By Dr George Venturini*
Searching for Tony Abbott
Abbott was born in London, United Kingdom, on 4 November 1957, to an English father, Richard Henry ‘Dick’ Abbott and an Australian mother, who was born in Sydney. Abbott’s father arrived in Australia in 1940 and after the war returned to England, married Fay Peters, and fathered Tony. Towards the end of 1960 the Abbott family left England for Australia.
Tony Abbott is a product of 1950s England. He represents a narrow strand in Australian ‘culture’ which is in many ways more English than Australian, and that is part of the reason why he was unsuccessful.
He is not a modern Australian – whatever that means; try: more of an English soccer thug than of an Australian Football League fan. His father was a dentist and his mother had a science degree. A former pilot who, much to his disappointment, never flew in the war, his father had wanted to become a priest and always impressed on his son that it was better to be a good man than a successful one. There were four siblings, with Abbott the only boy. He was spoiled and, as one sister later remarked, “Tony was always the star”. His mother thought so highly of him that she predicted he would become either pope or prime minister. A favoured son in his own family, and raised in a cloistered world of male institutions, he has always been drawn to powerful mentors from his own caste – priests, zealots, and father figures. Perhaps this is why so many voters, especially women, dislike him: they sense in Abbott’s default aggressiveness and lack of balance a man not attuned to their centre-of-the-road, somewhat secular interests.
He found a mentor at Riverview in Emmet Costello, the chaplain, a worldly Jesuit from a wealthy background who was fascinated by politics. He knew many of the important political players and Abbott often sought him out.
Like Santamaria, Costello saw politics as a vocation, a way of giving glory to God in the human realm. Indeed, by the time he went to Sydney University, Abbott was convinced that he had a bright future, perhaps in politics.
His constant use of ‘mate’ or ‘fair dinkum’ made him seem more like a trade unionist than the usual Liberal supporter. His drinking, which would result in some minor acts of vandalism, and his ability at sport also seemed at odds with the stereotype of the socially cautious, nerdy young Liberal. He was never one to shy away from a stoush, and stated his opinions wherever he went. He gained a reputation for being a braggart, a blabbermouth, a larrikin, and in at least one notorious case a violent hooligan. In that case he might have shown his early propensity for misogyny. That is the case of Barbara Ramjan: it was born on 28 July 1977 and was still quite alive towards the end of 2015. Many persons from the ‘respectable’ Right-wing in the country took an interest in the process and were forced to one démarche or another.
The case gained notoriety through the diligent work by David Marr, writer and journalist. It originated from the competition between Ms. Ramjan and Tony Abbott, both students at the University of Sydney and both aspiring to the presidency of the Students’ Representative Council. Abbott lost heavily to Ramjan. “Her victory was declared on the evening of 28 July in the S.R.C.’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.” What followed was witnessed by a politically non-committed student who “was using the cheap photocopier in the S.R.C. foyer when trouble erupted around him. … 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.”
The witness “saw Barbara being helped up very ashen-faced.” He had 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.” The witness never forgot the incident, and went on 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. In The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald of 13 September 2012 Mr. Patch would write: “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.”
Mr. Patch, a former judicial registrar of the Industrial Relations Court and of the Federal Court, and now a senior barrister in Sydney, was prepared to write 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.”
Mr. Patch added: “The wall-punching event was not an isolated one.” As President of the S.R.C. Ms. Ramjan insisted on being addressed as chairperson, but “for an entire year Abbott called Ramjan ‘Chairthing’ whenever he addressed her at SRC meetings.
“The gender-based disrespect for her office and her person is remarkably similar to the disrespectful way that Abbott treats the Prime Minister, and her office, today.”
Mr. Patch said that he knew Abbott well at the time. “Although he was an active member of a fundamentalist political movement with a religious base (the DLP and the National Civic Council led by Bob Santamaria), it was his personally offensive behaviour which stood out.
He was always (verbally) attacking gays and feminists and lefties. You certainly knew what he was against – the trouble was that you couldn’t figure out what he was in favour of! Once again, the parallels with the way he operates today are, to those who knew him then, quite remarkable.” (‘Barrister backs woman’s claim of Abbott ‘intimidation’‘).
Mr. Patch was writing less than a month from the now famous speech by Prime Minister Gillard which made international headlines. (A. Lester, ‘Ladylike: Julia Gillard’s Misogyny Speech‘).
Tomorrow: Searching for Tony Abbott (continued)
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.