The Punch

Gerard Henderson must have been worried about the impact of a story about Tony Abbott’s politics during his university days. According to David Marr’s account in his Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott (Black Inc), Abbott approached Barbara Ramjan, who had just beaten him in the SRC presidential election, she thought to congratulate her, but instead, as Ramjan claims, “He came to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head."

Henderson saw the obvious resemblance to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, first a book, then a TV series. He was so concerned that he mounted a spirited defense of Abbott on Insiders on 9 September (the story begins at 4.20 and Henderson chimes in at 5.18). You will note how angry and agitated he is as he mounts his denials of the story. Determined to kill the story, he then wrote an article on 11 September in The Canberra Times Condemnation by long memory tends to stretch matters, in which he makes the case that the incident never happened.

Henderson recounts that “David Marr told Geraldine Doogue on RN Breakfast that "the incident … was remembered very vividly" by Ramjan and that "she has been telling" people about it "for 35 years”, but Henderson categorically discounts this. While agreeing that it was “an intimidatory gesture, to be sure”, he adds: “If, of course, it ever happened.” He then goes on to argue that 35 years is a long while back, that memory fades, that this is the first we have heard about it, and that there were no witnesses. But later he says there was a witness, "a distinguished Sydney lawyer" who referred to the Liberal Party leader's past "negativity and destruction", but adds: “Since this lawyer is now so distinguished, you wonder why he/she insists on anonymity.”

Henderson’s claims are questionable - Ramjan not only insists she has been telling the story for 35 years, but also the lawyer is no longer ‘anonymous’. He is Sydney barrister, David Patch, former judicial registrar of the Industrial Relations Court and of the Federal Court, and an ALP candidate for Wentworth in 2004. He corroborated Ramjan's claim that Tony Abbott behaved in an intimidatory fashion when she beat him in a vote for Sydney University SRC president in 1977. Writing in The Age on 13 September Patch says: ''I did not see the incident, but I was nearby. The count had just finished. Barbara 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 Tony 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. Barbara's immediate complaint to me about what Abbott had just done had the absolute ring of truth about it. I believed Barbara at the time, and still do.'' Patch also confirmed that Barbara Ramjan has been telling that story about Abbott ever since, describing it as ''that old chestnut!''

Patch went on to state that this was not an isolated event, and cited how as president Ramjan did not want to be called ''Mr Chairman'' but preferred ''Chairperson'', yet for a whole year, Abbott called her ''Chairthing'' whenever he addressed her at SRC meetings, which Patch saw as a “gender-based disrespect for her office and her person, remarkably similar to the disrespectful way that Abbott treats the Prime Minister and her office today.”

Patch added: “…it was his personally offensive behaviour that 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 favoured,” adding: “Once again, the parallels with the way he operates today are, to those who knew him then, quite remarkable.”

Abbott's first reaction to the Ramjan claim was to say that he had no recollection of the incident but "it would be profoundly out of character had it occurred". Later he amended that by saying categorically: "It never happened", a line he has repeated ever since, even on the Today Show on Channel Nine on Friday, when he first emerged from his media silence to confront the story. Marr reports that these statements are the only ones from his long interview with Abbott that were ‘on the record’.

Although the story fits with others about Abbott’s aggressiveness, Henderson was having none of that, and repeated the Abbott line. He writes: “Well, it is impossible to have a recollection of an event that never happened. Even so, Marr and some others are now suspicious that Abbott has restated his position…”. Indeed!

The dander of the Abbott acolytes though was well and truly up. Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor at The Australian, who says he was Abbott’s best friend at university, wrote a blistering piece: The Tony that I - and others - remember was never violent at uni. Describing Marr’s Essay as “scabrous propaganda”, Sheridan condemns “…his overall sloppiness as a journalist, failure as a historian and distorting bias as a polemicist.” First, shoot the messenger!

