INTERVIEW News Weekly
A politic apprenticeship: Greg Sheridan
, August 15, 2015
Ticky Fullerton spoke to journalist and author Greg Sheridan ahead of the release of his new book, When We Were Young & Foolish. In this book, Sheridan, now foreign editor of The Australian, described his political apprenticeship with the National Civic Council and people who would later play an important role in public life, including the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
This is the transcript of the interview on Lateline.
Greg Sheridan on the ABC’s Lateline.
TICKY FULLERTON: If Labor leader Bill Shorten has been having trouble staring down his party’s left wing over boat turn-backs, he can take heart in knowing friction between the right and left of the party isn’t new for Labor leaders.
Differences between left and right led to the Labor split of the 1950s when conservative Labor Catholics inspired by political activist B.A. Santamaria formed the Democratic Labor Party, harnessing anti-communist sentiments at the time.
Santamaria remained a formidable force in Australian politics for several decades.
Through his broadcasts and writing, he influenced political debate and the views of many leading politicians including the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Journalist Greg Sheridan worked for Santamaria and counts the PM as one of his closest friends.
In his time as a journalist he’s had a front-row seat watching the frictions inside Labor and he’s worked with many of the current political players, including Malcolm Turnbull and Bob Carr.
Now he’s written a memoir called When We Were Young & Foolish and he joins us now from Melbourne. Greg Sheridan, thanks for being there.
GREG SHERIDAN: Great to be with you, Ticky.
FULLERTON: Now the Prime Minister was one of your best friends. He was your best mate for many years. You met him at Sydney University and it was an unlikely coupling, if I might say?
SHERIDAN: Well, it was. I don’t want to verbal the poor Prime Minister, you know, he shouldn’t have to wear my friendship like a burden around his neck, but, sure, he was certainly my best friend at Sydney University.
I may not have been his best friend. He probably had more friends than I did. But we met in auspicious circumstances, we ran against each other for class rep in Economics 1 in 1976.
And modesty forbids me telling you, Ticky, who won that contest, but that was the right way to make Tony’s acquaintance. And then we met again that afternoon at the first meeting of the Sydney Uni Democratic Club, the Santamaria aligned outfit.
We couldn’t have been less alike. I was a literary neurotic nerd with a Che Guevara hairstyle and the physical coordination of a stale blancmange, and you know, I didn’t even have a driver’s licence, and Tony was this high-powered alpha male who conquered everything.
FULLERTON: He was pretty bulked up then, wasn’t he?
SHERIDAN: He was. He played first-grade rugby union that year, and he was a prop. And he had been dux or something of Riverview. I mean, he was very high achieving both academically and physically.
FULLERTON: But you had Catholicism in common. Both of you became, as you put it, Santa’s little helpers. And Catholicism was more than religious; it was political?
SHERIDAN: Well, it certainly was in those days. Australians have kind of forgotten how profound and dominant and pervasive the Cold War was and I felt that being Catholic did have a political dimension.
I didn’t take orders from the Church or anything, but the Church, along with a great slab of humanity, was being persecuted by the communists all throughout Eastern Europe and in China and Asia, and the communists also had a lot of influence in Australia.
They controlled big unions, they controlled the Australian Union of Students, they at one stage had 23,000 members in the Communist Party of Australia, members of the Communist Party assisted espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. So there was a big battle against the communists which united, I think, all moderate forces.
FULLERTON: This is very much what B.A. Santamaria picked up, this overwhelming threat of communism?
SHERIDAN: Yes. Bob had been asked by the Labor Party to fight the communist influence in the trade union movement in the 1950s.
He’d done that with great success. A very complicated series of things led to the split, but Tony and I found that the most effective and the bravest and the best anti-communists at university were the Santamaria-aligned groups and I’m very proud of our political positions at that time.
We were in favour of Vietnamese migrants and refugees, we tried to help the victims of communism.
FULLERTON: It got pretty radical, though, down at student level, didn’t it? Some of you were actually bashed up at one stage?
SHERIDAN: Yes, there were a lot of assaults. All the violence at Australian universities, like all the violence in the great union struggles, came from the far left, and this happened to other people apart from Tony and me.
Michael Danby was put in hospital, he was beaten up by a group of Maoist thugs, Peter Costello had his wrist broken by an anarchist and Tony was attacked on a number of occasions.
Very, very frightening and distressing at the time; especially if you’re not used to physical confrontation.
He and I went to a PLO film night which we thought AUS [the Australian Union of Students] shouldn’t have been funding with compulsorily collected student money they were sending to the PLO, as they had previously sent to the Viet Cong.
