Camperdown to Canberra

By Matthew Benns

Image of Parliament House
In this election year, SAM invited federal parliamentarians who went to Sydney to reflect on their student years and how the University shaped their political ambitions. Three Liberal MPs, two ALP and one Independent responded.

When did you decide to follow a career in politics? Was there a moment or incident at university that prompted you to look at this career?

Tony Abbott (Lib)

Image of Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott

People don’t usually decide to ‘have a career in politics’ the way they might decide to have a career in medicine, for instance, because there is no standard path to getting into parliament or other political positions. There’s no university course you can do or accredited training that leads more-or-less automatically to a job in politics.

What normally happens is that people become interested and look for opportunities. In my case, I’d always been interested in politics. I’d run for the SRC at university, had frequently written about politics as a journalist and had been a press secretary to John Hewson when he was opposition leader. But I actually decided to run when I heard, in January 1994, that Michael MacKellar was retiring as Warringah Liberal MP and learned from John Howard that it was a pretty open pre-selection.

Malcolm Turnbull (Lib)

I always had an interest in running for parliament, from when I was a schoolboy in fact, but it wasn’t a burning, monomaniacal ambition to the exclusion of all others.

Bronwyn Bishop (Lib)

I actually decided to go into politics when I was 16, at school and studying contemporary European history. It showed me that individuals can make a difference for good or for evil. Hitler was a clear example of evil and Churchill a force for good. I also thought that people seem to fall into one of two groups, those who make decisions and those who have decisions made for them. I wanted to be one of the decision makers and I knew in Australia, even in the late 1950s, it was possible. From that I thought that if I wanted to write laws I had better understand them so I decided to study law.

Greg Combet (ALP)

My interest in politics goes back to my childhood – from family values, political discussion at home and events of the times, especially the Vietnam War and the period of the Whitlam Government. I was not particularly active in student politics but was a member of ‘Left Action’ at Sydney Uni. I have been a political activist for most of my working life, including many years as a union official.

Andrew Leigh (ALP)

I’ve always been interested in politics. My father taught in the University of Sydney Government Department from 1970 to 1996, so political discussions were a staple of dinnertime conversations. Indeed, he was a visiting fellow at the Parliamentary Library for a semester, so we got a regular subscription to Hansard. I remember enjoying reading the transcript of Question Time, and can still recite good chunks of Keating’s “because I want to do you slowly” response to Hewson’s question about why he wouldn’t call an early election.

Rob Oakeshott (Ind)

I decided on political life after I had left university, around the age of 24 when I started working for an MP. Many incidents in life contribute to any political thinking, but one milestone moment from my university days was the way the Reverend Dr Peter Cameron was treated by the Presbyterian Church for his sermons at St Andrews College when I was a student. He was a lovely man, with a big heart, and had the strong support of the student body. Unfortunately, he was put through the mincer by the church at the time, and many, including a younger me, felt it was very unfair. Before he headed back to Scotland, he said to me: “If I taught you nothing other than to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of consequences, then it has been worthwhile”. That has always stuck with me.

Were you involved in any student political groups? If so, did it prepare you for what was to come?

Abbott Yes, the SU Democratic Club and the SU Liberal Club. Obviously, the experience of student politics is a good if necessarily imperfect and partial introduction to politics more generally. I think I always sensed that there was a certain amount of game-playing and pose-striking in student politics which national politics should never have because the issues are so serious.

Turnbull Student politics is much more venomous than parliamentary politics. After all, the stakes are so low.

Image of Bronwyn Bishop

Bronwyn Bishop

Bishop I didn’t get involved in politics at university, I was involved in the Young Liberals at Killara. I went on to become the vice president because back then they still had the blokes as president. Instead at university I became involved in the Sydney University Drama Society, mostly because our campus was on Phillip Street, away from the University, and I wanted some participation in university life.

I am not sure how it helped my political life but it did allow me to appear as a lawyer in a Channel Nine television series. I did the pilot for them and they asked me to star in the show. I stopped for a while when I was pregnant with Angela and the repeats ran for long enough that she was still able to watch it on TV.

Combet See previous answer. My experience as a political activist was outside university.

Leigh I was heavily involved with the Labor students club, and with Young Labor. In the 1995 NSW election, I ran as the Labor candidate for the seat of Northcott. My opponent was Barry O’Farrell, who was also in his first race. I think we were both happy with the result. I got an 8 percent swing, and he won by a margin of 24 percent. On campus, I ran in 1992 for Honi Soit (successfully) and the SRC (unsuccessfully), and participated in a plethora of clubs, from debating to rockclimbing.