Sheridan goes through the story of the incident and concludes: “Abbott was my best friend at that time. We talked over everything. The meaning of life, the purpose of politics, who'd win the rugby league grand final, what girls we planned to ask out, petty squabbles we might have had with our parents. I remember the night in question quite well. No such incident was ever discussed by Abbott or by anyone else in his circle. It is utterly inconceivable.” At the end he says: “I knew Abbott very well and he was never, ever violent. He was a good bloke then, he's a good bloke now. Marr's dishonest and obsessive agitprop is a fraudulent caricature that manages to reverse reality at almost every point.”

A complete whitewash in print was not enough though for Sheridan. He appeared on ABC News Radio in an interview with Marius Benson. You have to listen to this six-minute interview from beginning to end to get a feeling for Sheridan’s anger at Marr’s Essay and the Ramjan story. He condemns Marr in vitriolic terms accusing him of obsessive hostility to Catholicism, accuses the ABC of a “…worshipful, uncritical interview of Marr on Lateline, which he describes as a ‘disgraceful episode’ of which the ABC should be ‘utterly ashamed’.

In my opinion, the anger of Sheridan and Henderson bespeaks extreme fear that the revelations about Abbott’s university behavior, true or denied, will severely damage him politically, and that they must pull out all the stops in an attempt to minimize the damage. Abbott’s political colleagues have been strangely silent.

Writing in New Matilda, professional cartoonist Lindsay Foyle, in a piece titled: Abbott Threatened Me Too, recalls an incident in the 1970s when he was working for The Bulletin, “…when Greg Sheridan, the education writer, arrived with some people who did not work with us…The interlopers were soon identified as radicals involved in student politics at the University of Sydney. It did not end well. They quickly explained how the world went around and why they had to extinguish their opposition at the university and the rest of the country. Unfortunately, I did not agree with everything that was said and a few feathers got ruffled. The main point of contention was a woman’s right to control pregnancy, either via contraception or abortion. My view was that it was something those involved should settle on, not people like me who didn’t have to live with the consequences of the decision. To the activists that view was just as unacceptable as abortion.

“The largest of the lot was a person named Tony Abbott. He decided the quickest way to settle our differences was to take me downstairs and demonstrate how I was wrong by punching my head in. This was not the way I wanted the evening to go…Punching heads in was something Abbott did well. A few years after he demonstrated how good he was in the boxing ring at Oxford University where he flattened anyone silly enough to get into the ring with him.

“Before Abbott had a chance to damage his knuckles on me, Sheridan interceded and got between us. He calmed Abbott down by suggesting this was not the way to settle differences. I was very pleased he did. The point was taken and the discussion ended. Then the students all departed…It was a serious incident and was witnessed by a number of journalists who were at the time working for The Bulletin. Some were still talking about it in the office the next day. In fact it was a topic of conversation for many years.”

So much for his aggression being ‘profoundly out of character’, as Abbott claims! So much for Sheridan’s assertion that Abbott was ‘never violent at uni’!

Another anonymous person has now come out in support of the Ramjan claim and says he is willing to write a statutory declaration to that effect, but the Abbott camp has peremptorily dismissed this.

On talkback radio, the commentators have been out in numbers dismissing the charges against Abbott as implausible, inconsequential, of no importance to contemporary politics, and, somewhat hopefully, asserting that it will make no difference to Abbott’s electoral chances.

Abbott first claimed that the story was not only false, but the product of a Labor ‘dirt unit’, a claim that the publishers of the Quarterly Essay deny as ‘completely implausible’, and an attempt to ‘shoot the messenger’. David Patch has vehemently denied any contact with members of the Labor Party. The ‘dirt unit’ claim looked like a deliberate attempt at distraction by Abbott, and in a weekend article: 'Dirt unit' not source, concedes Abbott, Michelle Grattan reveals that Abbott “has conceded that David Marr…heard about it from other sources.” So let’s hope that notion is put to bed.

