Coalition to spend $19,000 to send Tony Abbott on trade mission to India

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The Morrison government will spend about $19,000 to send former prime minister, Tony Abbott, on a five-day trade mission to India this month.

Guardian Australia can also reveal Abbott has signed a conflict of interest declaration, due to the former Liberal party leader’s ongoing role as a trade adviser to the British government.

The Australian trade minister, Dan Tehan, had earlier announced the government would “partly support” Abbott’s travel to India in early August “to progress our significant economic and trade relationship”. Abbott would not be paid for the work.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) confirmed further details about the trip, including that Abbott would travel to India for five days on commercial flights.

“The Australian government is supporting Mr Abbott’s travel to India for the amount of approximately $19,000,” the spokesperson told Guardian Australia.

“Mr Abbott will not be remunerated for his work.”

The spokesperson said individuals returning to Australia on officially funded travel “usually do so without affecting state and territory incoming passenger caps”.

Related: Former Australian PM Tony Abbott confirmed as UK trade adviser

“Mr Abbott will comply with all applicable requirements on his return to Australia, including entering government-approved mandatory quarantine for at least 14 days,” the spokesperson said.

Abbott is known to have developed a working relationship with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, before he was ousted from the top job by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015. But despite Abbott’s past hopes of quickly negotiating a free trade agreement between Australia and India, that never eventuated.

Labor’s trade spokesperson, Madeleine King, said: “It is inconceivable that the government couldn’t find anyone better to advocate for one of most important trading relationships with the most potential than Tony Abbott – the prime minister they booted out.”

Comment was also sought from Abbott, who was in London last week. He told a thinktank that China’s behaviour under Xi Jinping was a “hell of a wake-up call” for Australia, and he expressed a degree of regret about the free trade agreement he signed with Beijing in 2015.

At last week’s Policy Exchange event, Abbott said both the UK and Australia were “eager to conclude trade deals with India, despite some different standards, because India is a democracy under the rule of law, with a well-developed civil society at arm’s length from government”.

Since last year, Abbott has been listed as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade, where his unpaid role “is to advocate for free and fair trade especially trade with the UK and its allies”, according to the Australian government’s foreign influence register.

Abbott made the declaration last October after the British government pushed ahead with his appointment amid controversy in both the UK and Australia.

The UK’s Board of Trade, chaired by the trade secretary, Liz Truss, meets four times a year to champion British trade and investment.

“The board and its advisers take a collaborative approach, focused on promoting the UK regions as destinations to trade and do business with,” says a British government website, which lists Abbott as one of the advisers.

Guardian Australia asked the Australian government how any perceived conflict of interest would be managed on the India trip, including whether it had requested Abbott to refrain from advocating for the UK’s trade interests during the meetings.

A Dfat spokesperson said: “Mr Abbott has signed a conflict of interest declaration in relation to his work on this trip.”

Earlier, Tehan said Abbott’s meetings with Indian government ministers and business leaders provided “an opportunity to progress Australia’s ambitious agenda to energise and expand our bilateral trade and investment relationship with India”.

Attempts to diversify Australia’s trading relationships have gained in urgency amid growing tensions with China, and Tehan has pledged since his appointment as trade minister late last year to strengthen ties with India. Meanwhile the UK and Australia agreed in principle on their own free trade agreement in June.

Abbott’s overseas travel during the pandemic has also attracted domestic political controversy, given Australia imposes strict international border measures. Tens of thousands of Australians are still seeking to return home from abroad.

In October, the Australian Border Force commissioner, Michael Outram, told a Senate estimates hearing Abbott was allowed to leave the country twice, on an “auto exemption” granted for people on government business.

Local news agencies in Rome reported in October that Abbott was one of 45 people in attendance at a mass conducted by Cardinal George Pell at the chapel of Domus Australia to mark the 10th anniversary of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint.

“What I can say is that the former prime minister has travelled overseas twice, to our knowledge, and on both occasions he didn’t require an exemption because he was travelling on official government business,” Outram said in October.

“The first time was in July, as I understand it, to appear as a witness before the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee. The second time was in order to operate as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade.”

Outram said officials had interpreted the outbound travel exemption for government business to cover both Australian and foreign government business.

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