Oakeshott No, I wasn’t formally active in student politics on campus. I was at St Andrews College. Enough said … (sorry fellow phantoms … )

How did politics at university help shape your current political stance?

Abbott I’m not sure that it shaped my values or beliefs although, inevitably, in the cut and thrust of argument these are refined. As a conservative, student politics was an education in learning how to make a case to an often hostile audience.

Turnbull It didn’t really, I found both the left and the extreme right at university pretty off putting. My natural home was in the sensible, liberal centre.

Bishop I think at university we were among a group of pioneering young women. The fact that there were so few girls in our faculty allowed us to develop friendships and connections that may not happen today. The dynamics were different and the girls who were there were very achievement orientated and went on to do really good things.

"My most important experience was studying political economy, economic history and neoclassical economics. Ted Wheelwright and Frank Stilwell … had an immense influence on my thinking" – Greg Combet

Politically, I enjoyed the Young Liberals because I wanted to be involved in the party. Back then few women had gone to Federal Parliament and none from NSW. I became the first female elected senator from NSW, the first female from NSW to move from the Senate to the House of Representatives. I became the first woman for the Liberal Party from NSW to enter the House and the first female from the NSW Liberal Party to become a minister. I am the only woman to have been a senator, a member and a minister and I was the first female president of the Liberal Party in NSW.

Image of Andrew Leigh

Andrew Leigh

Combet The most important experience for me at Sydney Uni was through studying political economy, economic history and neoclassical economics. I was very privileged to learn from Ted Wheelwright, Frank Stilwell and others. They had an immense influence on my thinking and development, and I am deeply indebted to them for the opportunities they helped create in my working life. Studying political economy provided a theoretical framework that complemented my values and commitment to social justice.

Leigh My political ideas were probably shaped later in life, but I learned a great deal about writing (particularly through Honi) and speaking (particularly through debating).

Oakeshott Most of my old mates from university want to put me in a headlock on a lot of my policy or political positions, so in hindsight, I guess hanging out with them in my early 20s didn’t impact on my political thinking much at all. And if you knew them, you would understand why.

Did you cross swords with any of your current political rivals at university? If so, can you tell us about that and who came out on top?

Abbott Not really. It was more a question of teaming up with future allies like Peter Costello, Eric Abetz, Michael Kroger and Michael Yabsley.

Turnbull Not that I can recall. Student politicians in the parliament, like Hockey, Abbott and Albanese, were all a bit behind me.

Bishop We all knew each other very well in the Law Faculty. I knew people from both sides of politics – Michael Kirby, John Howard, Phillip Ruddock, David Bennett, Paul Lander, Frank Walker, Maggie O’Toole, Kevin McCann. We had some fairly interesting discussions, particularly downstairs in the coffee shop under the Law School where we would sit around and talk.

Combet None. I knew of Tony Abbott by reputation.

Leigh I find it strange to hear about people who had terrible fights at the University of Sydney, because all the people I coincided with are folks I’d regard as friends. I feel lucky to have had the chance to edit Honi Soit with a team that included Lucy Burgmann and Verity Firth, to debate with Adam Spencer and Michael Fullilove, to act in the Sydney Law Revue with the Chaser lads.

Oakeshot From memory, no, I didn’t cross swords with anyone who is now in politics with me. I have found I deal a lot with friends from university who are now lobbying for things, and that is always pretty funny. Often you just know too much about someone to keep a straight face in what should be a serious conversation.

What is your fondest/funniest memory of university?

Abbott Fondest memory: the comradeship. For instance, 33 years after the 1979 SU rugby tour to the United States, we still have an annual reunion just before Christmas.

Turnbull Winning the Henry Lawson Prize for Poetry with a truly terrible piece of bush doggerel that I had written one afternoon for a Union Night speech. My mother, who had also won that prize years before for a verse play, was horrified that standards had slipped so far, and I thought that was quite funny.

Bishop There are so many. We used to organise a lot of fundraisers for charity and I remember that we organised one at the South Korean Embassy but printed the tickets in red. It caused a bit of a problem and we had to have them reprinted. Then I had scales of justice welded in metal for the Law Ball at the Trocadero – unfortunately they were slightly tilted which didn’t matter in the end because they were nicked anyway.