The weekend press makes fascinating and predictable reading. Paul Kelly writes a quasi-objective article: Demonization of Abbott is Labor’s new game plan, in which he quietly lets Abbott off the hook. Greg Sheridan has another go under the anomalous heading: Selective Cold War Memories, but the subheading gives his intent away: David Marr’s account of Tony Abbott’s student days is biased and untrue. It features a lovely photo of Tony with his parents on his graduation. Christopher Pearson writes: Tony Abbott is not homophobic. You can predict the rest. Angela Shanahan writes a piece about campus politics in Abbott’s days, and say she doesn’t care about the ‘wall-hitting’ incident. Dennis Shanahan seems to be having a day off! The second editorial in The Australian: If only the walls could talk with its subheading: Labor’s personal smear campaign could backfire, is unsurprisingly defensive of Abbott, but seemingly unaware that Abbott had already backed away from his ‘Labor dirt unit’ accusation. The first two ‘Letters to the Editor’ are defensive of Abbott.

As we would have expected, The Australian is stridently defensive of Abbott. The intensity of its offerings suggests it is deeply disturbed at this turn of events, as well as hopping mad, and is out there defending its man with all its muscle.

Other News Limited outlets don’t say much, but Laurie Oakes is unforgiving in his piece: Punch or not, Tony’s aggression is a worry, and Dennis Atkins writes a critical article: Abbott needs to bring back his old candour.

Fairfax is pretty quiet. Apart from the Grattan piece, Tony Wright writes a ‘we all did stupid things in our youth’ article that is not worth the time it takes to read it.

Today’s Insiders gave little time to the Marr Essay. When asked, program guest Tanya Plibersek offered the view that Tony Abbott ought to apply the same standard for disclosure of past events as he demands of others, but that he seemed reluctant to do so, walking away when the questions get tough. The preamble to discussion of the Ramjan affair showed Wayne Swan in parliament using the term ‘Biffo’ to characterize Abbott in an oblique reference to the affair, and then the panel took a desultory walk around the wall-punching event, concluding that Abbott made matters worse for himself with his confusing response – first that he couldn’t remember, then that it never happened, finally conflating the two into a bewildering and implausible defence. The ‘Talking Pictures’ segment did not mention the matter.

No doubt, there will be more talk about this matter in the media in the time ahead, with strong claims that it is true, and equally vehement denials. As we may never know the full truth of the matter, each of us will have to reach a judgement ourselves based on the evidence and the plausibility of the participants. For me, the story seems more plausible than false. Abbott’s denials, coming as they do from a habitual liar, do not ring true to me. You will have to make up your own mind.

Abbott has form though when it comes to losing elections. On another occasion, he kicked in a glass panel in the SRC front door after narrowly losing an election for student fellow in the University Senate. This intense anger at losing an election, anger that persists, was seen again when he lost to Julia Gillard in the fight to form minority government in 2010.

Archies Archive gives an interesting account of that long past election loss and details of more recent behaviour in Where There is Smoke -: “In the years following that loss, he was repeatedly accused in the university paper of being a right-wing thug and bully who used sexist and racist tactics to intimidate his opponents.” A teacher who was at Sydney University with him has described him in these terms: "He was a very offensive, a particularly obnoxious sort of guy. He was very aggressive, particularly towards women and homosexuals". Has he changed?

Despite its dramatic aura though, is the Ramjan event really the main issue? To me the details of this story are not as crucial as is the recurrent pattern of behavior that we see in the man who seeks to be our prime minister, our leader. Tony Abbott has longstanding form when it comes to aggression, belligerence, intimidation, bullying, destructive behavior, and misogyny.

Let me draw a parallel between Abbott’s use of ‘chairthing’ in addressing SRC president Barbara Ramjan, and his constant use of ‘this Prime Minister’, ‘her’ and ‘she’ in QT and press interviews. This is the same childish attempt at intimidation.

Abbott’s continual use of the term ‘untrustworthy’, his regular reference to her ‘lying’ about the carbon tax, is meant to be intimidatory, and if PM Gillard had been less resilient, would have been.

