After work one evening in the late 1970s I went for a quick drink with a few colleagues. We all worked on The Bulletin and went into the pub next door known to all the regulars as the Scunge. Its real name was the Castlereagh Hotel, and it was on the corner of Park and Castlereagh Streets in the Sydney CBD.
It had seen better times and had acquired its nickname one afternoon when we were comparing it with another hotel, the Kings Head. It was on the other side of the ACP Magazines office on the corner of Park and Elizabeth Streets. It had just been rebuilt and was looking very flash. We described the Kings Head as palatial and by way of comparison the Castlereagh looked scungy.
The drunks and malcontents who had once frequented the Castlereagh had all moved on to drink in the Palatial. We liked the emptiness and stayed drinking in the upstairs bar of the Scunge. So infrequently did anyone other than us drink there, that we considered it our private bar and almost an extension of the office. It became so much a home away from home that the licensee sometimes didn’t bother to staff the bar. We ran it, taking turns to pour drinks and take the money and put it in the till.
There were a few others from our place of employment who drank there, too. One of them, Jim Flavin — who was the ACP Financial controller — had the direct Nine network TV feed from Kerry Packer’s office linked into the bar, so we could watch the cricket live and advertisement-free. It was very convenient; especially when the matches were on at the SCG and therefore not broadcast live in Sydney in those times. It was something we all knew about but did not tell outsiders. Well, why would you? They might come in and watch the games and clog up our private club.
That probably explained our surprise to see Greg Sheridan, the education writer on The Bulletin, arrive with some people who did not work with us. I had known Greg Sheridan since he had started at The Bulletin a year or two before, taking over the desk David Marr had vacated after he had departed to work at Fairfax.
The interlopers were soon identified as radicals involved in student politics at the University of Sydney. We were about to chip our colleague about bringing contacts into such a low-class establishment when he brought them over and introduced them to us.
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. Yes, we could have gone downstairs. Yes, he probably could have punched my head in — provided I did not faint of fright first — and yes, the evening’s discussion would have been brought to an end.
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.
A number of people in the bar pointed out that pregnancy control and me having a punched-in head were almost unrelated. Basically, with a punched-in head it was unlikely I could have convinced anyone to indulge in an activity that might contribute to a pregnancy. Also whether I did or did not add to the world’s population, that small fact was unlikely to have a big affect the national statistics.
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. I had another drink and assuming by then the street impediment free, I too 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.
It was still being talked about when in the mid 1980s Trevor Kennedy (then the editor of The Bulletin) asked me to have a drink with Abbott to establish if I could work with him. At the time Abbott was training to become priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He was required to spend time in the real world before completing his training and wanted a job as a journalist. Kennedy was willing to help him out, but did not want any ill feeling from the night in the pub to linger in The Bulletin office. I did have a drink or two with Abbott in the Kings Head hotel that afternoon. It ended well and Abbott soon started work at The Bulletin.
A bit under two decades further along — after the Scunge had been demolished and replaced with a building society — Abbott was appointed federal Minister for Employment and Small Business in the Howard government. I decided it would be a bit of fun to write about the incident in the pub. The 735-word article was published in The Australian on 11 January 2001 under the heading of "Watch out for the punchline". Some of the details here were included in that story.
By then Sheridan was Foreign Editor at The Australian and David Armstrong, one of the other journalists who had been at The Bulletin, had gone on to become the Editor-in-Chief at The Australian where I was working too. Another was Bob Carr, who was then the Premier of New South Wales. He is now the Federal Foreign Minister and sits in the same parliament as the Leader of the Opposition.
While I have stayed in contact with them all and consider them friends, I have never agreed with the political views of Sheridan and Abbott.
However I was surprised when Sheridan strayed from commenting on foreign affairs in The Australian and wrote about his friendship with Abbott this week. He obviously felt compelled to defend Abbott from the assertion in the Quarterly Essay written by David Marr that he had gone up to Barbara Ramjan in 1977 and had come within an inch of her nose and punched the wall on both sides of her head, as an act of intimidation. Under the heading, "The Tony that I — and others — remember was never violent", Sheridan wrote, "I knew Abbott very well and he was never, ever violent".
I wish I could agree with him.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.