Tony Abbott at Oxford: fighter, networker, Thatcherite
Twenty-two months in England transformed the beer-swilling, rugby song-singing chameleon – and gave him a new hero
'Abbo' the heavyweight contender: "He shut his eyes when he boxed, that meant he was scared," says his sparring partner, Nicholas Stafford-Deitsch
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, and the referee wasn't looking, "He was a bit of a pugilist. He had a quick right jab."
But he had his limitations. "Around the field, he wasn't all that flash. He was never going to be a sprinter."
Heavy in the shoulders and 14 or 15 stone, depending on how much training he had been doing and how much beer he had been drinking, he was an awkward fit in an Oxford side that based its game on speed and mobility.
In December 1981, just before the all-important annual Varsity Match against Cambridge, participation in which earned a Blue, he was dropped. "He was very emotional," remembers an Oxford friend. He never played rugby for the Oxford first team again.
Three decades later, as the leader of Australia's rightwing Coalition, one of the country's most prominent Anglophiles and the favourite to be prime minister after the 7 September federal election, Tony Abbott is long accustomed to describing his Oxford days in glowing terms.
"They were extraordinarily rich and golden beyond belief," he told the current affairs programme Sunday in 2001. "Someone once said that Oxford left you magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life ...
"At Oxford you are amongst the best young men and women of your generation in the English-speaking world, and that's a tremendous privilege."
Last December, Abbott told an audience at his old Oxford college, Queen's, "I hope I will always keep an Oxford cast of mind."
He was a student there from October 1981 to July 1983, between the ages of 23 and 25. A Rhodes scholar, part of a production line for world leaders established by the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, he studied politics and philosophy and got "a solid second".
He played a lot of sport, won a Blue for boxing and returned to Australia with his Anglophilia reinforced. Little else about these 22 months has been established, in contrast to his highly scrutinised and often contentious existence before and after.
Yet all his biographers agree that Oxford was important to him, possibly pivotal. What exactly was his life there like?
Abbott had been born in England. His father, Dick, grew up in a village near Newcastle. During the second world war, Dick riskily emigrated to Australia by boat, like many later, less welcomed foreigners.
Through the 40s and 50s, Abbott's father moved itchily back and forth between the two countries, eventually giving up an ambition to be a Catholic priest to become a dentist. In 1957 he married an Australian, Fay, and she gave birth to Tony in London the same year.
In 1960 the family moved to Australia for good. According to Abbott's early biographer Michael Duffy, "Tony Abbott's first memory is of the steam train that took them from London to Southampton, where they boarded for the six-week voyage."
Settling in Sydney, Dick grew successful and wealthy. Tony 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 made himself probably the most famous, or infamous, student activist in the country, leading an aggressive rightwing revolt against the leftwing campus orthodoxies of the late 70s.
There were allegations against him of physically threatening behaviour, punching a wall on either side of the head of a rival student politician, Barbara Ramjam; and of sexual harassment, groping an activist, Helen Wilson, while she was speaking at a meeting.
After the latter incident, Abbott was charged with indecent and common assault, said he had "tapped her on the back, about the level of her jeans belt", and was acquitted. This month Ramjam received an apology from News Corp Australia, which had claimed that her account of the former episode was fictitious.
By the end of the 70s, 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, sometimes for the first team.
A long line of successful Rhodes applicants from the university had done the same. His campus notoriety was no secret to the scholarship judging panel, figures from Sydney's conservative establishment, but his rightwing politics were not a million miles from theirs and, besides, he had a seductive ability to admit fault and promise to do better.
"The most Catholic thing about this profoundly Catholic man," writes his latest biographer, David Marr, "is his faith in absolution. The slate can always be wiped clean."
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, at least to start with, almost no one had heard of him or his Sydney antics.
"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 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 last year as his "instinctive respect for values and institutions that have stood the test of time".
In 1981 his college was 640 years old: almost five times older than Sydney university. With its honey-coloured quadrangles, complete with towers and colonnades and roof statues, sited right in the medieval heart of the university, Queen's looked like a dream of Oxford made real.
Abbott quickly started spending time in the Middle Common Room, a handsome social space for graduate students. A contemporary remembers him "sitting in an armchair, legs slung across, holding court, pleased with himself".
Abbott's actual living quarters were a little different. Like many of the foreign students at Queen's, he was accommodated a 10-minute walk away, on the edge of less-exquisite east Oxford, in the Florey Building, an angular 60s fishbowl that looks like a Martian spaceship cut in half.
Roger Mastalir, a US Rhodes scholar, was one of the other residents. He recalls endless struggles with window blinds to get privacy and the correct temperature, but also a close Florey community.
"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, 70s-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."
The other Australian Rhodes scholars avoided playing to the stereotype but "Abbo" embraced it. "You could hear him from across the room," says another Oxford contemporary. "Abbo always liked to stir the pot and say outrageous things."
Half-jokingly, he told the college's Anglican chaplain that he ought to have chosen Catholicism instead. On this and other occasions, some at Queen's felt Abbott "went over the top a bit", says Brian McGuinness, a philosophy tutor there.
Like Sydney university in the 70s, Oxford in the early 80s had a vigorous leftwing culture: even the gilded student magazine Isis ran articles about the horror of nuclear weapons.
Although the provost of Queen's was Lord Blake, a renowned Tory historian and supporter of the prime minister Margaret Thatcher, its students consistently voted Labour in university elections.
Abbott's 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 traditional gathering place for protesters.
Abbott hurriedly scraped together a dozen fellow rightwingers 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".
Bellowing for Maggie: an Oxford Mail clipping showing Abbott leading a counter-demonstration against pacifists after the sinking of the General Belgrano
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. Oxford university is full of separate worlds and, then as now, Abbott kept his different sides, Ocker and Anglophile, political wild man and lover of order, carefully compartmentalised.
Half-hidden down a side street, well away from Queen's, Campion Hall is a small institution for Jesuits, not a college but a discreet part of the university. "Tony used to spend a large amount of time there," says O'Bryan, who too had been Jesuit-educated in Australia.
Abbott talked to O'Bryan and other Oxford Catholic friends about becoming a priest. They thought the prospect unlikely, but recognised the seriousness and old-fashionedness of his faith. "I remember him saying the Catholic Church went downhill when mass started being said in English instead of Latin," says one.
At Campion Hall, Abbott's frequent companion was Paul Mankowski, a devout American Jesuit. Mankowski, now an influential Catholic conservative with a busy intellectual life in the US, Australia and Italy, declined to be interviewed for this article.
At Oxford in the early 80s, he was already an intriguingly austere figure. He had taken a vow of poverty and wore the clothes of dead priests.
The young, questing Australian was lastingly impressed: "Mankowski," he wrote with feeling in his autobiography, Battlelines, 28 years later, "was both the embodiment of muscular Christianity and fully acquainted with the cross tides of modern life ... I doubt that I have ever met a finer man." Abbott still sees him today.
Mankowski boxed for the university. According to Abbott, in January 1982, "after a couple of extra drinks" in one of the many Oxford bars the Australian relished, Mankowski talked him 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 as a gift. Such generosity from such a poor man persuaded him to persist.
Others suggest less elevated Abbott motives also played a part. He had just been dropped from the rugby team. Getting a Blue, both a burning personal ambition and almost a social requirement in the gregarious, sport-fixated world of the Australian Rhodes scholars, now required other means, and boxing was a shrewd plan B.
"It's the easiest way to get a Blue," says Nicholas Stafford-Deitsch, who became Abbott's sparring partner. "Unlike in other Oxford sports, you could win one as a novice, within months."
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.
As a tightly wound man, perhaps from keeping all his contradictory impulses in balance, physical exercise has always been a release; and sometimes also a useful form of public machismo.
Yet at Oxford Abbott was not actually a great boxer. A heavyweight then, but of modest height and reach.
"He was crude, with very little technique," says Stafford-Deitsch, then the university's best fighter. "He wasn't a huge puncher. He hardly ever touched me.
Abbott sparring with Stafford-Deitsch. He was a heavyweight, but modest of height and reach
"He shut his eyes when he boxed, that meant he was scared. He certainly didn't have the toned physique of the toned athlete. And he was a heavy breather as he started to get tired, another thing an experienced boxer hides."
On 5 March 1982, Abbott made his debut for Oxford, in the Varsity Match against Cambridge. The contest, involving nine pairs of boxers, took place in Oxford town hall: a tight, theatrical auditorium with viewing galleries along three sides.
More than a thousand spectators squeezed in, including some of Abbott's old rugby crowd, with whom, characteristically, he had remained on drinking terms.
As the bouts went by, and the score reached 4-4, Abbott's contest, scheduled last, became the decider. The atmosphere turned increasingly "gladiatorial", Crowe recalls.
Toilet rolls were thrown from the galleries. There was beer in the air and beer on the floor. Even to the experienced Stafford-Deitsch, the crowd seemed "absolutely manic, baying for blood, screaming, 'Get the effing tabs!' ", Oxford slang for Cambridge students.
Abbott's opponent was taller, with a better reach. Crowe remembers "looking at Tony in the ring before his bout. He was clearly shitting himself, sweat dripping off."
As soon as the fight started, Abbott began punching as fast as he could, leaving himself no defence at all. Within 45 seconds, his opponent was down: Abbott had won.
