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Tony Abbott remembered as right-wing activist during time as Rhodes scholar at Oxford

Tony Abbott , favourite to win the Australian election, remembered at university as a right-wing activist with a thirst for debate and boxing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 5:08am
 

In the Oxford University rugby team in the autumn of 1981, there was a loosehead prop with a mixed reputation. "He was a good scrummager," says Phil Crowe, the captain at the time. "He could scrounge on the ground for the ball. He did all the technical things pretty well."

In confrontations, he never took a backward step. Sometimes he took a forward one: if an opposing player was giving him a hard time, "he was a bit of a pugilist. He had a quick right jab."

Tony Abbott has not lost those instincts. The right-wing favourite to win the election in Australia on Saturday does not shy away from confrontation. His years as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford from 1981 to 1983 left a lasting impression. His biographers agree that Oxford was important to him, possibly pivotal.

Abbott was born in England and moved to Australia in 1960. He was an adored only son with three younger sisters. He followed an increasingly pressured route through ambitious Jesuit schools to grand, Oxford-influenced Sydney University. There he became a notorious activist, leading an aggressive right-wing revolt against the left-wing campus orthodoxies of the late 1970s.

There were allegations of physically threatening behaviour, including punching a wall on either side of the head of a rival student politician, Barbara Ramjan. This month Ramjan received an apology from News Corp Australia, which had claimed that her account of the episode was fictitious.

Abbott was also accused of groping an activist, Helen Wilson, while she was speaking at a meeting. He was charged with indecent and common assault, but acquitted after saying he had "tapped her on the back, about the level of her jeans belt".

By the end of the 1970s, the campus was screaming with anti-Abbott graffiti. He also believed, erroneously as it turned out, that he had fathered a child. Knowing that two of his many, jostling ambitions - becoming a priest and applying for a Rhodes scholarship - were not open to parents, he had split up with the mother and the baby had been adopted. In Sydney, Abbott was feeling increasingly hemmed in.

Then, in late 1980, he won his scholarship to Oxford. "A Rhodes" was supposed to have sporting as well as intellectual and leadership ability, and at Sydney he had played rugby keenly.

Oxford offered a fresh start. Abbott felt he could ignore many of the expectations that had built up around him in Australia and reinvent himself. At Oxford, almost no-one had heard of him. "He was put in a much larger pond, where there was a huge amount of indifference to him," says Norman O'Bryan, an Oxford friend and one of seven other 1981 Australian Rhodes scholars in a university of 20,000 students. Oxford also appeared to be the kind of England that the deeply conservative Abbott had idealised ever since his mother bought him Ladybird books about Francis Drake and Henry V as a child. Ancient, resilient, ritualised, the university aroused what he described at Queen's College last year as his "instinctive respect for values and institutions that have stood the test of time". A contemporary remembers him "sitting in an armchair, legs slung across, holding court, pleased with himself".

Abbott's living quarters were a little different. Like many of the foreign students at Queen's, he lived a 10-minute walk away, on the edge of less exquisite east Oxford, in the Florey Building, an angular 1960s fishbowl. Roger Mastalir, a US Rhodes scholar, also lived there.

"I remember discussions about Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Hinduism. Tony was willing to talk to anyone about anything. He could be aggressive when debating - 'tell me why you think that' - but I don't recall him ever being belittling. He tried to soak up as much as possible. He was not afraid to try anything."

At Oxford, Abbott did not look that charismatic. Heavier set than he is now, he wore middle-aged trousers and V-necked jumpers with out-of-date, 1970s-style shirt collars poking out. His voice was a little tight and needling. But he was loud and good fun. "He was a larger-than-life Aussie ocker," says Crowe. "Beer-drinking, rugby-song-singing, thick accent." For 'Abbo' embraced the Australian stereotype shunned by his compatriots. Another Oxford contemporary remarked: "Abbo always liked to stir the pot and say outrageous things." And his politics stood out: "He loved Maggie Thatcher," says Crowe. "He was even more conservative than he is now."

In May 1982, six days after the British sinking of the Argentinian warship General Belgrano, with 323 killed, an Oxford demonstration took place against Thatcher's military campaign in the Falklands. Hundreds of chanting students and locals, led by chained figures made up as corpses, converged on the Martyrs' Memorial, a gathering place for protesters. Abbott hurriedly scraped together a dozen fellow right-wingers from Queen's, rushed to the memorial, and mounted a counter-demonstration in favour of the British war effort. Provocatively, he stood beside the peace protesters, one hand in his pocket, bellowing pro-Thatcher slogans.

Eventually, the university newspaper, Cherwell, reported, there were "police attempts to disperse [his] unofficial meeting", but these "met with little response". Abbott's stubbornness and cheek were vindicated: his stunt received almost as much press coverage as the pacifists.

Yet he was not loud all the time. He still spoke of becoming a priest. A frequent companion was Paul Mankowski, a devout American Jesuit. The young, questing Australian was lastingly impressed: "Mankowski," Abbott wrote in his autobiography, Battlelines, 28 years later, "was both the embodiment of muscular Christianity and fully acquainted with the crosstides of modern life ... I doubt that I have ever met a finer man." Abbott still sees him today.

Mankowski boxed for the university and talked Abbott into joining the university boxing club. Abbott had boxed a little at Sydney but, after one training session in the cold, basic Oxford university gym, Abbott's account goes on, he had second thoughts. Then Mankowski gave him a new skipping rope for training. Such generosity from such a poor man persuaded him to persist.

Hardly any students had prior boxing experience, and even fewer wanted to win a Blue by getting hit. That Abbott did has played a large part in his personal mythology ever since. On his website, boxing takes up a third of the space he devotes to Oxford.

For all Abbott's boisterousness and likeability at Oxford, some felt, as one puts it, that "he was positioning himself for a political career. It was the way he comported himself. He had this air ... of expectation."

As a politician Abbott's reputation suffered a battering when then-prime minister Julia Gillard branded him a misogynist. Then, as now, women were less drawn to him than men, with another old acquaintance noting: "He would do that charm thing, but he would always end up with the blokes, talking about rugby."

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