A four part review of media reception of Greg Sheridan’s book “When we were Young
and Foolish”. (Allen & Unwin 2015)
….by someone who was there before and after….Jefferson lee
THE TURNING POINT…AUS COUNCIL AT MONASH UNI…JANUARY 1977…CHAPTER 7 IN SHERIDAN BOOK
Chapter Seven of Sheridan’s book is the most polemical and “self-serving” of all. To believe Sheridan’s reductionist critique that the January 1977 Monash University national conference of AUS was “a couple of hundred leftie lunatics” shows how little he knew. His colourful slurs of AUS conference delegates, depending on his audience, involves constant references to drug addicts and violent thugs while he never names any individual because that would expose himself to rebuttal or even legal action.
Students were drawn from over seventy campuses across Australia. The political spectrum at such conferences was very diverse. From Christians like his own Peter Costello who headed the Monash Uni delegation, to political Lefties, to ALP types like lawyer David Patch from Sydney Uni, to Liberals, to single issue people like the Zionist lobby, the food co-op activists from Warrnambool CAE, to some student delegates who saw themselves as “non-political” and voted on the many issues as they came up. The range of issues covered all aspects of education reform, travel and health benefits for students, and yes, debate on national and international affairs. The Sheridan-Abbott NCC camp had their representatives at the conference like Anne McCosker from Newcastle Uni, but they were clearly in a minority. Hence the attempt to blacken the names of others with political name-calling and sloganeering.
Let’s put a personal face on some of those on the receiving end of the Sheridan book’s shibboleths! Laurie Bebbington who in previous years was the national AUS Women’s Officer, in 1977 was elected as Treasurer, (Finance Committee Chairperson or FCC). Sheridan would have stereotyped her in 1977 as a leading “lunatic lesbian”. He would now retrospectively smear her and others with the “all men are rapists from the age of seven” book quotation, (note: it was a comment or argument made in debate at a week long conference, a comment that very few took seriously). Post AUS, Bebbington became the chief researcher for Senator Gareth Evans on Constitutional Reform in 1979. Laurie’s outspoken lesbian co-activist at the AUS Council, Margie Lyons, moved to Sydney, was an activist in the Rozelle Branch of the ALP, and has been a lawyer in charge of property matters at Leichhardt Municipal Council for two decades or more. My recollection of their feminist politics at the time says they were focused on establishing the Melbourne Working Women’s Centre, funding for rape crisis centres, domestic violence refuges and supporting female uni staff and students in Tasmania Uni who were being discriminated against over their gender. Sure there was the issues of “lesbian visibility” and “sexism” but the Sheridan quip in his book is designed to besmirch, entertain and belittle. Wink! Wink! eh Greg? I received an email from an observer of the Adelaide Uni 1977 delegation this week reminding me that from his seat at the table as a member of the Sydney Uni delegation Tony Abbott constantly interjected “absolute rubbish” all through the Women’s Affairs debates on rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence, to the point that the Chair had to warn him of possible ejection from the conference hall for unruly behaviour.
The AUS Conference did make a near unanimous decision to ban the mainstream media as Sheridan notes. It was common practice for many trade union annual conferences including his beloved SDU and FCU grouper unions? It was not a decision I personally supported. It was not a conspiracy to hide ‘dirty laundry’ as Sheridan implies. It was argued these axe-wielding pen pushers who would inevitably take all conference debate out of context, (just like Sheridan’s “all men are rapists from the age of seven” line). They could not be excluded without excluding all mainstream journalists. The AUS Council decision then was supported because certain mainstream journalists were “campaigning”, rather than reporting the Union’s affairs. Through their own contacts with individual conservative student politicos their was a media attempt to push particular policies onto the AUS Council agenda and influence student decisions prior to the Conference without any reply offered to AUS office-bearers. One Age journalist was obsessed with constantly smearing and ‘red-bating’ so-called “Maoist students”. In one ridiculous article he argued the comical “Blinky Bill Brigade” responsible for “cream puffing” of Mickey Mouse during the Annual Melbourne Moomba Parade were a “Maoist terrorist plot” rather than striking a blow for Australian cultural independence as we saw it. (Note: the Melbourne establishment had made “Mickey” the 1977 “King of Moomba” to suck up to the local American Chamber of Commerce). Such was the level of student cynicism of the mainstream media by the student body as a whole, even back then. The rapid promotion of Abbott and Sheridan into the suckling ‘bosoms’ of Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer to begin their so-called careers in journalism by polemical scribbling at the end of the AUS Conference indicates exactly the point! The 1977 Conference otherwise was open to all enrolled students and non-student observers, with specific leave of the Council session as a whole for those in the latter category (e.g. members of the BLF were allowed to observe the debate on the BLF issue and whether AUS should take a stand on a federal intervention in that union because of its potential effect on the NSW BLF state branch’s Green Bans environmental stand).
On the issue of speaking rights at the conference, Sheridan blames wrongly the AUS structure in his book for the fact the Sydney Uni delegation voted and decided speakers ‘by caucus vote’ to deny Abbott his speaking rights at the conference. To the extent that this was “undemocratic” was not the fault of AUS but the fault of Sydney Uni itself. Each campus decided the speaking rights and caucus role of their own delegation it was not a factor controlled by the AUS Council. The AUS Credentials Committee ruled only on whether the individual delegates were elected or appointed in accordance with their individual campus rules and Constitutions. For example, I remember one year at UNSW (1975) we had seven delegates arrive at the AUS Conference claiming the five voting seats. The Credentials Committee had to hear all the evidence and make a decision The fact that Tony Abbott was denied speaking rights by the majority vote of the legally constituted Sydney University delegation in 1977 was unfortunate and undemocratic. But it remained an issue for Sydney University students and their SRC Constitution to sort out, not AUS or its Annual Council. I should note here, as one of five delegates from UNSW in the 1977 Conference, I too was often denied the right to speak on issues I was concerned about. In my case, by more conservative members of my own delegation. Each campus had only one speaker on each issue during AUS Sessions. With over seventy campus delegations how could it be otherwise? Representative democracy always has it’s limitations. As any shop assistant delegate who tried to challenge Joe de Bruyn iron-like grip on the Sheridan-admired SDA union, or John Maynes controlled Clerk’s Union, for the past 20-30 years, representation is never fully democratic, is it? The Sheridan book also neglects to say that all AUS Council policies were subject to “constituent ratification” where the campus bodies as a whole could revisit and reject any policy they did not like.
With each public book launch, speech or interview over the August 2015 launch period, Sheridan strayed even further from the truth than his misleading accounts already on paper in his book. He describes the Monash Uni conference settings as like “a descent into Hades” with people “main-lining (heroin?) all over the place” to draw out laughter in his showman’s role at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival. It is my recollection there was a bit of pot smoking on the perimeters. In the foyer outside, a well-known member of the AUJS lobby, a speed freak, (a UNSW former student who became a con man flogging dodgy life superannuation schemes to academics soon after), was constantly prowling trying to off-load “hash oil” on the unsuspecting undergraduates. But he was not even a conference delegate. (So I wont smear all the AUJS Lobby with the “drug pusher” tag which would be too reminiscent of the Sheridan style of argument). Unfortunately for Sheridan and Abbott the comic era, or ‘hey days’ of annual AUS Council meetings frivolity, in the 1973-75 period at the infamous George Hotel in Fitzroy St, St Kilda had past. Like the Moratoriums of the early 1970’s, all their depictions come from hand-me-down hearsay from an older generation of Conservatives to young Sheridan’s ears. As Peter Craven politely put it in his review in The Weekend Australian Abbott and Sheridan “missed The Revolution” boat. Guy Rundle in The Saturday Paper and Crikey.Com is even less kind to these Seventies late-comers. He claims the shallow shibboleths of their empty political rhetoric today reflects their cushy ride from student politics to national politics where today’s policy and vision vacuum are part-driven by feeling cheated by the Left in their student days. Hence the Howard era clamour to abolish all student unions by these former student Liberal cadres Abbott, Costello, Abetz and Pyne.
