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The more things change, the more they stay the same

Honi Soit is produced just metres from the wall Tony Abbott is said to have ‘punched’ at the end of a brutal 1977 SRC election campaign. With the history of these rooms now the subject of national news, Michael Koziol took the opportunity to dig through the archives.

A 1979 interview with then-SRC President Tony Abbott, published in Honi Soit. Source: archives.
A 1979 interview with then-SRC President Tony Abbott, published in Honi Soit. Source: archives.

Tony Abbott’s time as SRC President is marked by astonishingly similar themes to his current campaign against the federal government: reducing debt and deficit, wielding the axe whenever possible.

A 1979 broadsheet issue of Honi featured a lengthy interview with Abbott, canvassing his views on education funding, feminism, and his political career.

“I think too much money is spent on education at the moment,” the young Abbott said, adding that departments such as General Philosophy and Political Economy should be the first to go. Alas.

On the subject of feminism, he said: “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate, or even approach equal representation in large number of areas, simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”

Not that we can necessarily hold someone to their beliefs from 35 years ago. We’re all ashamed of things we did when we were younger: moments where we might have bit our tongues, judgements we might have avoided had we been older, wiser, sober.

Phillip Adams, ABC broadcaster and columnist at The Australian, might regret, for example, his long caricature of Ita Buttrose’s lisp in the March 29, 1977 edition of Honi, entitled “At my dethk”.

“Hello, Thith ith Ita Buttrothe, thitting here in the thudio, thmiling at you from the threen.” And so it continues: 800 words of lisp-spoofing fun.

Buttrose hasn’t forgotten. “I have never felt embarrassed by the way I speak but I think it is wrong to draw attention to speech impediments. The Australian columnist Phillip Adams devoted a column to my lisp. I laughed about it,” she told an audience just last year. It turns out the undergraduate column wasn’t the last time Adams had taunted Buttrose about her speech disorder.

A few years earlier, a young Malcolm Turnbull, while describing then-PM Gough Whitlam as an arrogant egomaniac, lauded the Labor Party as a “wealth of opinion and class…diverse and less likely than the conservatives to blindly rally behind one great leader”. Too true.

Menzies’ Liberals, on the other hand, had “warmed the treasury benches” for 23 years with “the steak-fed bottoms of the sons of Toorak and the champions of Double Bay”. How’s the view now, Malcolm?

But Sydney University was a very different place by 1987, when Joe Hockey took the reins of the SRC Presidency. The dominant political grouping was the Sydney University Liberal Club, a conglomerate of liberals, soft conservatives, and careerist moderates.

“We might be perceived as a collection of bureaucrats who…spend our time squabbling on committees,” the Liberal Club’s Political Vice-President, Fiona Gray, told Honi at the time. “But if we don’t put up opposition to the clichéd Left and reactionary Right, then they would both get away with murder!”

Liberals and Left Action were the two major factions on the SRC, but Hockey was from neither. Indeed, he disparaged Honi’s obsession with the ‘return of Liberalism’ and its reluctance to report on student protests.

“One wonders whether Honi Soit is a NEWSpaper or a front for political masturbation,” he wrote in a 1987 Presidential report. “They do not seem to have any shortage of contributors espousing the virtues of Liberalism on campus but when there is student news there is no local coverage.”

Hockey’s policy statement in the 1986 election edition of Honi: “There is no question in my mind that students will never accept fees. I totally oppose any compromise the government may offer.”

His year as SRC President was chiefly spent fighting Labor’s re-introduction of university fees, which had been abolished under Gough Whitlam. But according to a 2012 profile by Bernard Keane, he was “accused of failing to aggressively lead student demonstrations for fear of endangering his Solicitors’ and Barristers’ Admission Board enrolment”.

Hockey’s backers, a ticket called “Varsity”, were decidedly centrist and unaffiliated, declaring they would “fight the burden of factionalism presently hindering the SRC’s effective operation”. In stark contrast to Abbott, Varsity was emphatic: “There should be no further government cuts to university funding.”

It goes to show that while the young upstarts of today are certainly the leaders of tomorrow, there’s no telling which basket they’ll end up in, or with whom.

We should also remember, when digging up ancient history, that people change. Times change. Nobody should be held accountable for the extremities of student politics 20 or 30 years ago. Many current SRC office-bearers would be mortified were their words, actions – and I daresay Honi reports – to one day be interrogated by the national media.

We reach back into the archives partly in fun, and partly to better understand the history of those who now seek the highest offices in the land. That does not mean they have questions to answer.

In that spirit let us wish every SRC candidate well in today’s election.