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When We Were Young and Foolish

22 Mar 2016
Reviewed by Ian Lincoln

Greg Sheridan’s lively memoir is not primarily about international affairs. But it casts interesting light on the passions that drive one of our most prolific commentators on foreign policy.

Sheridan narrates his life up to his late twenties, with reflections throughout the text on political and international matters. His book includes a collection of photos of Sheridan with family members and colleagues in journalism and politics. There is a comprehensive index.

He begins with his early life in a modest but upwardly-mobile Sydney family of largely Irish background. He was devoutly Catholic and, at 15, chose to study with the Redemptorists at St Clement’s in the Riverina, the last ‘junior seminary’ in Australia. He left after two years, when he began to feel that the trend in the Church towards social activism and personal self-examination was distorting core religious faith.

The Vietnam War became a focus for Sheridan as he completed his secondary education at St Pius X College, Chatswood. He was a passionate supporter of the Australian military commitment, which he hoped would ‘save South Vietnam’ and combat the danger of communism spreading in South-East Asia.

Sheridan and his family and friends were concerned at the prospect of a Whitlam government: they believed it would be under communist influence through the trade unions.

He was active in the Young Christian Students movement and an enthusiastic recruit to B.A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council. He admired Santamaria’s vigorous leadership and the NCC’s collaborative relationship with ASIO and its anti-communist contacts throughout South-East Asia.

During Christmas holiday employment at the NCC office, he had his first mainstream newspaper article published in the The Sun in November 1974. Reflecting his concern about communists in the union movement, he concentrated on the threat of the left in the education system. He joined a group of six NCC members who, at the request of Malcolm Fraser, supported Fraser against Snedden at a north shore Young Liberals meeting during the 1975 party leadership tussle.

Sheridan embarked on an arts/law degree at Macquarie University in 1974 but moved to an arts degree at the University of Sydney following brief stints at the Commonwealth Taxation Office and as a cadet at The Sun. He takes us though his student years, where he became friends with Tony Abbott and an activist against radical student opinion as turbulence swelled in Australian politics.

Some of Sheridan’s most interesting reflections are on the tangled web of communist and other left-wing influences on the student and union movements in the 1970s.

The title of Sheridan’s memoir invites us to believe that he is now old (he is 60 this year) and wise. That may well be. But his memoir suggests that his driving passions have changed little since his student years.

He links his early hatred of communism not only to his Catholic faith but also to his perception of communism as brutally authoritarian, based on its history in the Soviet Union and China: ‘everywhere the communists won in the twentieth century they brought re-education camps, gulags, dictatorship, oppression and economic misery.’ When Saigon fell in April 1975, Sheridan wept.

Following his father’s unexpected loss of employment, Sheridan left university without completing his degree and became an organiser with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA). Under Joe de Bruyn from the federal SDA in Melbourne, he campaigned among union members against amalgamation of the SDA with the more left-wing Building Workers’ Industrial Union.

To meet the employment requirements of an SDA official, he worked once a month at a family member’s Darrell Lea chocolate shops and joined an ALP branch under the address of one of his father’s cousins, who was in conflict with left-wingers and welcomed Sheridan’s support.

After two years at the SDA, aged 22, Sheridan joined The Bulletin; he had earlier written occasional pieces for both The Bulletin and The Australian under noms de plume. He let his ALP membership lapse and distanced himself from the NCC.

Sheridan’s journalism focused on unions and the ALP’s ideological struggles. He praises Hawke for changing the internal workings of the party to reduce the influence of the left, acknowledging that Whitlam had begun this task but was hindered by having to rely on the left to protect his leadership. His other preoccupation was the intelligence agencies and their international allies and opponents.

He describes his time at The Bulletin as ‘a kaleidoscope of foreign and domestic issues, mostly tied together by the overarching ideological battles of the Cold War.’ His colleagues and friends there included Bob Carr, Tony Abbott and Peter Costello (‘a gentler figure then than the tough political warrior he became’). He was dazzled by Malcolm Turnbull, ‘the only person in the whole of Consolidated Press who really made me nervous.’

Sheridan also wrote for Quadrant and jousted verbally with the doughty cold warrior Frank Knopfelmacher, one of whose quips was that Australia had no real foreign policy debate, only ‘the waging of domestic politics by other means.’

Sheridan joined The Australian in 1984 (aged 28) and had a one-year posting to Beijing in 1985, becoming The Australian’s first foreign correspondent in Asia. There he met Kevin Rudd, then a mid-level Australian diplomat. Rudd gave him an accomplished confidential briefing on human rights, Rudd’s first such interaction with the press.

Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had begun in the 1970s; Sheridan describes them as, in effect, a repudiation of communism. But much of the old Beijing remained: swarms of of bicycles, bustling and crowded laneways and unfamiliarity with foreigners, including the ‘minute’ Western press corps.

Sheridan’s reporting expressed his ‘wondrous delight’ at Chinese culture and his ‘advanced scepticism’ about political reform, later justified by the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was mildly sceptical about economic reform but acknowledges that China subsequently achieved a huge economic take-off: he sees it now as ‘an effective, self-confident dictatorship, with a model of state-dominated capitalism which challenges some of the assumptions about the superiority of the Western model.’

His story ends there. His period in Washington and his 1992 appointment as foreign editor of The Australian (where he remains) still lay ahead. He has published books on South-East Asia and the Australia-US relationship. There will be many a tale for him to tell in his next memoir.

Sheridan Greg, When We Were Young and Foolish, Allen & Unwin, 2015 

Ian Lincoln is a Councillor of the AIIA in New South Wales and a former diplomat