We were so lucky with the lecturers. They used to take the roll before the lecture and the rule was that if you didn’t turn up you would be marked off. Barrister Tony Mason lectured in equity and was taking the roll one day when he read out someone’s name, only to be greeted by deafening silence. Eventually he asked: “Does this man have no friends?”

"I really did enjoy my university days and regard them as some of the fondest of my life. " – Rob Oakeshott

Combet Here’s an insight into me – I loved economic history and that was the best experience for me.

Leigh At the end of 1992, a team of us got together at Sydney University to run for the student newspaper, Honi Soit, under the name ‘The Naked Truth’. By day we sang our campaign song to bemused classes, removing much of our clothing to reinforce the team name. By night we put up posters and chalked ‘The Naked Truth’ around the campus. One of our team, Verity Firth, even brought along her younger brother Charles to help out. A class of medical students promised to vote for us en bloc if a member of the Naked Truth team would streak through their lecture hall. One of us obliged.

In my year as a student journalist, I interviewed Andrew Denton, Henri Szeps and Dorothy McRae-McMahon, went inside Long Bay jail and a submarine, spoke to a magician, a monk and a basketball commentator, and wrote about child sponsorship, biblical literalism and virtual reality machines. I also reviewed a handful of sports cars, making me (I hope) the only motoring writer in the history of student journalism. When the 1993 election came around, I managed to get Keating and Hewson to answer 20 questions apiece.

Image of Rob Oakeshott

Rob Oakeshott

Oakeshott Everything! I really did enjoy my university days and regard them as some of the fondest of my life. I still have lifelong friends, secret scars on my body that make me smile when I see them, and happy memories of Cordobies pizzas, local pubs, formals and informals, inter-college and inter-university sport, and just the whole size thing of Sydney University.

A massive university campus with thousands of beautiful and interesting people, and all the human interaction – good and bad – that goes with that. They were golden days.

How do you feel university helped or hindered you in your political career?

Abbott See answers to questions 3 and 4.

Turnbull Well without my time at the University I couldn’t have practised law which was a most important part of my career. At university I studied government too and wrote quite a bit about the politics of NSW in the 1920s and ’30s which was very interesting because two of the leading figures, Jack Lang and Bill McKell, were still alive and I interviewed both of them.

Bishop It was very important to my political career. It taught me how to look at both sides of an argument, to assemble and properly argue a case, to utilise case law and to read legislation.

Combet See previous.

Leigh Sydney University was a great chance to learn to speak and write. Looking back, I feel fortunate to have been an undergraduate in the political atmosphere of the Keating Government (I was at Sydney Uni from 1991 to 1996), when topics of reconciliation, economic reform and engagement with Asia were at the fore. It was probably also a strength that fewer students had full-time paid jobs then than is now the case.

Oakeshott This is probably not the right thing to say, but I found the social side of university life so engaging that it was this more than anything that kept me coming back, and therefore it was this social side that kept me engaged in learning and completing a degree, often despite myself. I had the sort of personality that could have seen me drop out of university but the whole fun-park of university life kept me engaged in learning, and this was then invaluable knowledge later on when I finally decided I better get serious about life.

Are you still in touch with the friends you made at university? How important have the contacts you made at university been in later life?

Abbott Yes. Over summer I was on holidays on the South Coast with friends from school and university and their families. The people you have shared formative experiences with tend to be those with whom you have the closest bonds. They’re the people you get on with because of the person you are rather than the job you do.

Turnbull Yes, a number of my very best male friends were at university with me.

Bishop We recently had our reunion, which comes every five years, and we had 60 people turn up. They are still real friends, I bump into them all over the place and you immediately pick up as if the years have not passed by at all. (Note: I took a straight law degree at Sydney University which lasted for five years. In my fifth year I got engaged to (and subsequently married) Alan Bishop and did not finish my degree. I had three subjects to complete to be admitted so rather than take the whole year again I gained my professional qualification through the Solicitors’ Admission Board.)

Combet Yes, sometimes, and when I see anyone from that time it gives me great pleasure.

Leigh I have remained close with some, and enjoy reminiscing with others when our paths cross.

Oakeshott I do stay in touch with many people, both personal friends, but also people I only casually knew at the time and now live in the same regional town with them, or work with them in politics. There is some sort of unspoken bond about it all, which is kind of nice.