And you know that led to a rowdy scene where there were 40 or 50 of them and four of us. So this was all a bit distressing, and some of our female members were assaulted.
FULLERTON: One of the things you talk about in the book which I think is really interesting is looking at the money actually raised for both B.A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council and, I guess, right-wing Labor, from business?
SHERIDAN: That’s right. Business gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to both Santamaria and to right-wing elements in the Labor Party.
The NCC has kind of been written out of history because the NCC unions eventually went back into the Labor Party and it’s been in everyone’s interests to down play the NCC past.
So my book is trying to correct the historical record a bit. Tony was involved in this a bit, as was I.
We were very good friends with Jack Kane, a former DLP senator, and we used to occasionally, me more often than Tony, write Jack’s newsletter.
FULLERTON: And Tony Abbott ghost-wrote Jack Kane’s biography, you say?
SHERIDAN: He did. He completely ghost-wrote Jack’s memoirs. And if you look at the book you can see the voice of Tony, mixing my metaphors there, you can hear the voice of Tony in it.
FULLERTON: Now interestingly, Labor tried to recruit both Tony Abbott and Peter Costello?
SHERIDAN: They did. They offered Peter Costello a research officer’s job in the Ironworkers’ Union, which would have made him Bill Shorten’s boss in due course.
They also wanted to recruit Tony as an organiser in the Ironworkers’ Union. They made elaborate efforts to get Tony to join the Labor Party.
This, I think, reflects well on the Labor Party and it reflects well on Abbott and Costello. This was talent-spotting.
FULLERTON: Would it be too far-fetched to say that had things been different, it could have been Tony Abbott up there at the Labor conference today?
SHERIDAN: Well, that is a bit of a stretch.
It’s instructive that Abbott and Costello chose not to join the Labor Party and make their careers on the conservative side of politics, but at university both Abbott and Costello were often writing and saying quite progressive things with a lot of social justice concerns; and Peter Costello founded a group called Social Democrats.
FULLERTON: Let me wind you forward, 1984, The Bulletin, a remarkable place – Bob Carr and Malcolm Turnbull, and you of course introduced Abbott and Carr?
SHERIDAN: Yes, I did, and I suggested Tony go and work for The Bulletin after I left there. We had a great editor, Trevor Kennedy, who hired people who didn’t have conventional journalistic backgrounds.
I once asked why he hired me. He said: “Because you had that quarrelsome, difficult, unpleasant personality which succeeds so well in journalism.”
Tony came to The Bulletin’s pub a lot when I was working there when he was a student. And I set up a lunch once between Bob Carr and Tony in which Bob, like Barrie Unsworth and Johnno Johnson, made a pitch for Tony to join the Labor Party. A very convincing pitch too.
FULLERTON: Now look, here’s a gem because all this was happening under Trevor Kennedy. And you say that during Packer’s attempted takeover of Fairfax using Tourang, had it succeeded Trevor Kennedy would have put Gerard Henderson in as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
SHERIDAN: Yes. I don’t think he ever mentioned that to Gerard, but it was his plan to offer the editorship to Gerard Henderson.
FULLERTON: That might have changed a few things.
SHERIDAN: That certainly would have made the history of The Sydney Morning Herald and of Fairfax a bit different. Trevor was a fantastic editor, a brilliant editor.
The Bulletin was a great success under him. And has there ever been a newsroom like it: Turnbull, Carr, John Edwards, who went on to the Reserve Bank, Gary Sturgess, who ran the Greiner government, later Tony Abbott, who became Prime Minister. Very unusual.
FULLERTON: Last couple. The whole issue of the unions. I’m just wondering how personal it is for Tony Abbott and, today, looking at the royal commission, whether this is something of a personal issue for him still?
SHERIDAN: Of course Tony’s evolved and developed his political thinking a great deal over the decades, but he didn’t ever have a hatred of the Labor Party or the labour movement and he had an appreciation for decent moderate unions like the Ironworkers’ Union led by Laurie Short and Harry Hurrell and Steve Harrison.
But he had personal experience of extremism and he certainly saw a lot of extremism and dishonesty in Australian unions.
FULLERTON: Briefly, you were the first journo, you say, ever to be briefed by Kevin Rudd in China. Did you ever think he’d be PM?
SHERIDAN: I thought Tony might be because of his work ethic. I didn’t think Kevin would be, but I did think he would be something big, like the head of Foreign Affairs or something.
FULLERTON: Greg Sheridan, obviously a great time and place to be young and foolish, thanks for joining us.
SHERIDAN: Thanks so much, Ticky.