by David Marr
September 8, 2012
Long before he became an energetic, hardline, right-wing parliamentarian, Tony Abbott was an energetic, hardline, right-wing student activist. Here, David Marr details the federal Opposition Leader’s years as a reactionary Catholic warrior on campuses across the country.
Big man on campus … Tony Abbott in 1978, during his time as president of Sydney University’s Students’ Representative Council. Photo: ACPsyndication.com
He was Abbo to his friends. From the moment he arrived at Sydney University in the late 1970s he showed himself to be a muscular reactionary of extraordinary, boisterous energy. The study of economics and law never engaged his imagination. Politics did from the start. “He was wild,” says a student from those years. “Wild even for a wild college boy.” Young Tony did things hard: drinking, writing, arguing, f…ing and playing rugby union. His home base was St John’s, the Catholic men’s college under its gothic tower. His political base was the tiny Democratic Club, one of a network on campuses across the country set up and guided by Bob Santamaria’s socially conservative and fiercely anti-communist National Civic Council. For the next five years he would speak, write and campaign for NCC causes. Within days of his arrival he was putting out the club’s newsletter, Democrat. The targets he chose for his March 1976 debut as a fighting journalist were lesbians, homosexuals and the Students’ Representative Council (SRC):
Most students will be interested to know that Orientation Week’s Gay dance was a financial failure. Not only did the SRC make good this loss but it collectively howled down a speaker against the motion … it is a foregone conclusion that only motions supporting subversion, perversion and revolution will be passed.
The high hopes the Abbotts had for their son had not quite been realised at Riverview, the Jesuit school in an Italian palace on the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour. Dick Abbott was a popular dentist who had taken to Catholicism in his teens. The circumstances of his conversion were peculiar. Dick’s father had made a bargain with God that were his family to survive a voyage to Australia in the early months of World War II, they would go over to Rome. Untouched by torpedoes, the Abbotts converted with some fervour. Dick was keen to be a priest but opted in the end for dentistry. After the war he returned to England, where he met Fay “Pete” Peters, an intelligent, energetic Australian dietitian. She converted. They married. Tony was born in London in 1957. A couple of years later his mother drove the return to Australia.
Three daughters were born but the family’s ambitions centred on little Tony: “His mother and I knew pretty early on that, with Tony, we had produced something out of the box.” The girls adored their brother. The boy worshipped his father. The mother worshipped the boy. He was in his mid-teens when his mother told a table of dentists in Sydney that Tony would one day be pope or prime minister. There was some tension in the family between these ambitions. The girls favoured politics. Justin Rickard, a law student who dated one of the daughters at university, remembers, “Even in those days Tony was spoken very highly of in his family, with great awe and respect, and the phrase ‘future PM’ was often whispered, or should I say yelled, around the family table.”
A man of influence … Catholic crusader Bob Santamaria, once described by Tony Abbott as “the greatest living Australian”. Photo: Fairfaxsyndication.com
At any other school his record would have been regarded as outstanding. But at Riverview it was merely solid. He was neither head boy nor dux. Despite his father’s protests, he never made the First XV or the First VIII. He didn’t debate. His name was not on the honour boards nor was it everywhere in the school magazine. In his final year he won the Paul Meagher Prize for Modern History and His Eminence the Cardinal’s Prize for Religious Knowledge. It was not a shower of glory.
The boy made his name at Riverview with a wonderful larrikin moment at speech day in October 1975. The governor-general, John Kerr, was giving the prizes in the midst of the supply crisis. “Sir John, this must be frightfully boring for you,” said young Abbott as he shook the vice-regal hand. “Why don’t I take you to the Liberal Party rally in town?” Kerr laughed but the quip caused quite a stir. A couple of weeks later the boy was with his mother at Reuben F. Scarf’s buying a new suit for the end-of-year formal when a shop assistant broke the news that Gough Whitlam had been sacked. “Pete” Abbott said, “Fantastic!” Tony Abbott backs Kerr to this day.
A priest at Riverview had cast his spell on the boy when he was only 16, a spell that has never been broken. Emmet Costello offered him an example of a priest in society, a man of faith in the world of power. Getting about Sydney in a Bentley or BMW, this heir to a goldmining fortune from Fiji ministered to the rich, pursuing death-bed conversions in harbour mansions. Costello encouraged robust faith rather than pious introspection. Habits of worship were vital. Costello’s rule was: mass early and often. Life was to be lived and forgiveness was always available to the penitent.
