A surprising oversight in David Marr’s essay on Tony Abbott is its failure to pay any significant attention to his time at Oxford. The “Oxford years” were decisive in the shaping of many Australian political leaders – Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Kim Beazley and Malcolm Turnbull among them. Fraser’s visceral hatred of racism is often traced to the friends he made and teachers he encountered at Magdalen in the early 1950s, while Hawke’s once-fashionable larrikin image has been endlessly burnished by tales of his heroic student drinking and similar laddish feats. But in Marr’s account of Tony Abbott, although much is made of his time at the University of Sydney, a meagre paragraph is devoted to the two years, 1981 to 1983, that Abbott spent as a Rhodes Scholar at Queen’s College, Oxford.
Marr’s omission of Abbott’s Oxford years is all the more surprising since it is clear from Abbott’s semi-autobiographical book Battlelines that this was a crucial time in his intellectual development. He studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at the feet of many of the finest minds in the English-speaking world – for instance, his politics tutor was the great constitutional scholar Geoffrey Marshall. It was at Oxford that he met and developed an important friendship with the charismatic Jesuit intellectual Father Paul Mankowski. And it was during these years that his sense of vocation crystallised into a decision to enter the priesthood himself.
Tony Abbott and I were direct contemporaries at Oxford. We were members of different colleges, took different courses and moved in different circles. I would not say that we were friends. But in the small community of Australian students – at any given time, not more than a couple hundred – we knew each other well enough, and often ran into one another at functions put on by the Australian Society. To the best of my recollection, the first time I met Tony was in about November 1981. (The Oxford academic year begins in October.) The latest Dame Edna Everage show was on in London and a mutual Australian friend, Don Markwell, hired a bus and led an excursion of the newly arrived, slightly homesick Australians to enjoy an evening’s entertainment by our gladioli-waving national icon.
I had quite a few encounters with Tony in the two years that followed. His staunchly conservative ideas were already firmly established; he was well to the right of me in those days. I was a member of the Liberal Party; at that stage Tony was not, but naturally we mostly talked – and argued – about Australian politics.
Tony Abbott has been called many things over the years, but I doubt he has ever been likened to Sebastian Flyte, the epicene, sexually ambiguous hero of Brideshead Revisited. Yet in one sense (and only one sense), Tony at Oxford was exactly like Evelyn Waugh’s description of Sebastian: “he was the most conspicuous man of his year.” Everybody seemed to know Tony Abbott; at least, everybody had a story about him. The Poms, in particular, were fascinated by him, for he was everything they wanted Australians to be: authentic, gregarious, unselfconscious and engaging. While some of the twits looked down their noses at him, they were few. Among most students – men and women – Tony was immensely well liked; by the end of his two years, he had become not just one of the most recognisable but one of the most popular people in the university.
Tony has never been one to avoid controversy, and in Oxford it was no different. One escapade that attracted attention occurred in April 1982, during the Falklands War. There are few places in the world more opinionated than university towns, and Oxford is more opinionated than most. Naturally, there were ardent supporters and opponents of Mrs Thatcher’s decision to liberate the Falkland Islands from the Argentinian invasion. In response to a major anti-Thatcher demonstration in the centre of the town, Tony took it upon himself to organise a pro-Thatcher rally. The fact that this had been organised by an Australian did not go unremarked. And, of course, there was his legendary success in the boxing ring, when he won his Blue by flooring the Cambridge champion in an early round. This too contributed to his prestige – and, if I recall correctly, was a page-one story in the local newspaper, the Oxford Times.
In his Oxford years, many of the elements of Tony’s complex personality were already on display. At one level, one saw the fearless controversialist who never backed away from an argument, and who indulged his Hemingwayesque taste in sports. But at a deeper level, a fascinating mind was being forged and a deep spirituality was being nurtured. I remember once when a few of us were engaged in that perennial late-night discussion among university students: what are you going to do when you graduate? Glittering careers in public life, academia or the professions were envisioned. When it was Tony’s turn, he said simply, “I’m going to be a priest.” Everybody laughed; we thought he was joking. His reputation was not of a person much given to piety. But he was adamant. That is what he had decided to do with his life.
Nobody feels more that the world is their oyster than someone graduating from one of the world’s great universities, and Tony Abbott, with the accomplishments of a Rhodes Scholarship, an Oxford degree and a Blue to his name, confident and popular, had the world absolutely at his feet. But he had decided, after long reflection, to turn away from worldly things and give himself to the religious life of service.
Although, after three years at St Patrick’s Manly Seminary, he eventually concluded that the celibate priestly life was not a discipline he could observe, the pastoral element has never left him. He remains devoted to the Jesuit ideal of a life lived for others – as his annual pilgrimages to live and work among Aboriginal Australians (unpublicised for years), and his lifelong commitment to voluntary service organisations, such as the Rural Fire Brigade and the Surf Lifesaving movement, attest. David Marr’s conclusion, that for Abbott it has always been about power, could not be more wrong.
There is one particular memory of Tony Abbott at Oxford which sticks in my mind, as fresh as if it had happened yesterday, although it was thirty years ago. It was the summer vacation of 1982. I was heading off on a trip through Russia, and I knew that Tony had just been there. We ran into one another on the High Street one morning and chatted away. I remember saying how much I was looking forward to seeing the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and various other cultural treasures. He looked at me sceptically. I asked him what he had thought of the Soviet Union. “Mate,” came the reply, “mate, it doesn’t have a single redeeming feature.”
George Brandis has represented Queensland in the federal Senate since 2000. He is the shadow attorney-general and served as Minister for the Arts and Sport in the Howard government.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY