Ronald Reagan is reputed to have once said, in a private conversation, that some of his clearest memories were of events that never took place. The comment may be apocryphal but it contains a wise message.

On Saturday, Good Weekend ran an exclusive extract from David Marr”s Quarterly Essay 47 titled “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott” (Black Inc). The news story from the piece turned on Abbott”s reaction to his defeat by Barbara Ramjan at the Sydney University Students” Representative Council presidential election in 1977.

Ramjan told Marr that, on the night of the election, Abbott approached her. Initially she thought that a congratulatory gesture was in prospect and added: “But no, that”s not what he wanted. He came to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head.”

An intimidatory gesture, to be sure. If, of course, it ever happened.

A reading of Marr”s essay reveals that Ramjan”s claim is based on her memory alone of an event that allegedly took place 35 years ago. There are no witnesses. And there is no contemporaneous record of the occasion – not even in the student press.

Marr told Geraldine Doogue on RN Breakfast yesterday that “the incident … was remembered very vividly” by Ramjan and that “she has been telling” people about it “for 35 years”. Maybe. But Ramjan did not refer to this incident when she spoke to The Sun-Herald about Abbott in July 2004.

In his Quarterly Essay, Marr expressed no surprise that Ramjan”s allegation about Abbott”s behaviour has never been previously reported, even though Abbott has been a public figure for at least 20 years. Yesterday Marr was referring to the incident as “the punch”. This has a ring to it – following the ABC”s successful serialisation of Christos Tsiolkas”s The Slap.

Well, at least a slap did take place in Tsiolkas”s novel. But the only evidence that a punch was delivered to a wall at Sydney University in 1977 turns on an aggrieved person”s memory. This is not an issue of truth versus lies. Not at all. Sure, some people are into deceit. But most untruths stem from exaggeration or delusion. In short, memories are often fallible.

It so happens that Ramjan”s memory suits the agenda of Abbott”s critics who claim that he has a problem with women. For example, the Sunday Herald Sun editorialised at the weekend: “When you get Tony Abbott, punch and woman all in the same sentence, Australia”s alternative prime minister has a problem.”

If you follow Marr”s logic, Abbott cannot win. Marr is suspicious that Abbott”s first reaction to the Ramjan claim was to say that he had no recollection of the incident but “it would be profoundly out of character had it occurred”. Well, it is impossible to have a recollection of an event that never happened. Even so, Marr and some others are now suspicious that Abbott has restated his position to read, “It never happened.” I do not see any distinction between the two reactions.

According to a report in Saturday”s Herald, Marr maintains that Abbott has followed the dictum of the Catholic political activist B.A. (Bob) Santamaria that “”when you have not got the numbers, be vicious””. The only problem here is that Santamaria never said or wrote this. Sure, Santamaria was a tough-minded operator. But he and his followers in the National Civic Council were not into violence.

Apart from Ramjan, Marr”s other witness for the prosecution for the case against Abbott during his student days was “a distinguished Sydney lawyer” who referred to the Liberal Party leader”s past “negativity and destruction”. Since this lawyer is now so distinguished, you wonder why he/she insists on anonymity.

According to “”Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott””, young Abbott had animalistic tendencies in the sense that he exuded bad behaviour in defending his perceived territory. Yet there is another, more positive, story from the Opposition Leader”s youth.

In her profile on Abbott in the Herald on March 11, 2000, Deborah Snow reported that, when a young man, Abbott and a friend were drinking at the Bald Rock Hotel in Rozelle. According to the story, the house next door caught fire with children inside. Snow quoted Sam Miguel as saying: “Tony … jumped the fence and by force of will … pulled the bars off the windows and got the kids out. He disappeared off the scene straight afterwards.”

It”s worth recording that the Bald Rock Hotel fire story does not rest on Abbott”s memory. Miguel is an independent witness to the event. Moreover, according to Snow, Miguel and Abbott disagree profoundly on politics. Even so, don”t expect to hear this story recounted by the Opposition Leader”s critics. It doesn”t fit the Abbott-has-a-problem-with-women mantra. They prefer the uncorroborated testimony of the aggrieved.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.