational corporations while enabling these same companies to avoid making a financial contribution to society or to consider the consequences of their actions on people or planet. What is more, through the influential think tanks they fund and operate, they are now at the very heart of government. The IFT, along with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) are prime examples. Needless to say, neither organisation discloses any details of its funding, though the IEA is known to take money from Big Tobacco, oil companies, gambling lobbyists and US interests pushing for the privatisation of the NHS.

The IFT’s president is the former Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and the members of its advisory and executive boards comprise an interestingly international selection of discredited right-wing politicians and ideologues, as well as some distinctly dodgy ‘business leaders’. The IFT evidently sees Brexit as the next step in the onward march of ‘free trade’, rather as the UK was used as a test-bed for a more extreme version of ‘free market’ economics in the 1980s.

The organisation’s launch in 2018 attracted some big-hitting Tory politicians: Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove all spoke at the event. Johnson was subsequently accused of breaking the ministerial code by allowing the event to be held in the Map Room of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is supposed to be used only for ministers’ official duties.

Several former heads of state serve on the IFT’s advisory board. One notable, who gives a flavour of this entity’s ‘character’, is Jorge Quiroga, who was vice president and later president of Bolivia during the notorious ‘water wars’ that followed the privatisation of the country’s water supply. The outcry that followed sparked a national uprising immortalised in the film Even the Rain.

As prime minister of Spain between 1996 and 2004, IFT board member Jose-Maria Aznar “gave free rein to conservative, neoliberal, pro-United States policies“ until forced from office in the wake of the 2004 Madrid train bombings – which Aznar had falsely claimed to be the work of Basque separatists. Since then, he has focused mainly on his own personal wealth, amassed through various positions including membership of the board of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. In 2016, he was found to have falsely declared personal income as company income and ordered to pay fines and back taxes of €270,000.

Another IFT board member is Ruth Richardson, former New Zealand finance minister, who was responsible for the shock tactics that removed regulatory protection from that country’s economy in the early 1990s –  a policy sometimes dubbed ‘Ruthanasia’. Her period of office was characterised by swingeing cuts to social welfare programmes and the Employment Contracts Act, which decimated NZ trade unions. Union leader Ken Douglas described the latter as “a natural outcome of the ideological propaganda of rugged individualism, of self-interest and greed and the appeal to individuals that you could find better for you by climbing over the tops of your colleagues, your mates, and so on. Ruth Richardson was very clear, very blunt, very honest about its purpose. It was to achieve a dramatic lowering of wages, very, very quickly.”

IFT board member Ben Sasse is the Republican Senator for Nebraska. An anti-abortionist endorsed by the gun-lobby, Sasse is also opposed to same-sex marriage. He is a strong opponent of public health provision, including President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act.

Also serving on the IFT board is the notorious Brexit ‘bad boy’ Jim Mellon, a major bankroller of Leave.EU. Mellon owns an offshore bank with Arron Banks and is now known to have been offered – and taken – a stake in a Russian diamond-mining company at below market value a few days after the Brexit referendum.

Another IFT board member supposedly representing ‘business’ is Lord Digby Jones, former chair of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and a proponent of the most extreme form of hard Brexit. Jones is a regular guest on political panel shows, where he frequently lies, with trademark pomposity, about what he and others promised the British people in the run-up to the referendum.

For his part, Tony Abbott distinguished himself as Prime Minister of Australia by his extreme neo-liberal policies, his opposition to same-sex marriage and his determination to prevent any measures to tackle the climate emergency. During his short and inglorious term as PM, Abbott appeared to implement a wish-list of policies advocated by an Australian lobby group with which he is closely associated, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA is  the down-under mirror image of the IFT, and the policies which it promoted, and which Abbott duly implemented, included the abolition of Australia’s Department for Climate Change. Since leaving office he has called for Australia to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change and given a speech for Nigel Lawson’s climate denial outfit the Global Warming Policy Foundation, in which he described climate science as “absolute crap”.

Drawing on talents such as these, it is abundantly clear what the IFT is seeking to accomplish with its ‘free trade’ agenda. It seeks a world in which the economy is operated in the interests of the wealthiest of the global elite, and to remove any protections against the exercise of these interests that are currently enjoyed by the rest of us.

Given that this also appears to be what Boris Johnson’s government is aiming for, Abbott is an entirely natural choice as UK trade envoy.

(This article is adapted from The Brexit Syndicate, a website that investigates the role of opaquely funded  ‘think tanks’ and lobby groups in pushing for the most extreme form of Brexit.)