Reflect on how Opposition Leader Abbott addresses his questions to PM Gillard in QT. He is habitually aggressive, belligerent, angry, and disrespectful as he asks his questions. Recall how he has spoken to and about PM Gillard in the numerous Motions to Suspend Standing Orders. The bullying anger he displays, the disrespectful words he uses, and his finger poking gestures are archetypical – it is the same aggressive behavior that blighted his early days.

Remember the incident during the 2007 election campaign when Abbott was late for a debate on health with Nicola Roxon, who on being told by her that he ought to have been on time said: "That's bullshit. You're being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can't help yourself, can you?” Three female ministers assert that Abbott has a problem with women in power, to which he replies that he is a modern man who works under women all the time!

So let’s not buy this nonsense that what happened 35 years ago is past history, irrelevant to today’s politics and Abbott’s quest for the top job, and simply the behavior of a rough and tumble, wild young fellow who is now a changed man. Abbott’s behavior then is Abbott’s behavior now. Nothing has changed.

We ought not to be surprised.

Almost three years ago, just ten days after his election to Opposition Leader, I wrote in The pugilistic politician: “Tony Abbott’s recent threat to ‘give the Government the fright of its life’ is code for the new leader’s real metaphor – to give the Government the fight of its life. Have you noticed how aggressive and combative Abbott has become since his election? He has always had a reputation as a pugilist – his boxing exploits during his Rhodes scholarship at Queen’s College, Oxford are legend. But he seems to have kept this tendency under control pretty well while in the Howard Government, except of course when Howard used him as his attack dog…”

But on election, “…with nothing much in the ledger but opposition to almost everything the Government was trying to do, trenchant opposition to the Government’s ETS leading to its defeat, a heap of political baggage, a mediocre team, and a disgruntled ex-leader…he reverted to what he knows best – pugilism. For some he may appear like a threatened animal trapped in the hunter’s spotlight, and that his ‘fight to the death’ approach is merely reactionary, merely a strategy for survival. That may be partly true, but it seems more likely that fighting is his natural response to any challenge.”

“In fact he wants a fight on everything. Abbott intends to criticise everything the Government does, to fight everything it attempts to do, to refuse to collaborate on anything, and to decline to reveal any policies until the last moment…”

“So to what can we look forward? If one can judge from Abbot’s demeanour and performance during the last week, from the look in his eyes, from his aggressive attitude, from his determination to fight in hand to hand combat, we are in for a ruthless, cruel, bare-knuckle fight with no holds barred. This week Abbott reminded me of the familiar scene before a prize fight when the combatants line up – hairy-chested, jaw-jutting, throwing punches in the air, loud-mouthed, asserting their prowess, and promising to knock their opponent out early in the bout…we can expect Abbott, the pugilistic politician, to attack Government policies and actions incessantly and relentlessly, to keep Coalition policies under wraps as much as possible to avoid having to defend them, and to exhibit venom, vitriol and vituperativeness the like of which we have not seen in politics in Australia for a long while. It will be unremittingly ugly.”

If it was so easy to predict Abbott’s behavior three years ago, why should anyone be surprised that the aggressive, combative, belligerent, intimidatory, destructive Abbott that we know now is the same as he always has been? Why should the Ramjan episode be painted as an aberration from an earlier time when that behavior is still so obvious today?

Of course, as LadyinRed points out, apart from Abbott’s aggressive behavior, Marr’s Essay shows that “Abbott is the same man, deeply religious, looking back rather than forward, very conservative, very retro thinking”. It is Abbott trying “to refit the past into the present”, as manifest by extreme policies towards for example, abortion, that ought to alarm us as much as his behavior. That is for another piece.

‘The Slap’ was a sad story about how an incident at a family gathering simmered under the surface, stirring deep-seated family tensions until it erupted into angry discord and distressing family disruption.

‘The Punch’ threatens to do the same to the Coalition family; its leader, the would-be prime minister, the Honorable Tony Abbott, is entirely to blame.

Because his behaviour is as unpleasantly belligerent now as it was 35 years ago, the prospect of an Abbott prime ministership is as frightening as it ever was.

What do you think?