When Nelson Mandela died last year, Tony Abbott joined many other world leaders in singing his praises.
“The world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela will forever be remembered as more than a political leader, he was a moral leader. He spent much of his life standing against the injustice of apartheid.”
But Tony didn’t always feel that way.
When Abbott was President of the Students’ Representative Council at Sydney University, he wrote in Honi Soit that Voluntary Student Unionism “would finally stop all students being taxed so the SRC can fund groups such as International Socialists, South African Terrorists, the Spartacists, Lidcombe Health Workers Collective etc. which are quite irrelevant, not to say obnoxious, to student purposes.”
Abbott’s “South African Terrorists” were the members of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) political party, to whom the SRC had previously been giving money.
Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party, and its associated Liberal student groups at universities, supported the Commonwealth campaign to abolish Apartheid. Abbott did not join these efforts. He was President of the University of Sydney Democratic Club, an affiliate organization of B.A. Santamaria’s militantly anti-Communist National Civic Council and Democratic Labor Party.
These organisations actively supported South Africa’s Apartheid government, if not the Apartheid system itself. Abbott wrote and published the club’s bulletin, The Democrat, and was a close friend of Santamaria. The Apartheid government was seen in Western conservative circles as an important bulwark against Afro-Communist tendencies, which the ANC was thought to exhibit.
Anti-Apartheid activity was alive and well in Australia at this time. Many Australians supported fundraising efforts for the ANC, and participated in anti-Apartheid demonstrations throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The racially exclusive Springboks were banned from playing in Australia between 1974 and the end of Apartheid in 1994. In 1981, the Fraser government refused permission for the aircraft carrying the Springboks to a tour of New Zealand to refuel on Australian territory. Abbott, however, accepted a rugby scholarship to tour South Africa in what former Federal Labor Minister Barry Cohen described as a “universally acknowledged… promotional tour of Apartheid”.
Tony isn’t the only Liberal to change his tune since University days.
A few years earlier, a young Malcolm Turnbull, while describing then-PM Gough Whitlam as an arrogant egomaniac, lauded the Labor Party as a “wealth of opinion and class…diverse and less likely than the conservatives to blindly rally behind one great leader”. Menzies’ Liberals, on the other hand, had “warmed the treasury benches” for 23 years with “the steak-fed bottoms of the sons of Toorak and the champions of Double Bay” – an interesting observation as Malcolm grew up in Vaucluse and Double Bay and he and his wife Lucy have lived in the Wentworth electorate all their lives.
In 1984, Christopher Pyne signed up for the Adelaide University Liberal Club and the Young Liberal Party before he even went to his first lecture. Soon enough, he was running both shows. Ruthlessly he purged right-wingers from the executive of the Liberal Club. When half of the 400-strong membership threatened to quit in protest, Pyne cheerfully collected the resignations. He has freely admitted that he campaigned against the reintroduction of university fees purely to win an election, a view he reiterated when interviewed recently saying “Those people who see me as some kind of political warrior are right to think that I would do everything I can to win, so that the Coalition is in government … I’ll do what I need to do to position the Coalition to win elections.”
Sydney University was a very different place by 1987, when Joe Hockey took the reins of the SRC Presidency. The dominant political grouping was the Sydney University Liberal Club, a conglomerate of liberals, soft conservatives, and careerist moderates.
Liberals and Left Action were the two major factions on the SRC, but Hockey was from neither. Indeed, he disparaged the student newspaper, Honi Soit, for their obsession with the ‘return of Liberalism’ and its reluctance to report on student protests.
“One wonders whether Honi Soit is a NEWSpaper or a front for political masturbation,” he wrote in a 1987 Presidential report. “They do not seem to have any shortage of contributors espousing the virtues of Liberalism on campus but when there is student news there is no local coverage.”
Hockey’s policy statement in the 1986 election edition of Honi: “There is no question in my mind that students will never accept fees. I totally oppose any compromise the government may offer.”
His year as SRC President was chiefly spent fighting Labor’s re-introduction of university fees, which had been abolished under Gough Whitlam. But according to a 2012 profile by Bernard Keane, he was “accused of failing to aggressively lead student demonstrations for fear of endangering his Solicitors’ and Barristers’ Admission Board enrolment”.
Hockey’s backers, a ticket called “Varsity”, were decidedly centrist and unaffiliated, declaring they would “fight the burden of factionalism presently hindering the SRC’s effective operation”. In stark contrast to Abbott, Varsity was emphatic: “There should be no further government cuts to university funding.”
Whilst I acknowledge that these were words spoken a long time ago, it appears that, as university students, our current ministers were more endowed with confidence than conviction. As their careers have unfolded we have seen political expediency trump passion with backflips on not only university fees but climate change, paid parental leave, compulsory superannuation, banking regulation, unaccompanied minors being sent offshore, environmental protection – the list of discarded beliefs is long and growing.
Yes, they were young, but one wonders whether their views were those of callow youth or shallow men.