Zero to hero: the Oxford Mail reports Abbott's triumph over his Cambridge rival in the match that earned him a Blue
Looking utterly exhausted, mobbed by rugby mates who had clambered into the ring, "Abbo stood ... with a half-smile almost of disbelief," the Oxford Mail reported, in a prominent, ecstatic account of Oxford's 5-4 victory. In a highly status-conscious city and university, Abbott was suddenly a hero.
He exploited his celebrity. In the 1983 Varsity Match, after again winning the decisive bout, he told the Mail: "I just made believe that my opponent was Bob Hawke, the leader of the Australian Labor party."
The victorious boxing team. In status-conscious Oxford, Abbott became a celebrity
For all Abbott's boisterousness and likability at Oxford, some who knew him there felt, as one puts it, that underneath, "He was positioning himself for a political career. It was the way he comported himself. He had this air ... of expectation."
Another says, "He would use your name at the end of every sentence. He would look you in the eye and shake your hand. I didn't feel it was terribly genuine."
Then as now, women were less drawn to him than men: "He would do that charm thing, but he would always end up with the blokes, talking about rugby."
No one I interviewed recalled his having a girlfriend at Oxford. Some remembered gossip at the time about his having fathered a child in Sydney, later proved to be inaccurate.
But most agreed that Abbott's English interlude was a relatively relaxed episode in his restless, sometimes pent-up life. "Abbo in Oxford was a happy man, so he was good company," says one Australian Rhodes scholar then. "His complexities were well hidden."
By going to Oxford, he was self-consciously and usefully following the example of a long line of powerful Australians: Rupert Murdoch, Malcolm Fraser, Malcolm Turnbull among them.
"The universities play a crucial role in the education of the elite of modern society," a precocious Abbott had told an Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewer in March 1979.
At Oxford, as he described last December, he was also able to network for the future: "I first met George Brandis, now the shadow attorney-general; Don Markwell ... director of [the rightwing thinktank] the Menzies Research Centre; and Tom Harley ... a long-term member of the federal executive of the Liberal party."
Markwell remembers Abbott at Oxford as someone with "very worked-through political ideas", including a Cold Warrior's absolute hostility to the Soviet Union.
In 1982, during the long university summer holiday, Brandis ran into Abbott in Oxford. Abbott had just been to Russia to see the place for himself, easy foreign travel was part of Oxford's appeal for Australian Rhodes scholars.
When Brandis asked for his impressions, suggesting that Russia must offer at least some cultural pleasures, Abbott replied, "Mate, it doesn't have a single redeeming feature."
But Markwell also noticed Abbott's ability to be both "utterly authentic" and "a chameleon": "People underestimate how smart he is."
At Oxford, Abbott was freed from the burden of nonstop Australian campus activism; and from fitting his fogeyish politics hostile to feminism and socialism but also to free markets into a modern political party.
Before Oxford and for half a decade afterwards, he dithered between the Liberals, Labor and the dying, socially conservative Catholic splinter group the Democratic Labour party. At Oxford, he could just bellow for Maggie.
In the summer of 1983, after doing a three-year undergraduate degree on an accelerated basis, as Rhodes scholars often did, he took his finals. Although McGuinness remembers him as "an intelligent chap", Abbott's handwriting was so bad, records Michael Duffy, he was recalled to dictate his essays to a typist.
Abbott was good at getting second chances. The '"solidity'"or otherwise of the second-class degree he achieved is impossible to judge: Oxford did not introduce the distinction between a 2:1 and a 2:2 until three years later.
Summing up his Oxford academic achievements, Blake told him, "Sometimes your robust common sense needs to be tempered with a little philosophic doubt."
Yet in some ways the worldly provost of Queen's misread him. After Oxford, Abbott's self-questioning side reasserted itself. Between 1983 and 1990, in order, he travelled the length of Africa, vaguely pursuing an interest in the British empire and Cecil Rhodes in particular; tried and failed to become a priest at a Catholic seminary in Sydney; tried journalism; ran a concrete plant; and finally came to rest in the Liberal party in the early 90s.
Did Oxford change him? It certainly calmed him down, crucial to the transition from campus hothead to conventional politician. Oxford also deepened his Catholicism and conservatism.
It acquainted him a little with fear and failure, and with greater talents than himself. And it gave him a more modern British role model than Rhodes and his other old-fashioned favourite, Winston Churchill.
Like Abbott, Thatcher went to Oxford. Like him, she seized the leadership of her party. Like him, she was an awkward, aggressive opposition leader whom voters did not warm to.
But she won office and used it ruthlessly. As Abbott indirectly acknowledged: after he got back to Australia from Oxford, Duffy records, he named his old wreck of a car the General Belgrano.
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...