Getting The Facts Straight On Abbott


Last week I dusted off the spiderwebs on an old story I had written about Tony Abbott and an altercation we had when he was involved in student politics. People will make whatever they want about it. It was not intended to be about me, but about a man who wants us all to consider him as a future prime minister. But because I was caught up in the story I cannot avoid the involvement.

Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne have suggested there are people working in dirt units who are involved in digging into Abbott’s background looking for things to embarrass him with.

I would like to confirm that I am not an indirect or direct member of a dirt unit associated with Julia Gillard or the ALP, even if one does exists. To avoid any chance of a misunderstanding I know nothing of any dirt units anywhere. No one has ever asked me to belong to one and if they ever did I would say "no" to the invitation.

But I do have a political past. A little under three decades ago I did join the ALP. My membership lasted about 10 years at the most. During that time I did meet many people who were also members of the ALP, but not one has approached me at anytime to be involved in anything whatsoever directly or indirectly relating to Tony Abbott.

So why did I write about Abbott and his student days?

Well, originally it was intended to be an amusing aside written soon after Abbott became a minister in the Howard Government. It also involved others who had been working at The Bulletin back then. One of them, Greg Sheridan, was the person who introduced me to Abbott. Sheridan told me way back then that the reason he brought Abbott and his friends into the pub that night was to meet some journalists who worked on The Bulletin.

When I wrote the story I was working on The Australian, so I offered it to the paper. I had titled it, "Old friends", but it was changed to "Watch out for the punchline" when published on 11 January, 2001.

As far as I can remember it did not attract one letter. Nobody rang me to complain about it. A few colleagues in the office said they read the story and it gave them a giggle. I should point out I do not know if Sheridan read the story, he never mentioned it. Maybe he missed it, but as it was in The Australian where he works it would be very surprising if nobody brought it to his attention. Our friendly association continued unaffected in the office and on social occasions. It did not affect the friendly association that had evolved with Abbott either.We did bumped into each other from time to time and there was never a hint of trouble.

Nothing more was said or written about that story. I was happy to leave the matter alone. I didn’t even think of revisiting it when the publicity about David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, "Political animal. The making of Tony Abbott," started.

What changed my mind was a story in The Australian written by Sheridan defending Abbott. As I thought Sheridan was overstating the facts, I sent a letter off to The Australian attempting to correct Sheridan’s assertions.

The letter read:

"I have known Greg Sheridan since the 1970s when he started as a journalist on The Bulletin. It was Sheridan who introduced me to Abbott a year or two after that. It was in the first floor bar of Castlereagh Hotel in Sydney when Abbott was still at Sydney University. It did not end well. Sheridan had to intercede to calm Abbott down — who at the time was threatening to punch my head in because I was not opposed to abortion. It was a serious incident and was witnessed by a number of journalists who were at the time working for The Bulletin."

"Several years after that night, Trevor Kennedy (then the editor of The Bulletin) asked me to have a drink with Abbott to establish if I could work with him. I did have a drink or two with him that afternoon in the Kings Head hotel. It ended well and Abbott soon started work at The Bulletin."

"I have known both Sheridan and Abbott ever since on a friendly basis and while disagreeing with them on politics have always enjoyed their company. However I am more than surprised Sheridan could write, ‘I knew Abbott very well and he was never, ever violent’."

"While some people may say there is no proof any of this ever happening, I would like to point out that I did write about the incident in the pub some time ago. It was published in The Australian and nobody has ever suggested I made it all up."

Not a nasty letter, but maybe a little too long for the letters column. I do not know why it was not published, nobody bothered to contact me about it. Fair enough. That was the choice of the letters editor. However I still wanted to put on record the contents of the letter. So I incorporated the letter with the original story and forwarded it on to New Matilda.

After it was published no one contacted me suggesting I had any of the facts wrong. So I was more than surprised when I discovered Abbott was saying I did have facts wrong. He did so on morning TV. Karl Stefanovic asked him on Channel Nine, "Cartoonist Lindsay Foyle says that as a student in the 70s you wanted to punch his head in because you disagreed with him over abortion and contraception. Is he making that up?"

To which Abbott responded:

"Well I saw that piece late yesterday evening and look, I had a lot of very vigorous discussions with my fellow journalists in various pubs over the years. I’m sure you’ve had a few yourself, Karl, but the idea that fisticuffs or threatened fisticuffs would ensue from this, again, I think is just ludicrous. Now, I spoke last night to one of the people who was cited in Lindsay Foyle’s article. In fact, I spoke to two of the people who were cited in Lindsay Foyle’s article and neither of them can remember anything remotely, remotely resembling what was alleged."

It was not the response I had expected. I had assumed Abbott would say something like, "Yes it did happen. But that was a long ago and there was no lasting damage. We all do things we regret. The important thing is not that they happened, but that we learn from them and become better for it". That would have killed to story stone dead.

As that did not happen, the story lives on. It had fresh life pumped into it on the ABC program Q & A  last night. Greg Sheridan said the event in the pub with Abbott never happened. He also said Trevor Kennedy told him earlier that day he had not talked with me about Abbott joining The Bulletin. I have known Kennedy since 1973 and I have to say he is not the sort of person who gets things wrong.

On this occasion I have a different memory of the events, and why I met with Abbott a second time. I have always appreciated Kennedy’s consideration in this matter and the trouble he took to avoid any potential problems. The meeting with Abbott was in the first floor bar of King’s Head hotel and it was for no other reason other than Kennedy requested it to happen there.

Abbott was in the bar when I arrived. He was sitting on a stool watching for me to come up the stairs. If I had been involved in selecting the venue it would have been in the first floor bar of the Castlereagh Hotel. It didn’t matter. Abbott had said he had been silly and apologised, we had two quick drinks and were out of the place.

In his effort to prove I had things wrong Sheridan claimed I had the year wrong because he had only joined The Bulletin in 1979. It is a small point. But as I had written the event happened in the late 1970s, I think I can say I did not get the time frame wrong. Sheridan also pointed out he is smaller than Abbott and myself and was not likely to get between us in a nasty situation. There is some truth to his claim. However as Sheridan says, he was then best friends with Abbott, and not even Abbott’s worst enemies would suggest he would hurt his best friend. Sheridan would have had nothing to fear. Not from Abbott and not from me.

So it all comes down to who you believe and who you don’t. But if I were making all of this up, why would I go to so much detail about the events and why would I put most of it in writing almost 12 years ago?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.