This week the Prime Minister of Australia ate an onion. Not just any onion but an unpeeled brown one with the skin on.
While most onlookers treated this as a kind of inexplicable random event, like a UFO sighting or the decision to cast Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, this didn’t seem strange to me.
You see Tony Abbott is me – but over 20 years ago.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was an over eager centre right student politician at the University of Wollongong wobbling between the then wet Young Liberals and the right of the ALP.
To be political and moderate in a protest era coal town like Wollongong in reality meant declining to be part of a revolutionary action to burn down the admin building and declare the Arts Faculty a People’s Soviet. Student politics was a pitched ideological battle.
Because much of academia was also comprised of leftish veterans of the 1960’s we also naively saw our task as shocking the complacency of a whole “established order”. Some of those we railed against sounded much like Gillian Triggs; well meaning, well-educated and well monied scions of the social change movements of the 60’s and we thrilled in rattling their cages. I suspect Tony Abbott did too.
Others were genuinely hard left and deserved a shake. Refusing to take the blinkers off even when the Orwellian nature of the Soviet Union was abundantly clear and the orphanages in Romania were opened. Their endless relativism – asking “What about the yanks in El Salvador?” as the tanks drove over fellow students in Tiananmen – repelled me. That still does.
Our right of centre cold war campaign toolkit centred on actions that we knew would shock, upset and annoy “the left” including those campus establishment figures.
We deliberately set out to outrage and provoke a response:
• We called the entire student left “trots” to their faces knowing this would get under the skin of the majority of the hard Marxist Leninist left who regarded Trotskists as a weird and dangerous set of deviants;
• We held a drinking scull where the game and foolhardy were asked to consume a bizarre mix of milk, seafood, alcohol, raw eggs, grass, onions (yes onions) and whatever else we could chuck through a blender that wasn’t listed in a poisons information chart. The winner was the one who kept it down longest;
• I threatened to consume a can of dogfood to show that this was all students could afford while at University (I got through about a tablespoon);
• We dropped quotes from B.A. Santamaria into regular conversation and student newspaper editorials;
• We went into the Academic Senate and told horrified academics we wanted courses less focussed on lofty academic advancement and more aimed at pitching us into the world of work;
• I got John Howard and Fred Nile to come onto campus to take part in debates knowing this would infuriate and anger the left;
• We put headlines about “trots” and a giant campaign picture of Paul Keating on the cover of our student newspaper, Tertangala, knowing this would outrage, not campus Liberals who were non existant, but the far left who saw the ALP as a travesty of the movements of the working class;
• When our SRC office ran out of space we tried to expand into the Women’s Room next door.
And so on.
Yet some of us started to grow up and out of this mindset while we were actually at University.
My student political follies started in 1989 but by the time I was elected SRC President in 1992 I’d decided that this left-baiting was tiresome and pointless.
The Soviet Union had crumbled with a flick of Gorbachev’s pen. Our campus left seemed less like the vangard of a revolution and more like a lost flock of activists who we could refocus helping students on Austudy or building campus services. Our job was actually to help fellow students after all – this ideological bickering seemed passé.
Fast forward to 2015 and most reformed student pollies have lifted our eyes way beyond the Uni bar through community work, volunteering, families, employment, money and responsibility.
Issues seen in black and white in the heat of a pitched battle on a student campus now seem nuanced or just irrelevant.
Even the most ardent left wing student activists now realise that money is a nice thing to have and that utopia can encompass the notion of a 52 inch flat screen television.
Hippies questing for personal freedom are now as likely to pursue it through competition policy, new technology or free markets.
And almost no one alive outside of those churning out the Green Left Weekly in some Newtown basement see the ex-Soviet Union or capital S socialism as anything other than a giant failed totalitarian catastrophe.
On the other hand some right wingers who railed against the derided decision by the Australian Union of Students to celebrate the Year of the Lesbian can now see equal marriage as part of western freedoms that separates us from ISIS.
Freeing East Timor – a battle cry of the left in the 1980’s that some of us saw as a distraction from student welfare – now seems on the right side of history after all.
Those of us that admire America, as I do, can also maturely name its flaws including its strange obsessions with guns and a fixation on its own exceptionalism that clouds our ability to see those parts of the American project that reach for the stars.
The problem with Tony Abbott isn’t that he delighted in annoying, infuriating and shocking progressives at Sydney University in 1979, it’s that he’s still doing the same thing on a vastly larger canvass.
Abbott’s decision to knight Prince Philip bears all the undergraduate hallmarks of my decision to stick a giant smiling campaign photo of Paul Keating on the cover of our student rag in my early 20’s. Abbott ate an onion, I ate dogfood. We joked about displacing a campus women’s room; Tony Abbott’s team wears pale blue ties like a uniform and holds his International Day for Women’s Event at a men’s only club.
Abbott’s problem is that a Prime Ministers job isn’t to get under the skin of your opponents; it’s to climb into the skins of your people.
Above all this includes those on your nation’s margins, such as indigenous people in remote Australia, disability pensioners forced to work a sex line to pay the gas bill or terrified children who’ve floated here on a dodgy boat.
The work of a national leader isn’t to shock the people who pay your wages, it’s to engage them.
We don’t need SRC President Abbott to smash enemies within, we need Prime Minister Abbott to govern for all of us and unify Australia.
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.