To recap, the AUS Conferences pre-Sheridan, to save money had booked the George Hotel, as the cheapest venue with space for over 200 delegates and staff, because half the sleeping rooms upstairs were facing condemnation by local council in the near future and were dirt cheap comparatively. The historic Edwardian period hotel then suffered from creaky floor boards and windows that would not open. There were other conflicts between hotel management and conference delegates. It came to a head when the owner complained about the “this oppresses women” stickers covering the glass display cases at the entrance to the hotel advertising regular strip shows (with g-strings and tassels) that occurred when the conference was in evening recess on another floor of the hotel. Mid 1970’s feminism got the upper hand when a discount to the “evening floor show” was offered to Council delegates in 1975. It was the final straw. The George Hotel was not re-booked and a higher priced residential college at ANU was the 1976 venue.
Early “women’s libber” Germaine Greer ‘Sexual Eunuch’ puritism in the diverse student feminism movement equally came to a head with the Jim Cairns-inspired ‘Down To Earth” counter-cultural sexual freedom and nude love-ins from Nimbin (1973) to Cotter River (1976). In the 1976 AUS Conference, the President of the (James Cook) Townsville University of North Queensland was rumoured to be jumping out of a huge cake to celebrate her birthday at the annual conference dinner. Furious feminists and ‘politically correct’ Trotskyist male supporters passed urgent motions banning her from her theatrical act during the afternoon conference session. Free-spirited “Cyclone Julie” defied them. When the brightly painted cardboard and masonite “cake” was rolled into the dinner room “Cylone Julie” stripped off and jumped INTO the cake, screaming “You’re all a bunch of hypocrites (on sexual freedom)!”as she stepped out again. No doubt Greg would have joined all the politically sensitive Trokskyist men who shouted out “That’s Sexist” from the back of the room at the sight of the naked and rapacious Julie! Or would this have been acting in solidarity with the “All Men Are Rapists” lobby? Yes Greg, the world was more opaque than your ‘black and white’ Bulletin “scoop”? Hardly a scene from “Dante’s Inferno” that Sheridan rants about in his ‘Did-I-miss-the boat-or-not’ postscript of the subsequent year on at Monash Uni.
The late Franz Timmerman, was one of Sheridan’s standard “Trots” from the AUS hierarchy. Before he died he worked extensively in the ALP in Victoria, worked on the Victorian ALP Foreign Affairs Committee for over thirty years putting a counter-position to Zionist MP Michael Danby. Franz worked in publishing and when he retired ran a bookshop in Katoomba and co-edited a book on the future of money as a means of exchange in response to the 2008 global crash, amongst many other publications. The late Neil McLean, leader of the “Maoists” that Sheridan derides so vehemently, was formerly dux of the Law School at Melbourne University in 1973, a popular President of their SRC and was re-elected for a second term, then became President of AUS in 1975. He went on to rise to the top position of the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics (ABS), Melbourne office. At his funeral to a packed Northcote Town Hall some three years ago, many high up former public servant colleagues praised his brilliant contribution to reform of the data collection and interpretation methods of the ABS. All knew he had deeply held Marxist beliefs, many present may have disagreed, but all were effusive on his loyalty to his job and the benefits it brought to Australian welfare and social reforms. Anyone who knew him would say McLean, the gentleman, would have made a better Prime Minister than Abbott. But Neil was not prepared to play the game, sell out his principles, and join the parliamentary circus. Nor would it be hard to surpass the “worst PM we have ever had”!
In the fateful Monash Uni 1977 Conference debates, this “Trot” (Franz Timmerman), lined up with the so-called “Maoists” ( Neil McLean and others), to force a key debate on the future of the AUS Travel Company. This issue developed into one of the biggest debates of the Conference and directly concerned AUS leadership reform. It eventually led to the downfall of the Union which from a distance Sheridan now claims as a consequence of NCC campaigning when it wasn’t. AUS Travel was the immediate point of most contact with its 250,000 members that AUS had. Because of that the Union stood or fell on the fortunes of its Travel Company. The Left argued that AUS should not be financially dependent on a travel company for its political and financial survival. The travel generated revenue for the union via bulk student holiday booking of Charter flights when that involved compromising the union’s moral policy. Specifically, the AUS Services General Manager and former 1972 President (Gregor McCauley) had received a $30,000 gold encased suitcase as a gift from Thai Airways which was owned by the Thai Military. The same Thai Generals who had conducted a military coup just months before (October 1976) with a massacre of hundreds of Thai students at Thammasat University. The ethics of AUS Travel being so cosy with a bunch of Thai General thugs flew in the face of AUS human rights policy. The issue was making money in conjunction with mass murderers when the AUS Council policy was to support the Thai Student Democracy Movement, who had mobilised over 5 million people into the streets of Bangkok over Christmas 1976, to demand the restoration of democracy. As the newly elected Media Officer in 1977, I was directed by the AUS Council decision to give coverage to this issue in the national student paper called ‘National U’.
