Scottish independence: Australian PM Tony Abbott's comments 'offensive'

Tony Abbott told the Times that supporters of the Yes campaign were "not the friends of justice or freedom"

Scotland's first minister has said the Australian prime minister's comments on Scottish independence were "foolish, hypocritical and offensive".

Alex Salmond was speaking after Tony Abbott told the Times it was "hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland".

Mr Abbott said those who would like to see the UK break up were "not the friends of justice... [or] freedom".

The first minister said this was offensive to the people of Scotland.

Voters in Scotland will go to the polls on 18 September.

They will be asked the "Yes/No" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The Scottish government believes the 300-year-old Union is no longer fit for purpose, but the UK government opposes the move, saying Britain is one of the world's most successful unions.

'Most outspoken'

Mr Abbott told the Times: "What the Scots do is a matter for the Scots and not for a moment do I presume to tell Scottish voters which way they should vote.

times

"But as a friend of Britain, as an observer from afar, it's hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland.

"I think that the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, the friends of freedom, and the countries that would cheer at the prospect... are not the countries whose company one would like to keep."

Mr Salmond told BBC Scotland: "Mr Abbott's comments are hypocritical because independence does not seem to have done Australia any harm.

"They are foolish, actually, because of the way he said it. To say the people of Scotland who supported independence weren't friends of freedom or justice, I mean, the independence process is about freedom and justice."

The first minister said Scotland's referendum on independence was a "model of democratic conduct" and Mr Abbott's comments were "offensive to the Scottish people".

Mr Salmond said the Australian prime minister was "notoriously gaffe-prone" and he had "put his foot right in it" with his comments.

He added: "If it does anything it will persuade people to vote Yes because the natural reaction to this sort of nonsense is 'Who is Mr Abbott to lecture Scots on freedom and justice?'"

Shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy played down Mr Abbott's remarks.

The Labour MP, who was campaigning for Better Together in Clydebank, told BBC Scotland that Australians were "famously outspoken and famously direct" but said "ultimately Scots will make their own decision".

Mr Murphy said Australian politicians liked to "shoot from the hip" and pointed out that other world leaders had also made their views known.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese premier Li Keqiang have previously voiced support for the UK.

Mr Obama said last month that the US had a "deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner", while Mr Li said he wanted to see a "united United Kingdom" on a visit to Downing Street.

BBC Scotland political correspondent Glenn Campbell said Mr Abbott's comments were the most outspoken of any international leader on the forthcoming referendum.

Mr Abbott also held talks with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on the subject of the Ukraine crisis and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 during his visit earlier this week.

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Phil Mercer, BBC News, Sydney, Australia

It could be part of Australia's efforts to flex its diplomatic muscle.

Australia is now a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and it seems to be asserting its new role as an influential middle power.

It was able, for example, to secure safe passage to eastern Ukraine for Dutch, Australian and Malaysian investigators following the shooting down of MH17.

Mr Abbott, after the plane went down, really did lead the international charge in accusing the Russians of probably giving the rebels that sort of sophisticated weaponry.

So in recent weeks we have seen Australia flexing those diplomatic muscles and this fits in with Mr Abbott's comments today.

I would imagine that many Australians will regard Mr Abbott as trying to meddle in another country's affairs. There was a caveat to his comments in the Times, he said that what the people of Scotland do is a matter for them and he did say that he didn't presume to tell people how to vote.

It is not the first time that the prime minister of Australia has courted controversy in recent times.

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