Did stockbroker fund Abbott’s Oxford scholarship?

The late Rene Rivkin, together with broadcaster Alan Jones sponsored some young Australians for an Oxford scholarship, but was Tony Abbott one of them? Photo

The late Rene Rivkin, together with broadcaster Alan Jones funded some handpicked young Australians to study at Oxford University. Was Tony Abbott one of them? Photo

By Alex Mitchell*

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 program 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?

* Alex Mitchell is a veteran political journalist (see his blog at


13 responses to “Did stockbroker fund Abbott’s Oxford scholarship?”

  1. Northcoast says:

    I’ve always suspected that Abbott was way too dumb to achieve a Rhodes Scholarship by fair means. It does not surprise me that his marks were below standard.

    It is an absolute disgrace that he has been made Prime Minister of this great country. He obviously has Oppositional Defiant Disorder, & he probably believes that the earth is flat.

    I won’t be voting this mob in when the next election has been called & if he gets in again, pity our poor country.

  2. Ginty says:

    Now I know why Tony Abbott says stupid things. Yes it is a disgrace he is our Prime Minister. No wisdom, no sense, no respect for others. Just an ego too big for his boots.

  3. w ch says:

    Fascinating story. Certainly highlights certain networks around the place and explains the tone in which Jones feels he is able to address Abbott with,

  4. Alex says:

    This article is terribly inaccurate and misleading. For a start, the author makes the assertion that by receiving a “second class” mark Abbott’s results were academically poor and that, by inference, he was intellectually inferior to his Oxford classmates. Does the author have any idea that the vast majority of students (generally 50 per cent in any given academic year, and I understand 53 per cent in the 2013-4 Norrington table figures) who graduate from Oxford actually graduate with second class honours degree? Also to suggest that a blue in boxing is inferior to a blue in rugby is also totally off the mark. Having attend Oxford myself in 2013-14 I can attest that both sports are at the top of the sporting pyramid, and that to achieve such a result – in particular through selection in the varsity bout against Cambridge – is in fact a fantastic result. While I admit that I am no fan of Mr Abbott and his policies, I think this article clearly needs to be redrafted to include the actual facts, not the authors distortions of them.

    • John says:

      Thank you Alex for providing some facts on this subject – something which other respondents seem to have little concern for if it plays into their own biases.
      I too, am not a fan of Abbott, but I am a fan of factual information. Something which seems lost on most current day reporters.

      • ken higgs says:

        Whilst the majority of students do indeed get a 2nd class degree, the majority of Rhodes Scholars get First Class ones, after all, one of the reasons they get selected is for academic excellence. 60 years ago, a Boxing Blue might have been on par with a Rugby Blue, but not in the 80s; boxing was by then (and remains so) a minority sport. As someone who grew up in the UK, I can inform you that most Brits would struggle to name any of their contemporaries who boxed in any semi serious way, wheras almost all of them could name friends who played plenty of rugger.
        So, Abbott was no stand out either academically or in a sporting sense. The question is valid: how did he get that scholarship? As someone who works in academia, I can attest how sought after they are. I know plenty of very talented students who were not selected

    • Kim says:

      Agreed. This is a silly article. I was at uni with Abbott. I didn’t like him, but he was not dumb and no one was surprised when he won a Rhodes scholarship. He won it on merit. More interesting would be to find out who paid for Alan jones’ short course at Oxford. I know that was by patronage.

      • Zachary says:

        Kim says:
        July 8, 2015 at 7:29 pm
        Your defense of Abbott comes with not one shred of evidence. The facts positively point to a non achiever both academically and in sport. Essential requirements to be a Rhodes Scholar.
        Something stinks about this, in the same way he refuses to prove he has relinquished his British citizenship.
        Karma will visit eventually, Ms K Jackson will attest to that.

    • Gary says:

      I think you need to read the article again. It states that his academic results were poor AND he was placed in the second class. You seem to have interpreted that as an assumption that because he was place in the second class, his results must have been poor. Not what the article said at all

    • Tone says:

      Abbott achieved good marks at university. However, one would expect a Rhodes Scholar to achieve better marks than he did. Especially when coming from such a privileged background.

  5. Drew says:

    Alex’s “vast” majority of students seems to be 50 or 53%.

    Clearly maths is not Alex’s strongpoint.

    However you look at it Tony Abbott graduated in the bottom half of the class. Is that the person we want as our Prime Minister?

  6. MartinM says:

    Whilst I am too, absolutely no fan of Abbott, I feel that there needs to be journalistic integrity more than ever in Australia. I am not sure what the point is of a dead man funding Abbotts’ education? If Jones, did fund Abbott, again so what? f the inference is that Abbott is indebted to Jones as insinuated then that is relevant. Whenever I hear that Abbott was a Rhodes Scholarship I am always intrigued, as he shows no apparent scholastic ability at all. This article alludes to how this came about. Finally I see no value in besmirching a dead man i.e Rivikin. When I lived on the north coast, I always enjoyed reading The Echo, I must say it seems the standards have fallen.

  7. jane says:

    I think the point of the story is not who funded Liesalot’s education, but whether he was awarded the scholarship on his merits or not. Rene Rivkin and Jones were welcome to throw as much money as they liked at Liesalot, but was the scholarship dodgy like his daughter’s obviously is?

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