In the second edition of the paper that year I attempted to run an article debating this issue submitted by Neil McLean. The ALP leaning, but politically moderate President of the AUS, (Peter O’Connor), openly censored the article in front of over a dozen witnesses. As President of the Union he was the publisher of the paper. Where the conflict arose was he wore another hat as the Chair of the Travel Board for AUS. He decided the AUS Travel policy debate ordered by the annual council was not in the financial interests of the travel company. He decided to attempt to censor and inhibit discussion on the issue in the student paper for commercial reasons. At least one of his concerns was that he and other travel board members received free overseas flights to destinations like Bangkok (and Manila) to complete contracts with Thai and Philippines Airways and test out for free hotel stays where students were given discounted accommodation in the future. Others were flown to regional student conferences like to Asia Student Association meetings. These trips for student leaders were regarded by many supporting internal reform of AUS as ‘junkets’ given the leaderships lack of political support for the Asian student unions that were all being suppressed by at best semi-dictator regimes at the time. (The Union had been active in supporting Khoo Ee Liam, H.T.Lee and Hishammudin Rais and other students from persecution under the Malaysian ISA Act at the time) At the very least the (“Maoist” and “Trokskyist”) ‘internal reformers’ felt the union’s representation should not be financed out of a commercially contracted travel budget that was leaving the political side of the AUS union susceptible to outside market forces.
It became known by the following edition of the paper that as editor I objected to the censorship of an important issue of national student debate from the January 1977 Annual Council. In the interim, those who felt their cosy bureaucratic world of free travel and other privileges moved against me as Media Officer with a deliberate campaign of falsification, linking me to incidents and beat-ups over which I had little or no control. In one instance I was blamed for some homophobic comments made by some fourteen year old school boys who were brief visitors to the building and under the supervision of their teacher and not me. After their unfortunate comments I asked them to leave the building and apologized to the offended parties. That should have been that. There was no “violence” or “intimidation” just verbal disgust from sexually immature 14 year old school boys exposed to two men kissing provocatively in front of them in the media office during the sensitive time-frame of editor-publisher negotiations over deletions the publisher was insisting from the editor’s lay out sheets! My political opponents turned it into a national campus smear campaign. On a separate occasion, some weeks later, while I was vesting Adelaide in conference with fellow student editor Nick Xenophon. According to the media coverage I was accused of “threatening the President with a knife” back in my Melbourne office at precisely the same time! Even for me it was hard to be in two cities a thousand kilometres apart at the same time. Apparently in my absence The President entered my Melbourne office and made an unauthorised attempt, (accompanied by six of his followers from outside the AUS national office), to take over production of the next edition of ‘National U’ from my paid Assistant Editor Michael Spencer. ( Note Spencer went on to work for commercial television as a news reporter, became the Premier’s media minder and then worked for BHP). There was never any knife. Someone had left a three inch long ice-pick, the size and shape of a small screwdriver, in my office on the lay out table as a joke. It was still unopened in its hard plastic wrapper and cardboard package. It was referred to in jest during the attempted take over of the paper by the President and his henchmen. The story was then leaked to the mainstream media as a knife attack when there had been no such thing. It was a verbal prank at worst. It became another arrow in the media “violence and intimidation” archery game against the principled reformers of AUS in 1977.
No wonder these incidents were written up in the mainstream media as a “Maoist-Trotskyist internal leadership” wrangle within the National AUS student head office? As stated, it was nothing of the sort. It was a serious debate over policy direction that had been initiated some years earlier by Neil McLean when he was the incumbent President of the union. (Other supporters of reform at the time were former Vietnam Veteran Ralph Bleechmore, then from Adelaide Uni and a former distinguished office holder within AUS. Bleechmore according to recent media reports is now a lawyer investigating the iniquitous anti-terror laws imposed by the Liberal Government to stop Australians volunteering to fight IS in Iraq and Syria and is touring Kurdistan Iraq and Syria to see for himself). In 1977 it was a serious internal struggle between those who wish to democratise the leadership of the union and make it more responsive to student needs and policy and those who wished to protect their in-grown privileges behind the veneer of incumbency. The only episode of physical protest during my whole seven months in office was when a volunteer lay out staff member of ‘National U’ became outraged that the paper still did not have access to the bromide room after three requests for the key and an extended debate at the Monthly AUS Executive meeting. He kicked the bromide room door in, and then spray-painted it with “Smash the Bureaucrats in AUS”. This was because the leadership would not allow the elected full time Media Officer access to essential technology to bromide photos for the paper. A right that had been given in all previous years! The person in question was the Overseas Service Director who was fed up and frustrated as he was facing the same ‘bureaucratic inertia’ in his office. He had been humiliated by continuous Anglo-racism as the same people denying me access were refusing to hand over his wages cheque for six months until he toed their political line. (Note his wages were paid out of a cheque to the union from Canberra’s AUSAID. It was specially ear-marked to assist the National Overseas Student Service [NOSS] to help them meet the needs of some 50,000 overseas students in Australia who also paid AUS fees of $2.50 a year as enrolled students. The following year, the overseas student leadership in Australia had had enough of the black-mailing and patronage from the AUS white student so-called ‘Lefties’, and followed the path of their Aboriginal dark-skinned brothers and sisters from NATSISU, and broke away to form their own National Overseas Students Council of Australia [NOSCA] ). (The racist attacks even extended to ripping the phone out from the Democratic Republic of East Timor (DRET) Information Office inside Drummond Street when Chris Santos was being detained at the airport for deportation by the anti-Fretilin Fraser Government. This was when Santos was engaged in vital UN talks over East Timor with Jose Ramos-Horta in New York following the release of the James Dunn report into massacres. Once released from Tullamarine Airport Santos had to use my phone for a month when the bureaucrats refused to re-install his line. Over budget!).
The AUS Executive moved to sack me personally from my Media Officer position at the May 1975 monthly meeting with a “violence and intimidation” tag without any evidence against me or even allowing me to even speak against the motion in my own defence. The President fed his distorted version of events (anti-homosexual school boy slur, damage to the bromide room door, the unpacked ice-pick on the editor’s lay out desk) to a senior journalist of The National Times (Robert Milliken) who ran a double page spread linking my office with the industrial issues of the Builders Labourers Federation. There was no mention of the censorship of the ‘National U’ over the Travel Company debate, nor of the weak leadership of AUS who were refusing to mobilise the student body to challenge the ASLF legal injunctions restraining AUS expenditure on national policy items like the anti-nuke campaign and anti-racism campaign. On this issue the AUS leadership hid behind their (kept) conservative lawyer (Bruce Curl) who advised them that the courts should rule, and not students themselves, on whether students had a right to campaign against nuclear war, uranium mining at Jabiluka and Ranger and anti-racism campaigns initiated by Aboriginal students like Gary Foly and National Aboriginal and Torres Straits Indigenous Student’s Union (NATSISU).
The leadership degenerated to the point of attempting to buy off the Zionist AUJS student camp by linking my editorship to external political events related to the Middle East debate (e.g. Melbourne’s community radio.3CR and its wrangle with the Zionists ‘Paths to Peace’ group’s threatened legal censorship), the Builders Labourers disputes, and whatever else they thought would make me and my support base in the ‘Students for Australian Independence’ look bad in the eyes of the general student body. The two biggest support groups I had at the time were Gary Foley and NATSISU and the Overseas Students Service (OSS). The leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, with links within the AUS bureaucracy, were still smarting from my defeat of their Diane Auburn- SWP (Macquarie Uni) ticket for National U editorship at the January 1977 AUS Annual Council. This organisation sought revenge and produced a flawed, opportunist and dishonest four page mass circulation run-on from their weekly Direct Action newspaper entitled “Why Jefferson Lee must be sacked”.
I choose to confine my response to the internal organs of the AUS as a student issue to be decided by students. My opponents decided to feed the mainstream media and give credence to the miniscule Zionist and NCC paid lobbyist claims that it was a “Maoist-Trotskyist internal brawl” over spoils of leadership. Interestingly, leading Trotskyist SWP members like Franz Timmerman distanced themselves from this smear campaign. Timmerman retrospectively justified my politically principled stance, at the conclusion of the campus debate on my attempted removal from office, held in conjunction with the ‘general spill’ motion which declared all national positions open. This occurred at the AUS September 1977 ‘Interim’ National AUS Conference at International House Sydney University where he co-produced an eight page policy position paper, with David Spratt, exposing the feather-bedding within the Travel Company of the anti-Reformers within the leadership and their attempts to censor the National U debate on the issue.
The issue of the “student house divided” between ‘pro-reformers’ and ”status quo liners’, those entrenched in the bureaucracy, had escalated to the point where a campus initiated “general spill” motion to declare all full-time positions within the Union leadership open for re-election followed on the heels of the motion to declare my position vacant. It was moved by two ‘reformer’ led campuses WA Institute of Technology and the Uni of NSW in late June 1977. This is a crucial point that Sheridan ignores when he tries to attribute credit for the downfall of AUS to his small coterie of DLP-NCC activists. While AUS and the student body as a whole were attempting to reform from within, including a serious consideration of the Peter Costello “direct elections” model being proposed from the Monash Uni student body. Meanwhile Abbott, Sheridan and Michael Danby’s Australian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) and Robert Clark, Michael Kroger, Michael O’Farrell and Michael Yabsley’s equally bank-rolled Australian Student Liberal Federation( ASLF), were ‘having their cake and eating it’. By this I mean they were voting within the AUS structure for “Reform” while simultaneously and undemocratically white-anting the union with individual legal court challenges and injunctions in every state in order to deny local campuses their right to pay their pro rata AUS $2.50 affiliation fee even if the student bodies on that campus had given overwhelming endorsement to remain within the national body. The aim was to use the courts to give local campuses no option but disaffiliation from the national body. Even there the bureaucrats twisted the truth. The two campuses (with affiliation fees suspended because of court injunctions) who had voted for me to retain my position were deemed “uncountable” by the Returning Officer of the AUS Referendum. The two campuses in a similar unpaid position that voted for my removal were “counted in”. The margin of the vote was so close that these rulings tipped the final vote against my retention of office.
These undemocratic and politically-motivated legal challenges to AUS affiliation rights by campuses were bank-rolled by the Liberal Party Fraser Government itself through the party structure. Individual Liberal students on five separate major campuses in three states launched Supreme Court injunctions to declare their own campus Student Union or SRC was acting “ultra vires” (beyond the law) by spending constituent money of any amount on social or political causes. They successfully attempted to get conservative judges to make narrow readings on student constitutions to argue the “welfare” of students meant they had no collective right to act in solidarity or support financially any issue beyond the immediate benefit of students to help other oppressed groups in society. Hence student campaigns to support anti-nuclear campaigns or Aboriginal rights or forest protection were ruled unconstitutional, not by the student autonomous body itself but by a gaggle of geriatric male judges who had been given their riding orders by the powers that be in Canberra and elsewhere. (Sheridan’s confession in his book that then Liberal PM Fraser agreed to meet him over NCC campaigning in the student arena should be read in this light).
In short, the leadership of the AUS dug their own graves here by betraying the series of militant student campus occupations in the early and mid 1970s, from Flinders, to Macquarie to UNSW over the fundamental issues of student control of student affairs and the exposure of the CIA connected Vice Chancellor’s of Russell at Flinders and Webb at Macquarie and the insidious ‘Opus Dei’ at UNSW! The AUS leadership imploded by accepting their conservative solicitor (Bruce Curl) advising them not to breach any “ultra vires” judgements where a court ruled giving a pittance like fifty dollars to an environmental campaign was “beyond the powers” of the individual student constitution. Hiding behind the same acquiescent lawyer’s opinion the AUS President attempted to withdraw the fourth issue of National U from circulation because it contained a page two editorial calling on AUS internal reform under the heading of “Smash The Bureaucrats in AUS” with a picture of the bromide room door to illustrate the bureaucrats petty use of power. It would have been too obvious to stop the paper over that, so the lawyer was instructed to object to the back page republishing of a story from the previous year, (when the bureaucrats had control of the newspaper) which highlighted Michael Danby’s role in advising the Commonwealth Police in 1976 that Palestinian student Eddie Zannaneri was a “PLO terrorist” and should not be allowed to immigrate to Australia and enrol in Law at Melbourne University.
The real turning point in the AUS debate that year came when Malcolm Fraser as Liberal Prime Minister intervened politically and attacked AUS through what it’s leadership thought to be its ‘pot of gold’, but in reality, its ‘weakest link’, namely the AUS Travel Company. Fraser secretly directed Sir Lennox Hewitt (then Head of Qantas) shut down short term credit extended to AUS Travel by the larger Qantas and call up its outstanding debts. Qantas knew well that AUS Travel had enough assets to meet all its creditors. But it also knew AUS Travel could not meet its 30 day invoice bills at that time of the year (July 1977) because the discounted student cash pre-payments for planned Xmas 1977 holiday tours were already tied up for the next three months in the Zurich short term money market where McCauley parked the money to earn extra interest on income liquidity for the union’s Travel Company. With 30,000 students stranded overseas or interstate at the tail-end of the mid year break, the AUS travel company at the hands of the Qantas demand for immediate payment went under, and into “provisional liquidation”. In the wash up, by August 1977, a “scheme of arrangement” was imposed by the court, wherein the formerly independently-owned, student-controlled travel company was handed over lock, stock and barrel to the major airline creditors of AUS Travel. It subsequently traded for many years under the misnomer “Student Travel Australia” (STA). Students soon suffered by having to pay much more for the holidays in Bali, Bangkok and elsewhere. What discounts there were STA extended to backpackers and others who weren’t students. The profits no longer went to the student body.
Clearly it was “capitalism” that killed AUS Travel and with it the AUS Union credibility, with a little help from Federal Government’s political interference. In retrospect, clearly Prime Minister Fraser’s ego had been damaged by the 3,000 Monash students who “detained” him for hours in a toilet block at an anti-fees and anti-Whitlam coup protest on Monash Uni campus in 1976, where one of his minders Peter Costello also had to have a police flying-wedge escort to escape the angry crowd. Such was the hatred of Fraser and the Liberals at the time! This must have been a motivating factor for Fraser’s “interfering in the marketplace” with the discrete call to Qantas head Hewitt? The net effect was immediate. With the AUS Travel company gone, following a media blitz of stranded student disaster stories, the AUS hierarchy had no bribes or travel bikkies to hold onto their mass student membership. They had failed to politically educate their membership as to the causes of the travel company collapse and to the anti-student sectarian intentions of the joint NCC-AUJS-ALSF ‘wrecking ball’ spearheaded through the legal courts and backed up by black propaganda on campus smear sheets and through the mainstream media. Their miscalculation was a final betrayal of the ‘Vietnam Generation’ of activists and a mass mobilised politically-conscious student movement from the late Sixties through to the mid-1970s.
The denial of student autonomy and control of their own finances and right to make their own decisions was the pathetic “victory” that Sheridan tries to ride to fame on in his “foolish memoir” with his anti-Communist hysteria! At best a pyrrhic victory that sold out future generations of students and their political independence and education related living conditions! The DLP and Zionists could dance on the AUS grave by 1979. And the politicians knew they now had an open road to push back against the free education days of the Whitlam era university with a less nationally organised student resistance to contend with. Bit by bit, the subsequent Federal Education Ministers moved in for the kill; from the Dawkins era “HECS charge” foot-in-the-door, to full cost Overseas student “visa charges”, to the Post-Grad degree “student levies”, all the way through to the Christopher Pyne “$100,000 a year” (privatisation) cost for undergraduates. All from politicians who benefited from the Whitlam era “free education” policy. It took years to rebuild the national student body.