Tony abbott

If there is one thing Australians can’t stand, it is a cocky bastard.

We have all seen them. In the school yard. In the office. On the sporting field. Someone with that know-all grin, which says you are nothing. I am going to win.

It was only in February that Tony Abbott warned his party room against hubris. Turns out he should have warned his office instead.

For it seems there is one smug bugger lurking in the Opposition Leader’s office.


The Australian journalist Peter van Onselen (pictured right) revealed on Friday that Tony Abbott’s Director of Policy, Mark Roberts, bailed up the head of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, the former investment banker and lawyer Andrew Penfold at a Qantas party for the big end of town on Thursday night.

The AIEF provides high school scholarships for indigenous kids.

Van Onselen and Penfold were talking when Roberts “stumbled over” to them, made a throat-slitting gesture, and told Penfold he was going to “cut his throat” once “we” are in government. The implication was a cut to the AIEF funding.

Apparently Roberts had a fair bit of truth serum on board, as van Onselen attested.

“I don’t think I’m being in any way unfair if I say he’d had a bit to drink”.

Penfold, according to van Onselen, was flabbergasted. He had not shown any animosity towards Roberts.

The cogs must have been whirling slowly because when it finally dawned on Roberts that a political journo was witness to the conversation, he tracked van Onselen down and warned him to keep his mouth shut.

He told Twitter: “(the staffer) bailed me up & offered to be a source inside TA’s office if I stayed quiet…thanks, but no”.

The event left van Onselen feeling “totally disgusted”, describing the Roberts’ actions as “totally unprofessional”.

It was all the more concerning because this was no cocky kid with too many episodes of  The Thick of It under his belt, but a very senior member of the staff.

Abbott refused to name the staffer on Friday morning. Abbott said “it was totally out of character” and the staffer “denied the phrase” but he had been “counseled”. Roberts has since apologised personally and unreservedly to Penfold.

Andre Penfold
AIEF head Andrew Penfold.

Later that afternoon Abbott made a statement that Roberts’ behaviour was “completely unacceptable” and that he had been demoted from his role as Director of Policy.

Earlier this year, Abbott counseled his Coalition party room against hubris and warned the next election was not a foregone conclusion.

“(Abbott) said we must be confident and optimistic but never arrogant,” a party room spokesman told the press gallery.

“(Abbott said) we need to be strong and measured in our criticism of the government and avoid any personal snideness.”

Abbott was right. Hubris can spell death for a political party and no one knows more about losing the unlosable election than Abbott, who worked for John Hewson when he lost to Paul Keating in 1993.

A long election campaign only increases the chances of these sorts of events. But perhaps the Coalition thinks they are so far ahead in the polls it may not matter.

Let’s hope it is not a hint of things to come.




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Gabrielle Chan*Gabrielle Chan is The Hoopla’s political correspondent. She is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience, having worked most recently as a regular columnist with The Australian. She has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She blogs and you can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellechan.

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