In May 2002, convicted Sydney stockbroker Rene Rivkin was desperate to obtain bail and avoid serving a weekend detention sentence. His friends rallied and wrote in glowing terms to the judge hoping to persuade him that Rivkin should be spared the shame and humiliation of a weekend at Silverwater Jail.
One of those to write a beaming character reference was 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones, a former Liberal candidate and speechwriter for Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in the days before the noble wheat farmer came out as a born-again small “l” liberal.
Characteristically, Jones blew his own trumpet while praising the virtues of his fraudster friend. He wrote to the judge: “Whenever Government wanted to raise money for the Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games, somehow Rene and I would be prevailed upon to raise the money, and I dare say, give substantially ourselves.”
Jones recalled that when coaching the Australian and Oxford University rugby teams, “I piloted a scheme to assist young Australians of academic and sporting ability to study at Oxford. Rene Rivkin personally funded some of those who went, as I did. He did more than fund them. He met them, followed their progress and subsequently employed one or two of them.” (SMH, 31 May 2003)
Who were they and why have they never disclosed the expansive generosity of Rivkin and Jones?
Prime Minister Tony Abbott attended The Queens College, Oxford, arriving on a Rhodes Scholarship in October 1981. He was a controversial choice because he had not demonstrated the academic brilliance or leadership ability normally associated with the prize. But Bob Hawke had received the scholarship in 1953 and the Liberals, particularly influenced by then treasurer John Howard, MP for Bennelong, wanted one of their favourite sons to receive the same honour.
Abbott’s selection was considered a triumph for Jesuit wheel-dealer Father Emmet Costello who had mentored the future prime minister at St Ignatius College, Riverview, as well as the federal Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Upon his arrival in England, Abbott gained immediate selection in Oxford’s First XV rugby team as a prop forward. It was an unusually fast promotion in the university’s very competitive rugby environment, and it didn’t last long. In March 1982 Abbott was dropped in favour of a bigger forward. As a result, he switched to boxing. It brought him, and his supporters, a very inferior consolation prize – an Oxford “blue” for boxing.
The London-born Sydneysider graduated in 1983 with a BA in philosophy, politics and economics. His examination results were poor and he was officially placed “in the second class”.
Back in Australia, Alan Jones was becoming an unstoppable force in rugby union, a world governed by “shamateurism”, old money and old school tie networks. In 1983 he was first grade coach of the Manly rugby team, a club keenly followed by Abbott. In his first season at Manly he led the team to the premiership for the first time in 32 years. It was a defining moment for players and officials: they fell under Jones’s energetic spell.
After successfully coaching the NSW team the unstoppable Jones became coach of the Wallabies between 1984 and 1988. They were glory years for Australian rugby with the all-conquering team winning a grand slam against the teams of Great Britain, including the Barbarians, and the Bledisloe Cup against the All Blacks for the first time in 39 years.
In line with his “stick and pick” loyalty, Jones regularly interviewed Abbott on his programme when he became a journalist on The Australian and a Liberal candidate for Manly-based Warringah.
After Rivkin’s death in May 2005, Jones took the unusual step of holding a press conference to talk about his lost friend. “I knew Rene in other circumstances,” he told the media. “He was amazingly generous and would help out on various projects, including one where I was setting up a scholarship, whenever he could.”
At Fr Emmet Costello’s funeral in October 2013, Abbott delivered an oration of the man widely described as his “second father” and paid tribute saying: “I guess all of us became his extended family.” The high mass funeral, held at St Mary’s Cathedral, as also attended by Howard.
Michael Costigan began his obituary of Emmet with these lines: “’You think I’m off to dine with the rich’, said the white-haired priest to a smirking bystander as he took the wheel of a costly car. ‘You’re wrong. I’m going to dine with the filthy rich’.” (“Jesuit at ease in refuges or at wheel of a Merc”, SMH, 25 October 2013).
Which leaves the question – Who were the young Australians picked for the Oxford University scholarship scheme financed by Jones and Rivkin? And, by the way, when did “the age of entitlement” end?
STOP PRESS: Judith and I are sharing a mid-year holiday break. It calls for a suspension of my Weekly Column until August.