Faith in Abbott … Jesuit priest Father Emmet Costello. Photo: ACPsyndication.com
Costello has never been shy of touting his role in the career of Tony Abbott: “He projected an image immediately of high intelligence, ambition, drive and leadership, and I thought this guy is worth following.” The boy was dazzled, too; here was a worldly priest confirming his own high faith in himself. One day Costello casually suggested Abbott might become a priest. The idea nagged at him for the next dozen years. Abbott would come to rate Father Costello second only to his own father as “the most important male influence on my life”.
In their last weeks at school, Catholic boys of particular promise were taken aside and invited to rather mysterious “Peace with Freedom” weekends to prepare them for life at university. Though not invited, young Abbott tagged along; “Some instinct whispered that this was not an opportunity to be missed.” In those summer days in early 1976, the course of his political life was set. In the heady atmosphere of that secret forum, young Tony was recruited for Bob Santamaria’s Movement.
Looking back on this moment more than 30 years later, Abbott wrote, “It was a thrill to meet people of influence and authority in public life. It was exciting to think that I might be able to make a difference to the wider world.”
Charm offensive … Tony Abbott in 1979. Photo: University of Sydney News, 1979
He pledged his troth to Santamaria. It would be a year before he met the man face to face but he fell in love that weekend. “I have been under the Santamaria spell ever since.” He regarded him until his death in 1998 as “the greatest living Australian”.
Few shared his awe. Inside and outside politics, inside and outside the Catholic Church, Santamaria was widely hated. His venom was phenomenal, his energy inextinguishable, and his fears legion. In the Whitlam crisis just passed, he had privately discussed the need to raise a secret army to defend democracy against the scourge of Labor.
Now, in his 60s, he was seized by a profound sense of failure. Despite all he had done – purging communists from the unions, splitting the ALP and founding the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) – Bob Santamaria had failed in his larger purpose of ending the threat of world revolution and making Australia the good country of his Catholic dreams.
Abbott is a man with mentors. Most were old men with embattled beliefs: true believers; relics of lost causes; men with a high view of their life and mission; men who believed in the magic of the crown, the church and old institutions. To stand for old ideas and old authority in the late 1970s took courage of a kind, and deep faith in faith. The tactics were not so lofty. The Democratic Clubs were small and their membership carefully controlled. The correct line was strictly enforced. They used tactics Santamaria developed to fight reds in the unions: provocative campaigning, ceaseless leafleting and infiltrating of rival organisations. They called themselves moderates but their position was extreme: as far to the right as the Maoists and Trotskyists on campus were to the left.
Among the young cocks on the Sydney University campus, Abbott quickly made his name. Thousands of words of campaigning journalism poured out of him. He proudly announced the Democratic Club had established a Heterosexual Solidarity Society. When this freshman decided, with astonishing cheek, to seek election as a student fellow of the university senate, he ended his lofty manifesto by claiming: “As an infrequently practising heterosexual and drunkard, I feel I have significant community of interest with many students …” He lost the vote narrowly and his temper publicly. “He came down to the SRC and kicked a glass panel on the front door in,” reported the university’s student newspaper, Honi Soit. “Not that he meant to, mind you, things just seem to happen to Tony.”
In that late winter election season on the campus, Abbott did win a place on the SRC and in the delegation that would go in late summer to the annual conference of the Australian Union of Students (AUS). Over the next three years he would throw all his political energy into gutting both.
This mighty wrecking operation was being conducted by Democratic Clubs across Australia to prevent student representative councils channelling money to causes Santamaria feared might tear society to pieces. “It was as necessary to break the revolutionary base in the universities,” he declared, “as it was to contain it in the unions.” Communism still flourished in the universities and communism was enemy No. 1 for Santamaria. But his fears went far deeper than that. He had with spectacular scorn denounced in his memoirs the yet-unfinished revolution of the 1960s. Santamaria deplored the pill, homosexuality, rampant materialism, married women in the workforce, environmentalists, drugs, abortion, anarchy on campuses, economic rationalism, dissident theologians, divorce without proof of guilt and the cult of the moral autonomy of the individual. What he saw at stake here was the authority of family, church and state; indeed, legitimate authority in every field of life.
Abbott’s years in the service of this strange Catholic warrior mark him to this day. Like Santamaria, he is not driven by money. He’s not a social climber or a snob. He’s never lost the protégé’s sense of being on a mission, an essentially religious mission in a secular world. West-ern civilisation is in flux. Society is fragile. Extraordinary forces are in play. The world according to Abbott may not be in the immediate danger Santamaria feared, but it is heading the wrong way. That is the nature of things.
After a summer in Western Australia spent surfing, carousing in pubs and selling pots door to door, Abbott turned up at Monash University in January 1977 for his first AUS conference determined to fight the good fight and make a name for himself. In both, he exceeded his own high expectations. Abbott was asked by The Weekend Australian to write an account of the conference:
Generally the air was heavy with the not- unpleasant odour of marijuana. The conference hall was gaily decked with gaudy Maoist flags and communist slogans.
Some delegates wore badges cheerfully urging the “smashing” of Fraser and the shooting of Kerr. Books on sale covered everything one wanted to know about abortion, street fighting, subverting universities, indoctrinating the young, and homosexuality.
Abbott’s name was everywhere as the battle raged for control of the AUS. He had found a public voice. He was making his mark. But these were wild times and all they promised for his future seemed suddenly about to end.
His girlfriend, Kathy McDonald, was three months pregnant. It was the old Catholic catastrophe: no chastity, no contraception, no abortion and, it would turn out, no marriage. They were lovers at school, having met at a high tea for Riverview boys and Monte Sant’ Angelo girls in year 11.
The affair between the Catholic rugger-bugger and the sweet lefty art student was a complex business. “I loved uni,” Abbott would later say. “Having the romance with Kathy was all part of the magnificent, exuberant, boisterous time.” But he had not abandoned the notion of one day serving his church. “I was sorta wrestling with this idea of the bloody priesthood, and I kept saying, ‘No, no! No sex! Against the rules!’ Then I’d say, ‘Oh, all right.'”
A priest took McDonald aside at some point and urged her not to get in the way of Tony’s vocation. As it happens she had also practised Vatican roulette once or twice with her flatmate Bill Kensell. But neither McDonald nor Abbott doubted, when she discovered she was pregnant, that the child was Tony’s. (Only much later, in 2005, would DNA tests reveal that Abbott was, in fact, not the father of his “lost son”.)
He would excoriate himself decades later for being callow, insensitive and psychologically unprepared for marriage. But many an unwilling Catholic boy had found himself at the altar at the age of 19. At first Abbott was going to marry her but then he pulled back. Marriage would not only rule out the priesthood but also his more immediate ambition to win the Rhodes Scholarship. There was a tradition of rugby players from Sydney University going on to Oxford and his footy mates were saying to him, “Abbo, you ought to think of going for the Rhodes.”
But the scholarship was open only to single men. Abbott called the shots. “I decided that Kathy and I were not going to get married and that adoption was the right thing to happen.” They split up in the seventh month of her pregnancy. She said, “I wanted him … to be a white knight on a charger and fix it up for me, but he couldn’t, so I ended the relationship.” Abbott came to the hospital in July 1977 and held the child for a few minutes before the boy was given away. “I just wasn’t ready for it.”
Abbo had a great season on the football field that winter, even playing a few games as tighthead prop for the university firsts. He was no longer living at St John’s. A decision had been made that Tony was spending too much time in the pub. Now he was back home with his parents in Killara in northern Sydney but spending long hours on campus playing football and politics.
Santamaria’s strategy was to starve student bodies of funds so cash did not fall into dangerous hands. Every student at Sydney University had to pay $10 a year to the SRC. That posed enough risks, but each SRC across Australia then delivered $2.50 of that into the hands of the AUS, which meant about $700,000 a year was available for leftist causes. The plan pursued by Democratic Clubs and their allies on the campuses was first to make SRC fees voluntary, and then to cut their links with the AUS.
According to the roneoed flyers Abbott and his friends were handing around the campus, there was trouble brewing everywhere in universities: gays, strikes, sit-ins, the debauching of academic standards by Marxist lecturers, Palestine, abortion, the financial woes of AUS Travel and continued disrespect shown to the man who sacked Gough Whitlam. It had to stop. The first great political campaign of Abbott’s life – which he would pursue by one means or another for nearly 30 years – was to drain the money from university politics.
His plan was to win the presidency of the SRC and collapse it from above. He was well under way. In May, he had taken control of the campus Liberal Club. It was the idea of Joe Bullock, now state secretary in WA of the shop assistants’ union: “I said, ‘We need a banner to fight under. We’ve got to have something that can draw people to us.’ The Labor Club was extreme left. There was no chance of knocking it off. But the Liberal Club was a dreadful bunch of dilettantes and social climbers. And there were not many of them. So I said, ‘Let’s knock off the Liberal Club.’ But Tony was really reluctant. ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to join the Liberal Club.’ He made it clear his loyalties were to Labor. Eventually I persuaded him against his better judgment to join.”
All reports agree: 1977 was a terrible year. After a meeting in August at Ku-ring-gai College of Advanced Education, Abbott was charged with indecent and common assault. Helen Wilson, a trainee teacher, was at the microphone defending the AUS. She heard someone shout, “Why don’t you smile, honey?” and says she then felt a hand groping between her legs. “I jumped back, turned around, and saw Tony Abbott laughing about two feet away. The people in the audience began laughing and jeering.” Abbott would give the court a different version and produce a number of witnesses to support him: “She was speaking about me in a highly critical way, calling me an AUS basher and noted right-wing supporter. To let her know I was standing behind her, I leaned forward and tapped her on the back, about the level of her jeans belt.” The charges would be dismissed early in the new year but they were still hanging over him as he went into the university election season and lost – to a woman – his campaign for the presidency of the SRC.
Barbara Ramjan beat him hands down. She was of the left but her work as the SRC’s welfare officer made her a popular figure on the campus. The night her victory was declared, the SRC offices saw wild scenes of bad-boy behaviour: flashing, mooning, jeering and abuse. Abbott watched all this. His loss was a very public disappointment. He approached Ramjan. She thought he was coming over to congratulate her. “But no, that’s not what he wanted,” she recalls. “He came up to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head.” Thirty-five years later she recalls with cold disdain what he did. “It was done to intimidate.” Abbott tells me he has no recollection of the incident: “It would be profoundly out of character had it occurred.”
Abbo and his mates reckoned people just took things the wrong way. Pranks and larks. A bit of sport with humourless people. Just a game. “At times it was all rather childish,” Abbott confessed years later. “At times it was a little bit scary. But it was always bloody good fun.” Ramjan doesn’t let him off so lightly. “He was the most in your face. That’s what set him apart. There were, of course, other Liberal Party and DLP types on campus but they weren’t offensive and they weren’t rude. They were people you could talk to. You could sit down and have a cup of tea with them. I would never do that with Tony Abbott. He’s not that sort of person. I don’t care what your politics are, you can still engage with another person. You don’t have to be threatening. You don’t have to be just that awful person.
“I have no doubt Tony was a most charming man when he wanted to be. It was a very conscious choice he made.” She called the year that followed – with her as president and Abbott on the SRC executive – the worst of her life. “I doubt there would have been any moment in that year that he would have been charming towards me.”
But Abbott’s noisy behaviour and hard-line views were winning him a following. And he was learning some political lessons. He didn’t have to be a nice guy. He didn’t have to go with the flow. It was possible to stand against the political tide. But where would it take him? Tyro journalist Malcolm Turnbull covered Abbott’s second AUS conference for The Bulletin magazine. Turnbull wrote that the 20-year-old’s “press coverage has accordingly given him a stature his rather boisterous and immature rhetoric doesn’t really deserve”.
The AUS was on its last legs. Its income had nearly halved. Eleven campuses had seceded. Turnbull acknowledged the growing support on campuses for the Democratic Clubs and for Abbott, and asked a question he must look back on now with rather grim irony: how can a student of Abbott’s views hope to be a national leader?
While he can win support from students because of the shocking state of affairs in AUS, he cannot take the next step because of his conservative moral views. Abbott is opposed to any legalisation of homosexuality and generally presents an old-fashioned DLP image. The students may be more conservative than they were a few years ago, but they have not swung back to the right as much as that.
Abbott’s name was scrawled on lavatory walls. He was attacked in Honi Soit as an extremist, fascist, careerist, parasite and stooge of the National Civic Council. But in September 1978 he had the first real victory of his career when he finally won the presidency of the SRC. At this point he was also president of the Democratic Club, still in control of the Liberal Club and had been elected (unopposed) to sit the following year as a student fellow on the university senate. But the SRC presidency was the office that mattered and he won it without being less than himself: bully and charmer, speaker and propagandist, hard-line advocate and tireless organiser.
In the SRC election of 1978, Abbott campaigned hard around the conservative faculties of engineering and medicine. He called on the footy crowd to back him. “We used to go along to watch him for sport,” one recalls. “He was extremely right-wing at a time when everyone was extremely left-wing. He used to bait them, particularly lesbians.” He addressed the men’s colleges. He boasts of earning an ovation at St John’s by promising to tear down the posters of Che Guevara at the SRC and replace them with portraits of the Queen and the Pope. He convened rowdy meetings on the university lawn. He heckled and he dealt with hecklers.
