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Sydneysider: Gavin Gatenby’s personal journey

Tony Abbott isn’t a tough guy, he’s a limp-wristed woos. He stands accused of nasty behaviour at the University of Sydney. First he says he can’t remember, and then, that he can’t remember because it didn’t happen, but the accusations have the ring of truth.

But by the late 1970s when he got to uni, the real rough stuff was long over. It had happened in 1969 and 1970. I know. I was there. Unlike Tony, I’ll own up to it. In fact, I owned up to it at the time.

It all happened in a wild melee on the university’s front lawn on May Day 1969 when the NSW Governor, Sir Roden Cutler, arrived to address an Arts graduation ceremony and was accorded a University Regiment honour guard. Rifles were present, and naked bayonets. Plus the regiment’s colours, a pipe band, and an unsheathed sword. The governor, a tin-legged VC winner, was jostled by left-wing demonstrators and struck – a subsequent inquiry solemnly determined – by one and a half tomatoes.

The “Regiment Affair” as it became known, had been brewing for some time. During Orientation week that year, the regiment had marched along the road outside the Quadrangle building and, because it represented the army, and the army was fighting in Vietnam, the campus left demonstrated against it.

A young woman ran into the ranks and somehow got jabbed in the back with a bayonet.  Blood was drawn, and it was one of my best friends who did it – or who privately boasted he did.

Naturally, the left was spoiling for revenge and it was clear there would be big trouble the next time the regiment ventured onto campus.

Support for the Vietnam War was really faltering by this time. Conscripts were arriving home in body bags. Even though I was a mad-keen part-time soldier in the University Regiment and a member of the ‘Demonstration Platoon’ – a pseudo-commando outfit that acted as the enemy on exercises – I was already, rather quietly, an opponent of the war. It was an odd position to be in, but in those years, the regiment was full of students who were there because service in the Citizen Military Forces got you out of the draft if you opted to serve for five years.

My platoon commander (an ALP Right type) put word around, informally, that the platoon should be present for the ceremony  – in civvies of course – and be ready to protect the august personage of the governor, who apart from being a valorous old soldier, was a former member of the regiment. Oh, and the sacred ‘colours’ were going to be flown. It was said the colours of no British or Australian regiment had touched the ground in battle since, well, the last time, maybe centuries ago, so it must not happen now.

Quite how far up the instruction to defend the governor came from, will never now be known. Perhaps it was felt that the presence of a police guard would be a humiliating admission of the unpopularity of the war.

And things did indeed turn ugly. After inspecting the guard, the governor walked towards the stairs leading up from the lawn and demonstrators pressed in on him from all sides. Some of us in the protection squad linked arms to hold his path open. A prominent lefty, Chris O’Connell, surged towards me. I leaned back on the crowd behind me, planted my foot on his chest and shoved him backwards. He fell into the crowd. Many punches were thrown and everybody went home dry-mouthed and overwrought. The public was officially outraged.

Seven left-wing students were identified and arraigned before the university’s Proctorial Board and I was dragged before it as a token violent counter-demonstrator. At my trial I was generously defended by Jim Spigelman (then SRC president, later Chief Justice of NSW, now ABC Chairman) while the left demonstrated outside. A rock crashed through the big leadlight window.  Ad-libbing, Spigelman assured the proctors the clothes I’d worn indicated I hadn’t intended to be involved in violence … which was hilarious because I’d left home joking that I was wearing my street-fighting gear.

I was acquitted and the seven lefties were found guilty. A few days later, one of them, Haydn Thompson,  (later an ABC producer), bravely knocked on my door. They were rejecting the board’s finding against them. Would I consider joining? I don’t know which of us was more surprised when I said yes. (Haydn, by the way,  has no memory of this).

I publicly denounced my acquittal.  Thus was born the Eight Against the Proctors … and my relentless drift into the activist left.

By Gavin Gatenby