A young Joe Hockey protests against the introduction of university fees

“Give me a child until he is seven,” the old Jesuit saying goes, “and I will give you the man.” But what can we learn from the formative years of those who now stalk the corridors of power? With higher education reforms still the subject of fierce debate in Parliament this week, Crikey looks back at some of the student politicians with the most to say on the ups and downs of university life — and the men they became.

Tony Abbott: What more can be said about Tony Abbott’s turbulent turf wars with the Left during his time at the University of Sydney? Lover, fighter, amateur wrecking ball (unconfirmed) — our PM has come a long way since he led the right-wing Democratic Club to Students’ Representative Council power in 1978. Although Abbott has kept his distance from his alma mater’s most recent controversy surrounding the chair of poetry’s free-verse exploration of contemporary society, an interview from his student days may shed some light on Barry Spurr’s “generous estimate” that only one in 10 students actually belongs at university. The culprits behind these slipping standards? Communists.

“What I am saying is that there are a number of academics of Marxist leanings in the university who are actively working to destroy academic standards,” Abbott told ABC TV in 1979.

“I wouldn’t put a plot co-ordinated from the Kremlin, but there is certainly a general tendency towards destroying academic standards and the impetus is coming from this sort of person.”

Joe Hockey: Gough Whitlam’s dream of free university education for all might have died with him, but it didn’t go down without a fight. And who better to lead the final charge in its defence than 1987 Sydney University SRC president (detecting a trend here?) Joe Hockey, whose stirring spiel in student magazine Honi Soit in support of free tertiary education seems almost as relevant today as it did all those years ago.

“The Liberal Party, which released its education policy two weeks ago, promised to cut back funds to universities and, at the same time, leave the universities to charge whatever fee they wished,” he wrote. “Such a policy is suicidal for student welfare. We will have no effective voice in our own fortune.”

If Hockey’s actions since those glorious days at the barricades seem a little confusing, don’t worry — according to his 1987 presidential report, you can’t believe everything you read in student magazines.

““One wonders whether Honi Soit is a NEWSpaper or a front for political masturbation,” he fumed.

“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.”

Christopher Pyne: Maybe Hockey spoke too soon. Adelaide University’s controversial student magazine On Dit certainly seems happy to give budding statesmen just enough rope to keep them dangling almost 30 years later — as Minister for Education Christopher Pyne found out last month. As an aside, it would seem French is the language par excellence when it comes to student media nomenclature. Contesting a spot on the student association’s standing committee, the first-year law student wasted no time in establishing where he stood on the benefits of a free education.

In his candidate profile — viewable in slightly alarming greyscale here — Pyne wrote that he saw it as his duty to “do everything possible to forestall the introduction of fees and indeed to end any movements by the Federal Government to introduce fees”.

So what changed? Is it as simple as young politicians slamming the door behind them once they’ve squeezed all they can out of a free education? Or is it, as Pyne and Hockey have variously stated, a sign of ideological maturation?

Maybe it’s just as Abbott said all those years ago — standards are slipping everywhere.

Want to see what your favourite politicians were getting up to behind sandstone walls? Check out Crikey‘s list here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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