To a casual observer, it wouldn’t have looked unusual, just a table of presumably gay men at a restaurant in East Sydney, having lunch. A more knowledgeable observer might recognize some of the people at the table: Associate Professor Max Kelly, an historian at Macquarie University and a President of the History Council of NSW; Dr Ian Black, who taught history at the University of NSW and was a close associate of the state Independent MP for the inner-city seat of Bligh, Clover Moore; the writer Gary Dunne, who was also Chair of the Board of the gay weekly Sydney Star Observer; Larry Galbraith, former editor of the gay monthly Campaign and a former editor of Sydney Star Observer; and me at that time Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research at the University of Sydney, and also teaching in the University’s Faculty of Economics.
Also at the table were Christopher Pearson, a former speechwriter for John Howard and former editor of the Adelaide Review, and Tony Abbott.
At that time, Abbott was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. This was clearly before he decided he felt ‘threatened’ by gay men.
The luncheon had come about at the instigation of Christopher Pearson, whom I knew only slightly. I had met him some years before, in a former life, he had dabbled in gay activism himself, and I had some dealings with him when he was editing the Adelaide Review.
He contacted me with an intriguing offer; the Howard government had recently taken office in Canberra, and Christopher said that he and Tony would like to meet some politically-minded gay men in Sydney, to discuss what the Howard government might do for the gay community. Larry had interviewed Abbott several times, on topics of concern to the gay community.
Christopher was a committed trencherman, and suggested that we dine at Otto’s. But the thought of possibly dining in proximity to that "Voice of Valvoline" John Laws, whose haunt Otto’s was, didn’t appeal, so I suggested Beppi’s, also known for its excellent Italian food. So at Beppi’s we ended up.
The meal went well; the food was excellent, the wine was plentiful, the conversation a little strained to start with. There was much to discuss, in terms of discriminatory legislation that should be amended or repealed, and positive steps to be taken - but the time rolled by. Abbott and Pearson were attentive, but not particularly forthcoming. It was at the dessert stage that someone, I can’t remember who, put the question: what was in it for the conservative Coalition?
Apparently Abbott and Pearson had noted, at the previous state election in NSW, the ongoing campaign within the gay community against the ALP and Susan Harben, its candidate in the seat of Bligh, where she was pitted against Clover Moore. Harben had had a high-profile in Sydney’s lesbian and gay communities - she had been President of Mardi Gras - but was a recent convert to the ALP, gaining instant preselection to take on Moore.
I had written a long piece for the Sydney Review, looking at the possible outcomes for the citizens of this important inner-city seat.
Harben had lost convincingly, and Pearson and Abbott wanted to meet with us, to build on this anti-ALP sentiment within a community that had some political and economic clout in Sydney.
There was a stunned and incredulous silence when this was explained to us.
Did Abbott and Pearson have any idea who they were dealing with? We were not some cabal of conservatives - most of the gay men at the table would never have voted for the Coalition; it epitomized everything we abhorred. Most attacks on the gay community came from Coalition people such as state National Party MP Peter Rowland-Smith, who wanted the Mardi Gras parade to be banned from Sydney streets; or Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, Howard’s bovver-boy, who made false accusations under Parliamentary privilege against High Court Justice Michael Kirby; or the National Party’s Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who wanted a book featuring two lesbians and their children to be banned from schools.
Those two so-called political sophisticates - Abbott from the refined wastes of Sydney’s North Shore, and Pearson from Adelaide, the "Athens of the South" had utterly misread the Bligh campaign and what it was about, which was having an independent voice in state Parliament, rather than some hack who would do a party’s bidding. Our anti-ALP stance was for Clover, a long-time gay rights supporter, not for the conservatives.
As might be expected, the meal ended shortly thereafter. We all paid for our food, and Abbott generously offered to pay for the wine. We Sydney gay men wandered off into the afternoon sun, a trifle befuddled perhaps, but much bemused by these blow-ins. We left Abbott and Pearson on the footpath outside Beppi’s, waiting for the ministerial limousine to sweep them off into a Sydney sunset.
It was a very Sydney story.