Had to duck: Peter Woof, pictured, says Tony Abbott took a swing at him. Photo: David Noble
Young university researcher Peter Woof didn't know it yet but as he walked towards the Wentworth building at Sydney University early on a Monday morning, he was heading for a physical confrontation with Tony Abbott that would land both men in court.
It was September 25, 1978, and feelings were running high on the Wentworth's lower floor, where the Student Representative Council offices were located.
Mr Abbott, then a firebrand conservative student leader, had wrested the presidency from a left-dominated student council. Now he was intent on ejecting his recalcitrant opponents and claiming his new domain.
Student days: Tony Abbott in September 1978. Photo: ACP Library
The locks had been changed three times by the rival groups during the weekend, and Mr Abbott had camped at the offices to protect his beachhead. Entering the council's complex from the rear, the then 25-year old Mr Woof stumbled into a melee.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the encounter, he recalls taking up a ''protective'' position across an inner doorway. Almost immediately, he says, an agitated Mr Abbott came up without warning and took a swing at him. ''I don't think he meant to connect,'' says Mr Woof. ''It was more like when a person … keeps their elbow quite bent and brings the fist sort of across the face.'' Nevertheless, he adds, ''I had to duck''.
Mr Woof remained sufficiently aggrieved days later to go to the nearby Glebe courthouse and lay a previously unreported civil claim for assault against Mr Abbott.
''I didn't think the bastard should get away with it,'' says Mr Woof. ''He wasn't a liked person … it wasn't his politics, it was the way he implemented his politics.''
When the case came on Mr Woof represented himself. Across the room was the young Mr Abbott accompanied by a team of half a dozen middle-aged men in suits, whom Mr Woof took to be his opponent's legal team.
''Perhaps he could have got his friends to wear wigs and gowns, but they were dressed like practising barristers and solicitors,'' he says.
After giving evidence to the magistrate and being asked to call witnesses, Mr Woof decided his cause was doomed in the face of this firepower, and withdrew. ''One way or another, I could see I would be outmanoeuvred.''
He left Sydney the next year to join the anti-whaling organisation Sea Shepherd and now lives more quietly as a secondary school principal in China.
Memories of his encounter with Mr Abbott have been stirred by the resurfacing of 35-year-old contemporaneous accounts of the fracas and events leading to it, which Fairfax Media has obtained.
One leaflet is headed ''President's report: Left clings to power'', apparently written and signed off by Mr Abbott.
''Unfortunately one Peter Woof, claiming to have business with Honi [Honi Soit, the student paper] in fact proved interested only in opening the door to his confreres outside.
''I had to restrain him from doing so,'' wrote Mr Abbott. ''I also had to restrain [then SRC electoral officer] David Patch from closing the front office in my face.''
Mr Woof and Mr Patch remember matters very differently. Mr Woof says he had come to the SRC offices alone and was neither trying nor able to let others in when Mr Abbott took a swing at him.
Mr Patch says he was on the opposite side of a door from Mr Abbott but was trying to protect frightened female staff who had closed it because Mr Abbot was being ''loud and scary''.
''He just kicked the door in,'' Mr Patch alleges. Mr Patch, later an unsuccessful Labor candidate in Wentworth and now a state prosecutor, stressed that no one was hurt in the incident.
Earlier that year, Mr Abbott had another assault charge against him dismissed.
Helen Wilson alleged Mr Abbott, then 20, had groped her on stage at a political rally before a large crowd. Mr Abbott decried the charge as a put-up job.
The year before he had unsuccessfully run for student president. The winning candidate, Barbara Ramjan, alleged that Mr Abbott came to within an inch of her nose and punched the wall on each side of her head. He later denied her account.
A spokesman for Mr Abbott declined to comment on the fresh allegations: ''These matters have been dealt with,'' he said.