Should that incident give rise to a repeated pattern of both violence and cover-ups? Yes, it should disqualify Tony Abbott from the Prime Ministership.
It is a fact that Barbara Ramjan alleged Tony Abbott threatened her in 1977, and it is a fact that Abbott has (later) denied doing so. It appears to be true that there were no witnesses to this event. Both of these facts appear in David Marr's Quarterly Essay Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, with direct quotes from both Ramjan and Abbott. The wording of Abbott's quasi-denial (on page 17) is significant:
"It would be profoundly out of character had it occurred".Out of character, you say.
Greg Sheridan stakes everything on Abbott's character. It is interesting that he places such great credence on the word of Jeremy Jones and then fails to quote him directly, leaving the reader hoping that Sheridan has summarised Jones fairly. According to Sheridan, it is not enough for Abbott to be a man of high character in himself; someone else, in Manichean terms, must be made out to be less than he appears:
Marr claims that in 1977, when Abbott was defeated for the presidency of the Student Representative Council by Barbara Ramjan, he went up to her, came within an inch of her nose and punched both sides of the wall beside her as an act of intimidation.Found what out? Found out that Abbott's friends support him, and that Ramjan's support her? That sort of thing might pass for EXCLUSIVE at the Daily Murdoch but it's not much chop in itself.
Marr records Abbott's denial of this but says he, Marr, believes the incident took place as described by Ramjan. Marr is wrong. And this mistake reflects his overall sloppiness as a journalist, failure as a historian and distorting bias as a polemicist ...
Abbott was my best friend at that time ... I remember the night in question quite well. No such incident was ever discussed by Abbott or by anyone else in his circle. It is utterly inconceivable.
Marr could have found this out if he were a competent historian.
Marr described an incident between two people: one described what happened and the other denied it (and apparently neglected to discuss it with his muckers). There were apparently no witnesses to the encounter itself apart from the two protagonists. Marr sets out the facts and declares his judgment: a reader who was not there on the night in question is free to come to a conclusion other than the one Marr reached.
Marr was not obliged to hijack a wider story by rounding up a posse of non-witnesses to vouch for the general character of either protagonist in a single event that may or may not support conclusions on the general character of a man with more power and responsibility than the whole of the Sydney Uni SRC put together.
Sheridan's attack on Marr's journalism, historianship etc seems like a lunge for some objective quality in a subjective dispute (and criticising a polemicist for being biased and even distorting is to misunderstand what a polemicist is, whether or not Marr is one).
What might have happened if Abbott had confessed to Sheridan of having committed an act of violence, or if Sheridan had witnessed such an event, and Abbott had then asked Sheridan - for the sake of their friendship - not to tell anyone? In the sky-high dudgeon of his wouldn't-hurt-a-fly routine Sheridan has not denied Abbott's assault of Joe Hockey: Hockey himself has admitted it, and there were plenty of witnesses. Sheridan protests a little too much.
Sheridan has since been refuted, if not negated, by fellow Bulletin alumnus Lindsay Foyle referring to a separate incident.
Marr sets out a pattern of behaviour where Abbott trashes - physically, verbally and otherwise metaphorically - those with whom he disagrees, particularly if they are women. You could probably find people who regularly attended Sydney Uni SRC meetings chaired by Ramjan who'd deny that Abbott ever addressed her as "Chairthing" (if Sheridan was an investigative journalist, rather than one whose only forays into investigative journalism involve a feed and claret on Rupert's coin, he'd be on that case now).
Look at the way Gillard and Roxon ran rings around him as his shadow minister, and how they make him mope and snarl today, how he doesn't respect them enough to engage with them.
If you've been in and around politics a while you have seen crises come and go, and you develop a bit of a hide to get you through and realise that even big-seeming crises can pass without a ripple. The trouble is that after a while, you can't tell when things have built up slowly to the point where "just another straw in the wind" is the one that ends up breaking the camel's back. Howard ended up like that in 2007. Abbott may be approaching that point.
Andrew Peacock and Kim Beazley Jr spent their careers as Tomorrow's Man, until one day they woke as Yesterday's Man, without ever having the days as The Man that Fraser, Hawke and others had. Tony Abbott is headed that way. If the government dusts off this campaign from 2004, hoisting him by the petard that finished his brother-from-another-mother Latham, Abbott won't make it to the next election as leader. The Liberals will dump him as leader not because of any abhorrence of violence against women, but because he's becoming an impediment rather than a facilitator and leader of a Coalition Government.
Dennis Shanahan became a laughing stock throughout 2007, predicting that Howard would turn those bad polls around; like a longer-form version of watching a man fall from a plane, Shanahan was predicting that the parachute would open any moment now, any moment; when Howard bit the dust Shanahan alone could not believe it, and he has stumbled through Canberra incredulously ever since. With Shanahan still there, and Christopher Pearson and Sheridan and a few others, The Australian has more than its fair share of staff who look like being surplus to requirements once it becomes clear that there ain't gonna be an Abbott Government.
It's one thing to watch Abbott at a stunt for journalists, who lap up whatever he dishes out; but when people flinch when he waddles toward them in what Abbott and the press regard as a marginal seat (but which locals regard simply as their community) it will be all over.
It's the cover-ups that get me: the petty vandalism here, the offences not recorded and written off as youthful hi-jinks there. When he became a man he should have put away such childish things, but over time the protection of Abbott from consequences that have put him in the position where he simply can't be trusted with important stuff.
The let-Tony-be-Tony crowd have done him no favours, and those that remain inside his bunker must realise they are doing the party and the country no favours either. It must be like Howard's office in 2007 (the old stagers from those days have no excuse not to know what political death smells like) - except it's one thing to go from government to opposition, but where do you go from opposition?
Tony Abbott was never going to be brought down by a single, sharp blow, the way you'd take out a feral boar with a shottie. This is why the who-said-or-did-what-in-1977 will be fruitless for friend and foe alike (even for someone like Sheridan, whose favourite game is zero-sum). What will bring Abbott down is getting stuck in a bog of implausible denials and ill-considered statements and hollow promises; where the daily cycle still spins but no longer fully rinses.
Although he's not finished yet, Abbott has fewer options than his fans imagine. Those who believe Abbott is big enough to shrug off difficulties of this degree have never really seen him do so.