He was president, but almost alone. On a council of 30 members, he had no more than three or four supporters. He didn’t build alliances; he fell out with the moderates; he created and dramatised division. He didn’t like the SRC and made no secret of being happy to see it bankrupt. “I can’t recall a constructive policy for the benefit of the student body that he ever put forward,” says a distinguished Sydney lawyer active in university politics then. “My lasting impression is of negativity and destruction. For those he did get on with, he was well liked. He also generated an enormous amount of hostility verging on vitriolic hatred from those who were his political opponents.”
They tried to prevent him taking office. The farce that followed involved police, rival teams of locksmiths, mobs of angry students, lawyers and university officials. Abbott’s car aerial was snapped. He slept in his office under siege. He tried to fire SRC staff. Even those on the executive supporting his right to take office thought his behaviour “senseless, futile and provocative”.
The NSW Equity Court confirmed his election a few days later and he took command, waging war on graffiti, tearing down political posters, banning homosexual activists from reception, cheerfully calling the welfare officers “sluts” and berating SRC staff by name in the pages of Honi Soit. Abbott was running a one-man campaign to wreck his own organisation. Week after week he attacked the SRC in the student paper. The writing is sharp, fearless and provocative. One week he took readers on a tour of the SRC offices:
Luckily, it is lunchtime, so we are able to watch a meeting of the SRC women’s collective (men from a distance, as only women are allowed into the “women’s” room). Grim faced, overall-clad, hard, strident, often lustfully embracing in a counterfeit of love …
He invaded the Women’s Room with a Channel Ten news crew and cub reporter Mike Munro. The issue was voluntary fees. The point was ridicule. When asked to leave the room, Abbott declared for the cameras, “This is a man’s room for the moment.” On ABC TV’s Nationwide he was calling for the slashing of both university funding and student numbers. This was to be done in the name of restoring academic rigour to Australian universities by denying Marxist lecturers the wherewithal to teach, for instance, the politics of lesbianism. He was spouting pure Santamaria: “Marxists realised that the universities now play a crucial role in the education of the elite of modern society, and they understand if they destroy the academic standards, and perhaps even the moral standards of that elite, well then they have perhaps fundamentally and fatally undermined liberal democratic society.”
His footy mates loved him. “Shut up, Abbo,” they’d say when he started talking politics. “Shut up, Abbo” was a familiar, affectionate taunt on the field and in the pub. They loved the daredevil in him. They forgave him his outrages. He was an affectionate and demonstrative friend. He wasn’t on a mission with them. The rugby crowd had no idea Abbo was still thinking of the priesthood. They should have kept a closer eye on Honi Soit, which ran the SRC president’s address to new students in Orientation Week, 1979:
All physical objects, all human works are quite insubstantial in the parade of eternity – only God endures. In all ages progressive thinkers have announced the death of God. My friends, He has made more comebacks than Mohammed [sic] Ali. For most of us, he refuses to die. This is the FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH that has been forgotten by the university in its rush to be fashionable …
Abbott organised a referendum of students in the middle of that year to decide whether Sydney University should cut its ties with the AUS and whether fees for the SRC should become voluntary. The first vote passed handsomely and the second lost heavily. Abbott did not give up. He put all his efforts into persuading the university senate to defy the vote and use its own authority to decide the issue of SRC fees. This was the young man’s idea of liberal democracy. He told his fellow senators, “The SRC is unnecessary and superfluous.” The senators turned him down. Next he haggled over old provisions for conscientious objection to paying the fees. Who would be exempt? He demanded guarantees in writing that anyone who opposed the SRC funding “the Active Defence of Homosexuals on campus” should not have to pay fees. The senators gave no guarantee.
While he was battling this out, he stood for re-election to the senate. He lost – to his ally Tanya Coleman, later Tanya Costello.
After a final year spent away from the political front putting his head down to study at last, he was awarded one of the great scholarships of the world. For Anglophiles and rugby players, the Rhodes was died-and-gone-to-heaven time. Winners must be scholars fond of sport who display “moral force of character and instincts to lead”. The award to Abbott came as a surprise, particularly to those who had seen him up close on the SRC. One jibe at the time was, “Second-grade footballer, third-rate academic and fourth-class politician.” But Abbott impressed a panel of worthies chaired by the governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler. That’s what mattered.
Edited extract from Quarterly Essay 47, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, by David Marr, published by Black Inc on Monday; RRP $20. Also available as an ebook.