What was the last “Abbott administration” like? Meet Tony Abbott, 1979 president of the Sydney University Students Representative Council: “It seems an immutable fact of human nature that most people like to exercise power if they can. How often do we hear bureaucrats asserting some or other community ‘need’ and suspect that what really is at issue, is official desire to regulate and command”. So the man said in the pages of Honi Soit, the Sydney Uni student paper. Reading this recently in the Sydney University library, made me think what might seem like gaffs on the election trail, are actually decades old perceptions held by the man. I suspect for Abbott, “…what really is at issue, is official desire to regulate and command”. How we judge others, finally, we judge ourselves.

How did the young Abbott judge himself? He saw himself as a reformer of the SRC, moving to remove compulsory union fees that he felt were being unjustly spent on “groups such as International Socialists, South African terrorists,” – the anti-apartheid movement in south Africa – “ultra militant feminism, homosexual proselytism and environmentalism gone to crazy lengths.” He was seen by others in the SRC as a rightwing radical, bent on defunding the body which gave him his political leg up. Of the SRC, he cried in the pages of Honi Soit, “Why are we tolerating funding such a mad-house”

When a motion of his to implement a referendum on campus regarding VSU was blocked procedurally by the Council, he took the matter to the NSW Supreme Court & fought the Treasurer & General Secretary of the SRC at the time, Paul Brereton, and won. Tony chastised Paul Brereton in the pages of Honi Soit at the time, “With your support money has been given by this S.R.C to the Kimberly Land Council, the Aboriginal Support Group, the active defense of homosexuals and the Labor Club”. When the referendum was put to the student body it was defeated, and Tony did not get his satisfaction until 2006, when, as a minister in the government, Howard successfully passed VSU legislation despite widespread opposition from students nationwide.

How should I describe what the SRC was like in Abbott’s day? In the words of Abbott: “I notice that the front office wall has been decorated with homosexual posters,… (the receptionist) … stares sullenly and uncooperatively especially when I take them down and ask him not to replace them with others of a partisan, socio, sexual bent… I walk down the corridor to my ‘office’. It is finally time, I decide, to remove the condom which has been pinned to my door. It rather clashes with the lesbian posters that have been plastered there. A notice I had placed on the door reads “Tony (confidentially) you, are a fuckwit”.”

Abbott made more enemies than friends in his days as SRC president. Of the many altercations, two that noticeably blew up in the pages of Honi Soit were a dispute with his first employees, the front office staff at the SRC, and a long running grudge against the women’s collective on campus. What did the women do to enrage Tony’s ire? According to Tony they were “grim faced, overall-clad, hard, strident, often lustfully embracing in a counterfeit of love, one is forced to consider the “feminist” misnomer”. This particular perception prompted a response from a member of the women’s collective, Penny Pether; “It is tragic that someone can envisage no form of embrace or physical contact other than the sexual; cannot comprehend that between caring individuals … an embrace can be an expression of fellow feeling… devoid of sexual significance.”Another member, Julie Atkinson, wrote “Tony Abbott’s cliche and stuffed-up views of feminists provide excellent proof that those male misogynist attitudes have not changed in 100 years.”

Of the aforementioned dispute with his front office staff, one student wrote in to Honi Soit, “a visitor to his (Tony’s) office when leaving the SRC said loudly “Don’t much care for your office staff, Tony. Scurvy looking lot. I’s sack ’em all.” Tony’s immediate reaction was to laugh. When approached later Abbott’s (response) was “A fellow had been to seen me. He made a comment about the scruffy, disreputable state of some people in the Front Office and I laughed because it happened to be true…” From what can be deciphered, the dispute centered around the fact that his staff had different political views, and were homosexual, a crime in NSW until 1984.

Among other letters included in the Honi archives include an apology from Mr Abbott for missing an SRC meeting due to sport commitments, and comments about his fashion sense from one reader, “[I]..won’t speculate on how anyone who dresses like Mr Abbott does can seriously set himself up as an arbiter of taste in the manner of dress.” [G. A. Pearce from UNSW wrote into Honi Soit, “May I politely ask: how did the students at Sydney Uni possibly elect such a representative?… (I wonder) just why the ABC interviewed someone with such extreme, inapt views.”] It seems not all that much has changed.