Sydney University in the late 1970s was an exhilarating place to be. There were feminists, gays, environmentalists, socialists and hippies all challenging the traditional patriarchal elite. There was always a protest about something going on and the graffiti was witty and thought provoking.
The lunchtime concerts were fantastic, if not conducive to making afternoon lectures and pracs. Mental as Anything, Australian Crawl, Split Enz, Flowers, Rose Tattoo, Men at Work, the Angels, AC DC, Cockroaches (rock precursor to the Wiggles) and many more entertained us for a miniscule payment. Marx Brothers films were regularly screened.
The pubs and bars were not only scenes of too much drinking, but philosophical discussion, poetry reading, political debate, pinball, space invaders and pool.
Sexual liberation was well and truly underway with women taking control of their own bodies and questioning why their virginity was any different to a man’s. Lesbians were loud and proud though looking back, I think it was still hard for gay men to be as open and transgender people were largely not understood.
Into this heady mix strode Tony Abbott, full of his own importance though he rarely appeared without a sycophantic crowd in tow. He was dismissed as a weird anachronism by most but he persistently pursued political power even then.
On 20 March 1979, a 21 year old Tony Abbott appeared on the ABC TV’s Nationwide program complaining that Marxist academics had set out to deliberately lower academic and moral standards.
Abbott called on the Fraser Government to immediately slash the $550 million provided to universities in annual funding, to force left wing lecturers to abandon their flights of fancy and get back to basics.
“Should they teach what is socially useful or would they be able to continue as they have done and waste money on such things as the politics of lesbianism?” Abbott asked.
Reporter Mark Hamlyn questioned Abbott’s description of the secret Marxist plot.
Hamlyn: “Why are you so concerned about that [the left wing presence on campus]? After all, in our society, politically people are allowed if they wish to think left wing thoughts.”
Abbott: “They are indeed and that’s their privilege…you see the Marxists that I said are operating in the universities…they realise now that the universities play a crucial role in the education of the elite of modern society. And they understand that 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…”
Hamlyn: “Excuse me I just want to get this absolutely clear. You’re saying there is a Marxist plot in Australian universities these days to undermine the university system morally and academically and therefore Australian society.
Abbott: “What I am saying is that there are a number of academics of Marxist leanings in the university who are actively working to destroy academic standards. I wouldn’t put a plot coordinated from the Kremlin but there is certainly a general tendency towards destroying academic standards and the impetus is coming from this sort of person.”
How terribly sad that, 37 years later, the optimism of the 70s has died and we are seeing the resurgence of the same conservative arguments we found so elitist, sexist, intolerant and archaic so many years ago. The social progress of the last 40 years has been seemingly obliterated by a few loud but apparently influential dinosaurs.
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