The 1977 race for the presidency of the SRC was the first political contest that really mattered to Abbott. He was the great hope of the right. The campaign that winter term was bitter and he lost, heavily, to Barbara Ramjan. Though she was of the left, her work as the SRC’s welfare officer had made her a popular figure across the factions. Her victory was declared on the evening of 28 July in the SRC’s rooms in the basement of the Wentworth building. It was an especially dismal time for Abbott: his defeat came two days after the birth of the child he thought was his son.
A science student was using the cheap photocopier in the SRC foyer when trouble erupted around him. He had many friends in the SRC but was not politically active. Now a professor of biomedical science, he told me: “Suddenly a flying squad of yahoos led by Abbott came down the stairs. Abbott is unmistakable. Everybody knew Tony Abbott. He was all over campus all the time. He walked past me quickly but his gang screamed ‘commie’ and ‘poofter’ and the guy behind him grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me against the wall. I was furious. I picked myself up and immediately followed these thugs down the corridor.”
Ramjan was in the corridor. As Abbott approached, she thought he was coming to offer his congratulations. “But no, that’s not what he wanted. He came up to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head.” She recalls with cold disdain: “It was done to intimidate.”
Two “great logs of guys” were obscuring the science student’s view. “I saw Abbott raise his elbow above his head and his fist was clenched and then he drove his fist down. I did not see a punch land. As I pushed along the corridor, I saw Barbara being helped up very ashen-faced.” He has no doubt who it was. “These two polarising figures on campus were unmistakable and here was Abbott acting as he did all the time. He was a bit of a thug and quite proud of it I think.” He never forgot the incident: “I have been talking about it for a long time.”
As Abbott and his mates disappeared down the corridor, Ramjan looked about for her campaign manager, David Patch. Years later he would write in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Ramjan found me. She is a small woman, and
Tony Abbott was (and is) a strong man. She was
very shaken, scared and angry. She told me that
Abbott had come up to her, put his face in her face,
and punched the wall on either side of her head.
So, I am a witness. Her immediate complaint to
me about what Abbott had just done had the
absolute ring of truth about it. I believed Ramjan
at the time, and still do. Barbara Ramjan has been
telling that story about Abbott ever since.
Patch, now a senior barrister in Sydney, was provoked to write in 2012 because thirty-five years after the event Abbott decided to deny the punch ever happened.
I know what happened. I write not to land a blow
on (or near) Mr Abbott, but to ensure that the
debate about the character and suitability of a
potential Prime Minister is fully and accurately informed.
All the authorities agree this was a terrible year. September saw another night of bad-boy behaviour at the SRC, with allegations of flashing, intimidation and sexist abuse. Four students wrote to Honi Soit condemning Abbott on another charge: heckling the SRC’s new ethnic relations officer, Takis Constantopedos: “Comments like this directed in a mocking and denigratory manner are a reflection of the racist attitudes of reactionaries.” Abbott denied almost everything. True, his mate had pissed on a tree: “I really don’t think urinating against a tree is such a terrible crime. It was quite late at night …” But otherwise he accused his “extreme left” opponents of acting like Goebbels by spreading “brazen and outright” lies.
October saw him heckling speakers at the Ku-ring-gai College of Advanced Education. Helen Wilson, a trainee teacher, was at the microphone defending AUS when she heard a voice shouting, “Why don’t you smile, honey?” and says she 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 was charged with indecent and common assault. He would be acquitted after giving the court a rather different account and producing 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.”
Abbo and his mates reckoned humourless people took them the wrong way. They were just having a bit of sport, pranks and larks. And if there was ever any argy-bargy it was only to counter the bad behaviour of the left. The left started everything. The left was always to blame. Veterans of those days still talk of the mayhem Abbott generated around him, of the packs of hecklers and the flying squad of mates, of him storming platforms and grabbing microphones to denounce lesbians and abortions. “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.” She called the year that followed – with her as president and Abbott on the SRC executive – the worst of her life. “I have no doubt Tony was a most charming man when he wanted to be. It was a very conscious choice he made. 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. Tyro journalist Malcolm Turnbull watched Abbott at the AUS conference of early 1978. He wrote in the Bulletin:
The leading light of the right-wingers in NSW
is twenty-year-old Tony Abbott. He has written
a number of articles on AUS in the Australian and
his press coverage has accordingly given him
a stature his rather boisterous and immature
rhetoric doesn’t really deserve.
AUS was on its last legs. Its income had nearly halved. Eleven campuses had seceded. AUS Travel had collapsed among allegations of corruption. 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 could a student of Abbott’s views hope to be a national leader?
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription