‘And remember: gamble responsibly!’ – yeah right

By Adam Gibson

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My father loved a punt. Every afternoon after primary school in the late 1970s, my brother and I would come home and he’d be perched at a bench in the kitchen, yellow foldout newspaper form guide in front of him, a transistor radio blasting beside him and the landline (remember them?) phone receiver in hand.

As I say in the song ‘On The Punt’ (by my band The Aerial Maps), he’d be regularly repeating his PhoneTAB number down the line to some mysterious operator – “This is 20791900, thank you” – as he placed bets on races being run across Australia. The names echoed in our childhood minds like mythical spaces where Things Happened and whiskery men and floral-dress women did things.

Eagle Farm, Flemington, Dapto, Kalgoorlie, Doomben, Wentworth Park, Rosehill, Broken Hill, Caufield, Morphetville…

This was Australia reduced to a fine essence, the high-pitched voices and razor-sharp accents of the racecallers forming a static-buzzed soundtrack across lino-floor kitchens and the hot leather seats of old primary coloured cars, when TV and movies from the rest of the world took weeks to filter through and small things from Norman Gunston to Auntie Jack seemed to matter.

And there seemed a related smallness to the betting world too – it didn’t seem like big business was involved and it didn’t feel like some grand fleecing of the masses was being played out. Dodgy small-time figures haunted dusty racetracks, a mate of someone’s dad was (allegedly) an SP bookie on the sly and my Dad betted in a few units each way – bets of a dollar or two which came out of the account which he topped up every few weeks and which mum tolerated in complete silence. The rose-coloured lens of nostalgia no doubt casts this world in an innocent light, but it did all seem to have a harmless air about it.

Sure, there’s no doubt that over the years my father lost more than he won and he was bailed out by mates on a couple of occasions when the demon of gambling took hold, but he mostly kept that demon in check and mostly knew his limits.

I shudder to think how Dad would control such a demon in Australia today, however. Turn on the TV, watch any sports show or live telecast, open the newspaper, look online at the most seemingly non-gambling connected site, and you are bombarded with gambling advertisements and inducements.

Betfair, Ladbrokes, SportsBET, TAB Sports, Centrebet, William Hill, UniBet, Bet365, AusBet, Luxbet, several more… It would be an overreach to say the list is “endless” but it’s not too much of an overreach.

It is a near-constant attack; an almost continual bombardment of odds and offers and hearty (mostly chubby, 30-something) men, mostly with beards in order fit the advertisers’ current designated zeitgeist view of “hip”, heartily living it up as they busily make betting the apparent centre of their universe.

The cool guy, the “winner”, is the one who’s just “cashed out on his multi”, who’s just used his perhaps ironically-named “smartphone” to “download the app” and place a bet, who’s sat on the couch and watched the cards fall in his favour (“high five!”). He will perhaps be shown dancing across a crowded bar, perhaps being cheered by his carefully casting-agent-selected “mates”, perhaps happily walking out of a pub with the swagger of a true hero.

And I thought somewhere in the Advertising Standards Board regulations there was a stipulation that ads couldn’t be shown to be “celebrating” gambling? Ah bugger it, who cares, hey? Let em go…

It’s got the stage now that, where once gambling occurred on the vague fringe of society most of the time (aside from the Melbourne Cup), it is now in the prime time centre of our lives. But I won’t say it’s hit “saturation” stage – I am certain they have more in store for us in future. But I feel this normalisation of betting is now reaching a devastating point. Kids are aware of such things as “odds” and they just think it’s part of the games being played and conversation about any sport – from surfing to golf to AFL and everything else – can very quickly move on to betting talk.

Two years ago Rugby League fans blew a collective kerpuffer valve when the weedy Tom Waterhouse appeared regularly before, during and after games on Channel 9 to offer his views on the game and talk about associated odds. He seemed to become a quasi commentator and his integration into the broadcast was just too jarring for the majority. “Who this hell is this twerp!?” essentially was the response.

In quick time, the chorus of disdain against him grew to a crescendo and he soon got the message and disappeared from screen (only, of course, to not long after sell his bookmaking business to UK giant William Hill and become their Australian CEO… Oh how the greased palms deal, hey?).

But during this season just past, mediocre ex first grade footballer Joel Caine, in between juggling his own actual footy commentating duties (no conflict of interest?), appeared with impervious regularity to do pretty much exactly what Waterhouse did – and barely anyone raised a peep. On he’d come, sprouting opinions about the current or upcoming game, attempting to lure us in with bonus offers and cash-back temptations. His footy credentials, such as they were, somehow meant he was okay to do this. There wasn’t a howl of protest. The greater public, it seemed, was now seemingly okay to just sit back and let it come at us. Maybe we’d just been worn down and given in?

And I guess the dam has broken on a wider level too. What was once a marginal activity – betting on general sports which people, ya know, once used to actually play, and maybe, erm, actually watch for the sake of the contest – has become a version of the norm.

You will be watching a gripping contest with friends at the local RSL, coinciding with the Friday night badge draw, and it soon becomes apparent that this mate has a “pick the score” or that mate has a “first try scorer”. Someone will say, “Canberra are paying such and such to beat the Bulldogs”, or “I wanna get on the Roosters to beat the Rabbitohs by 20”. It’s completely normal, nobody bats an eyelid.

Having seen the ill effects of gambling first-hand, it occurs to me that this “normalisation” can only serve to give those for whom gambling is a problem a sense of permission to keep on punting, ensconcing them a warm cocoon of camaraderie and connection. Everyone’s doing it, I’m sweet, it’s no dramas. Further, it almost certainly serves to open up the idea to other previous non-punters, bringing them into the game, so to speak, because, well, everyone does it, hey, it’s just normal.

You can always tell the industries which are awash with cash by the extent of their advertising. Witness insurance companies of all stripes – their advertising budgets are huge simply because they are milking millions off everyone’s self-fulfilling fear that they must be covered. Think of car advertising – you cannot go an ad break on Australian commercial TV without seeing a car ad. Ditto the big supermarket chains. And ditto betting agencies during certain programs. Their relentless advertising spend lays it bare – they are raking it in and they’re getting bigger and bigger all the time.

But the impact both on the sports themselves and the punter is apparently barely considered. The proven incidence of match-fixing is one obvious outcome of such betting, while the bank accounts of punters across the land are being siphoned like petrol out of an HR Holden back in the olden days.

But hang on a sec. Where’s the regulation for this? This seemingly unchecked explosion of betting agencies and associated advertising must be regulated in some ways, mustn’t it?

Well it appears to be … but one look at the Australian Wagering Council’s website probably gives a good indication of the rigour of this regulation. “The AWC is committed to ensuring that all forms of advertising by its members is undertaken in a socially responsible manner and accords with the promotion of responsible gambling and the need to protect the integrity of sport,” the website says.

So there it is … great. They will do a lot of the regulation themselves, thanks. This is no doubt part of the reason why, at the end of each ad or live gambling segment, the puppet presenter says, almost with a knowing smirk on his or her face, “But remember, gamble responsibly!”

I can hear the management of these betting companies laughing their heads off that that seems the extent of their social responsibility. “Hahaaaa, GAMBLE RESPONSIBLY!!! Yeah, good one.”

The thin end of the wedge is being slowly rammed in ever harder. The distinct line between betting, sport and/or entertainment is being ever eroded and I have no doubt that within the next few years we shall be seeing ever increasing integration of betting with general aspects of life. Money doesn’t feel real when it’s just represented by numbers on an iPhone app like points in a game.

But the point is, it is real money going out and it is real lives being affected.

“Gamble responsibly?” Haha, yeah right, good one! Just download the app and get amongst it, you loser.

Then there’s this I love…

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Our mate Sam de Brito

By Adam Gibson

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It’s 3am when it hits. That end-of-the-world feeling. That feeling that everything you’ve done in life isn’t right and that everything you’re going to do henceforth is going to go down the wrong path, for sure. At 3am, on a humid Sydney night; at 3am, on a cold Paris night; at 3am, in Bondi, when the fireworks have not long finished banging and the world is telling you how “good” everything is. And, yet, you feel bereft.

It was on just such a pre-dawn morning about five years ago that just such a feeling swamped me like a groundswell set of waves on my home beach of Bondi. And it was on just such a 3am morning when I frantically searched my phone for someone to call who could, somehow, hopefully, help me through. Brother overseas, wrong time zone. Mother, up the road, don’t want to worry her. Childhood mate, newborn baby, can’t wake him. Who else to call? I scrolled down my phone to “S” … and found the necessary name – “Sambo”.

And so I called Sam de Brito and he answered and we talked. He wasn’t startled I’d rung; we just chatted as if it was any normal call. The problems of the world weren’t solved, nor were the ones in my life. But the fact is, he was there. And in those circumstances, that’s all that ultimately mattered.

I first met Sam when we were copyboys at News Ltd in 1989. We soon gained our journalism cadetships at News Ltd and proceeded to dive into the cut and thrust world of Sydney newspapers of the time. Sam was always a charming figure with a sweep of artfully tossed straight blond hair, sharp suits with pleated pants and narrow leather ties, Sam always having his top shirt button undone so his tie could hang in a decidedly louche fashion.

What was forged in that fire of midnight-to-dawn shifts, of chasing stories across Sydney, of late nights in smoky pubs watching long forgotten bands, was a deep friendship. A friendship based not just on the easy banter of young twentysomething talk of footy and women, but on a deeper level of human engagement. About philosophy and art and the argument about which was the best Pixies record. Sure we talked about footy and women too, but that was always secondary to the search for something. Something more interesting, something more important, something to make life worth it.

About a decade ago, I bumped into Sam at North Bondi, he having emerged from a run and a swim and me heading down to do just the same. I knew he’d been struggling to write the novel that he’d always wanted to write and after many many conversations about it, when he spoke of his struggle on this occasion, I sort of lost it at him.

He was torturing himself with philosophical musings and theoretical positions. So I said, “Mate, just write the bloody thing. Write about us, write about growing up in Bondi, stop over-thinking it.” Within a year his first novel The Lost Boys was published and he always told me, and mentioned in the forward of the book, that it wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t said those words.

But if I could have some modicum of influence on him, he more than made up for it in return throughout later years. As a confidant, as a sounding board, as a mate. It was in these later years that he became a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – a forum that allowed him to reach a far wider range of people and which afforded him both fans and critics alike. The one thing that Sam never shied away from was a good argument and whilst he held strong opinions, they were always informed opinions, based on thought-through ideas and concepts grounded by intensive reading of canonic and popular texts. He was no Google Philosopher – he knew his stuff.

Having strong, well-articulated opinions, and not being afraid to publish them, is, however, like having a target on your head in this era. And Sam wore the shots from many. He was accused of being sexist, misogynistic, arrogant, ignorant; a dumb yobbo and who was “just a stupid bloke”. But anyone who knew him personally knew that such perceptions were in no way the measure of the man. The Twitter heroes and the two-bit intelligentsia knew nothing of the man. And to see him belittled and mocked by some commentators and members of the public who, at a guess, did not have an ounce of the goodness of spirit and intent that Sam had, pissed us, his friends, off no end. He was never malicious and always sought to make the world a better place, as clichéd as it sounds, through his writing.

But I guess that’s the nature of friendship. You feel your friends’ pain when they are feeling pain and you feel their happiness when they are feeling happy. I introduced Sam to the woman who became his partner and the mother of his child and their early happiness, and eventual joy about the raising of their child, was something that as Godfather to that child made me equally joyous.

I can’t write this any more, I have no words, I need some advice on where to turn with the next sentence. But now, today, at 6pm on a lovely Bondi evening, after a storm has just cracked across town with lashing winds and hail, when I would more than likely see Sambo walk past my window on the way to the beach with his beloved daughter Noush, I need to call Sam … and he’s not there at the end of a phone line. Sam died today.

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Thanks for all comments, I will try to respond in time. Much appreciated – Adam Gibbo


Another Bondi shyster

Having lived in Bondi all of my life, you’d think that one such as myself would’ve seen it all in the suburb we affectionately call “Scum Valley”.

All manner of circuses have come and gone from Bondi in my four and a bit decades of living here… And the associated clowns, chancers and freaky tricksters who have emerged over those years form a rich tapestry of knuckleheads eager to stake their claim on the suburb … or, indeed, claim their stake of it.

Which brings me to this bloke …

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Sure, the dodgy developers have gouged and pillaged the suburb for years with construction work which seems to adhere to very loose building codes and subsequent “completed” apartments which look okay for about five Southerly Busters but then fade into peeling paint, seepage cracked eyesores soon thereafter.

That’s okay, we can live with that. Those Muscovite Moguls and/or Hall Street Hellmen know how to turn a buck and we’re used to that. We know their track records and we know their police records.

But this bloke … this bloke has found a whole new level of shyster-ism. He’s bought himself a Toyota Tarago, probably for $80 from some unwashed hippy who advertised on the noticeboard at Noah’s Backpackers, and has taken the initiative to put that fine vehicle on airbnb.com as “for rent”.

Yes, he’s decided that those fold down seats, lumpy as they are, can constitute a “Bed” and he’s further decided that the Tarago in total constitutes a “Room”, and he’s parked said Tarago in Queen Elizabeth Drive … and he’s put two and three together and came up with the amazing result that that Tarago is NOW AVAILABLE FOR RENT FOR THIRTY BUCKS A NIGHT!

Thoughtfully, he’s provided some key tips for potential guests: “This van is parked in a residential neighbourhood and they’ll probably complain if they see you at all. Don’t be seen. Just use the van for sleeping and keeping your belongings. Don’t hang out there playing music or anything. This is known by anyone who’s ever slept in a van in the city before: Residents hate van dwellers and most of them will call the police if they see you. Don’t put towels or bags or anything on the front seats. Beach Town Residents are the least tolerant of van dwellers because they come every year in summer and leave a mess. Keep Australia beautiful.

Good one mate. What a dead set genius.

(PS. I give you two weeks, tops)


She’s crying for her country

By Adam Gibson

After spending a modicum of time in “remote Western Australian Aboriginal communities”, I feel I learnt a small part of the importance for people to be in communities that are at, or close to, their ancestral homes. In their “country”, as the phrase goes.

One small example – in 2007 I was in the community hall of a tiny community on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert when the sound of the mail plane overhead was picked up by Peter, one of the old fellas (I couldn’t hear a thing, by the way).

Peter quietly asked me if I’d drive him out to the airstrip, as one of the old ladies from the community was being flown back in the plane, along with the mail, after months in hospital in Port Hedland.

“Sure,” I said, and off we went, jumping into the Landcruiser and driving two kilometres to the strip in completely non-awkward, pleasant silence.

We arrived there, got out of the Toyota, and waited on the scorching hot windswept desert plain, watching as the plane glinted silver in the sun as it began to descend.

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Whilst waiting, Peter asked where I came from. “The city,” I said, “Sydney.” He paused and thought awhile, then said, “A lot of houses in the city?”

“Heh, yes,” I said.

“Lot of shops?”

“Yes, a lot of shops too.” I then told him that, as we looked out across the plain, if he could imagine houses and shops as far as the eye could see, he’d get an idea of what my home was like.

He thought about that for a good two minutes before softly repeating, almost to himself, “As far as the eye can see hey?”

The plane then arced to the left and aimed down at the pressed red-earth runway. It was an eight-seater, and after hitting the dirt, in no time it was “taxiing” (more like driving, really) over to where we were.

The door swung open and out jumped a smiling crewman, who lowered a small set of steps. He gave us a “G’day” then said, “Righto Doris, let’s get you out.”

Peter jumped up and the pair of them half-lifted old lady Doris out of her seat, and down the steps. I looked at her face and saw her eyes were completely milky blue with cataracts and by her uncertain steps it was clear that she was as good as blind.

But when her feet touched the red dirt of that runway – touched her country again after months away – she felt the land and began to cry, great big tears rolling down her creased old face. I immediately thought she was upset or sad and said to Peter, “What’s wrong? Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she’s okay,” he chuckled, as we led her to the vehicle. “She’s just happy. She’s crying for her country. She knows she’s back home.”

As we drove back to the community, Doris sat in the back seat, tears still flowing down her cheeks but smiling and laughing to herself.

Her tears weren’t about a “lifestyle choice”. Her tears were happy tears for being home.


A memory of Armistice Day, 2007

By Adam Gibson

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November 11, 2007

A fidgety choir of local kids, led by a woman who appears to be their school teacher, is gathered on a stage in the packed town hall of the tiny northern French town of Villers-Bretonneux. A 20-piece band and seemingly the entire town are fanned out in front of them.

After running through various numbers, a bagpipe player announces his arrival by tripping through a side door, whacking the top of his bagpipes on the doorframe and then nearly falling over, all while peeling off a succession of notes that I’d be kind to label a “tune”.

Welcome to an Armistice Day commemoration in the heart of the Somme region, north of Paris; a home-spun event that would later provide me with one of the most profound experiences of my life…

Looking for a meaningful way to celebrate November 11, the date World War I officially ended, I have gone to the Somme in the hope of finding some semblance of occasion to mark the end of hostilities which decimated the area from 1916 to 1918. And I have chosen Villers-Bretonneux as my first stop because I know it’s a town with a strong connection to Australia after the Aussie troops recaptured it from the Germans in 1918, thus turning the tide of the German advance on Amiens and towards Paris.

I’d heard that the main street was called Rue de Melbourne, that the town symbol was a green and gold kangaroo and that the local school was called Victoria School, with “N’oubliez pas les Australiennes” (“Never forget the Australians”) written above the blackboards in the classrooms. All up, it seemed a pretty good place for this Aussie to be on such a day.

With the crowd appropriately stilled, and our man on the bagpipes doggedly ploughing on, a local dignitary ascends the stage and launches into a passionate distillation of what the day means to the town.

My rough translation is that “La Premiere Guerre Mondial” (French for the First World War) had a big impact on the town and is something that, 90 years on from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, should be appropriately recognised. He makes specific mention of “les Australiennes” and talks of how they took the town with great bravery.

On such an occasion as this, therefore, one would expect at least a few other Australians to be present. But no, there are apparently no other Aussies here: I am Australia’s sole representative…

Later, with a theatrically Gallic shrug of the shoulders and a thoughtful rub of his beard, President of the Franco-Australian Association of Villers-Bretonneux, Jean-Pierre Thierry, tells me increasing numbers of Australians are coming to the town, visiting the wonderful local museum and seeing the place where the Australian legacy is so great.

Back at the ceremony, the dignitary gent finally finishes up his speech and signs off by announcing two triumphant words: “Waltzing Matilda“. And before you can say “who’s strangling that cat”, the bagpipe player launches into an interpretation of the tune.

To his credit, he doesn’t let talent, nor any lack thereof, stop him being a focal point of the town’s big day. Mais non, monsieur. On he plays till the (bitter) end.

And just as I and everyone else are about to clap him for effort, at the very least, suddenly the band sparks to life and begin their own version of the song. Bracing myself for more aural torture, I am therefore pleasantly surprised when the band bounces back from their own dodgy start and actually coalesce into a cohesive whole.

But as the first verse looms I am prepared for anything as the choir, who have hitherto shown more interest in pinching and tickling each other, are readied for their role. I watch as the music teacher begins rushing around like a head mechanic getting set for a Formula One car to arrive in the pits during a race. This could be interesting…

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Australia provided the greatest military contributions of all the British dominions which sent forces to the Great War. There were 331,000 Australian volunteers (out of a population of 4,875,000) with 16,000 killed and a further 42,500 wounded.

I have these figures, plus images from the museum of smiling diggers in the trenches, durries hanging from the corners of their creased mouths, in my mind as I warily listen to the band and choir prepare to bring ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to lift-off.

But I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t have doubted the kids of this little town with their ill-matched clothes and pale faces. I even shouldn’t have doubted the little chap in the choir’s front row who decided it would be a good day to bust out his camouflage army pants.

Nope, with a frantic wave of the teacher’s hand, the kids eagerly lean into the iconic Aussie tune with full confidence and the result is absolutely note perfect.

And here I am, the only Aussie in a tiny hall on the other side of the world and these kids are singing a song every Australian knows. I’m both proud and excited and it’s a moment, obviously, I won’t easily forget.

The bagpipe player, however, might not last as long in memory.


Coolangatta (it clearly doesn’t matter)

People come in all shapes and sizes but at Coolangatta Airport, by and large, the shape is round and the size is extra-large. Tattooed, sunburnt men and their waddling wives, and vice-versa. Their noisy kids with pudgy arms gripping iPads with greasy fingers and running a version of amuck because no one’s ever thought to tell them not to.

This is the picture I see before me.

Here, also, slouch grown Australian adult men who think it’s ok to wear baseball caps (it’s not), often coupled with a pair of the latest thongs down below – deemed adequate dress for a voyage out into the greater public, nowhere near a beach (except as the crow flies).

Add to that ensemble a singlet, allowing full visual access to hair and/or flabby underarms and you have the Great Australian Men’s Travelling Uniform. And it’s uniform in its baseness; common ground for common folk, those men who were never told or to whom the thought never occurred that some situations may call for something *slightly* more than the barest minimum of attire – just because thongs protect your feet to some degree, just because a singlet covers a percentage of the upper body and just because American sportsmen wear baseball caps as significant identifiers, doesn’t mean a tradie from Shepparton should as well.

Have some dignity, you morons. Have at least some semblance of pride. Wear a button-up shirt. Wear some slacks, even a pair of chinos if you have to. Don’t eat so much fattening food and, for fk’s sake, shut up your noisy children.

Then get on a plane.


The mark of a man

By Adam Gibson

As a young cadet journalist in the late ’80s/early ’90s at News Ltd’s Sydney newspaper HQ, I was assigned to work on the Foreign Desk at The Australian newspaper. There were a variety of interesting characters on the paper at that time, all sorts of pleasant and not-so-pleasant eccentrics hanging on from an older era of Australian newspapers. A time when copious amounts of alcohol were consumed at lunchtime (or any time) at the old Journo’s Club on Chalmers St, when it was commonplace for junior female journalists to be mildy harassed without compunction at any given opportunity and there was the occasional dust-up in the corridors.

It was a tough, cut and thrust environment, but that said, it was a generally convivial place and there was a sense of being “all in it together”. Young fresh-faced journos were mates with crusty old crime reporters who had quite literally been there, done that. The radio room operators monitoring the airwaves for the latest police incidents were chums with the most powerful news editors or newspaper chiefs of staff. The woman who ran the photo library was just as likely to be your pal as the fellow who ran the canteen or the sparky who fixed the fuses.

But one particular character has always stuck in my mind. He never said hello to any of the cadets, nor any of the copy people, nor indeed seemingly anyone from the general news desk. He was a “leader writer”, meaning he was responsible for writing the editorial and some comment pieces in the paper. He was in sweet with the editor Chris Mitchell and there was no doubt he was best mates with owner Rupert Murdoch. You just knew that he answered directly to him and few others.

But he didn’t seem to be mates with really anyone else. He seemed a lone wolf who carried himself with a slightly menacing air. He stomped around the office with a swaggering gait and always had his shirt sleeves rolled up over what at the time to me seemed Popeye-like forearms. He always looked like he’d just taken his tie off and undone his top button but I never actually saw him wear a tie. He would sit at the keyboard station next to me (these were massive computer terminals at which journos sat when writing their stories) and hammer away at the keyboard with a distinctly heavy-handed manner.

The general air about him was “don’t even think about talking to me”. I probably saw him every day for about six months and not once – not once – did he ever acknowledge my presence or even existence, even if it were just he and I passing in the corridor, no one else around. That in fact didn’t bother me. I just thought, “what a wanker you are mate. What a private school, up ‘imself goose”. Fair enough, he had no reason to need or want me or any of my peer group in his world. But I remember at the time thinking that the mark of a person is how they treat people whom they might not have anything to gain from, people who were juniors or perceived “lessers”. To this day, that man would have absolutely zero knowledge of ever having seen me, nor probably anyone else in a similar position to me then. I made no impression on his world or memory and that’s just how he clearly wanted it.

But to this day, I remember the mark of the man from those days. In an unvarnished view, with no sense of hindsight, just a raw impression of his ungilded character, I knew for certain back then that he was a dickhead, and I have never wavered in such an opinion. It’s the small things that tell the greater whole about people. That bloke was Tony Abbott.