Nothing Foolish Here

Book Review of When We Were Young & Foolish, by Greg Sheridan, Allen and Unwin, 2015.

By Brian Boyd


Putting aside the persistent name-dropping, describing himself as the “hero” of his own memoir on more than one occasion and the desperation to be seen in a good light, on every second page, this book is still a worthwhile read for any modern day social, labour and union activist.

The book covers a number of tumultuous and controversial events and issues in a key period of the nation’s industrial and political history, therefore making Greg Sheridan’s “confessions” a detailed, worthwhile exercise to explore. In his own words he comes clean about the undercover work of the secret National Civic Council over many decades.

There are lessons to be learnt. History can sometimes take a long time to reveal all of its secrets. But when key and interesting information comes to light, even years later, it is worth publicising, dissecting and putting it into some sort of explanatory context so that future generations of union and social activists can learn and move forward.

Sheridan provides a series of snapshots and associated commentary about an era that is interesting reading for both those that lived through it and the current crop of politicos. By looking at key extracts in some detail it is possible to gain some clarity of the nuances of the period’s sharp contradictions.

Although set mainly in the latter part of the 20th Century, it contains revelations and admissions of a determined right-wing operator brought up and coached to oppose with his every breath any progressive cause going.

The title of the book is as misleading as Sheridan’s pretence to be a “great bloke around town”. He might have been young for many of his anti-progressive dirty tricks, but he was certainly no fool.

He was taught well by his NCC masters from an early age. He was neither “misguided” nor a reprobate amongst reprobates, but a trained ultra-conservative functionary who carried out missions to undermine social and political campaigns that were aimed to move Australia forward as a genuine independent nation, no longer tied to the remnants of British colonialism or to the newer, post-World War II grip of US imperial interests.

Women’s liberation, gay rights, Aboriginal land rights and effective trade unions were fair game. The starting point for Sheridan was, of course, the nationwide campaign against the US war in Vietnam throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

He openly admits he was brought up to have political views that “were stubbornly conservative” (pp. xii, 23, 33), “fired by anti-communism” and “the atmosphere of the cold war and the nuclear stand-off between the US and Soviet Union” (p. xii). His long association with B.A. Santamaria and the National Civic Council is openly conceded (p. xiii). In fact a great part of the book concerns Sheridan’s growing up in orthodox, conservative Catholicism. He reveals at one point he and Tony Abbott were directed to join the ALP as “there are no communists in the Liberal Party” (p. xv). [That’s what they thought!].

Sheridan entered the 1970s worried about:

the rise of Whitlam and his approaching government, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, miniskirts, contraception, authority challenged everywhere, the Church polarised internally, rock-and-roll music, communism seemingly on the march in Southeast Asia: the world was dizzy, reeling with change. (p. 34)

By chapter four we see Sheridan propositioned for his first mission, to spy for the NCC:

There’s a Trotskyist youth group which has advertised a weekend training camp. And it’s open to anyone to apply to go along. This is a rare opportunity for us to get inside them and find out a lot more about who they are and what they’re doing. We don’t know how important they might be but we want to find out what they have planned for Australia. (p. 82)

So said the NSW President of the NCC Bob O’Connell in the early 1970s (p. 83). Sheridan says his parents stopped him from going, with a friend, Jeff Phillips, carrying out the task.

Sheridan writes:

As the end of 1972 approached my family … was concerned about the likely election of Gough Whitlam as prime minister. We were not a family of Liberal Party establishment types and we had no money to speak of. In many ways we were natural Labor voters [sic], but we were fervently anti-communist and thought the Labor Party was too influenced by the communists in its ranks. (p. 84)

He adds:

No less a figure than Bob Carr many years later would write in The Australian that the breakaway, anti-communist DLP had been right to argue that for a time Labor could not be trusted with government on national security grounds.

The left came within one vote at an ALP national conference of getting Labor to commit to expelling the US communications facilities from Australia, which would have destroyed the US alliance. It established as party policy support for a nuclear-free zone, which would have prevented the visit of US naval ships to Australian ports. Carr in The Australian reflected on ‘the system of dual membership of the ALP and the Communist Party of Australia’ and concluded that the impetus for many of Labor’s far-left policies came from the Communist Party and its allies within the Labor Party. (p. 85)


I was probably in a minority of sixteen year olds. Certainly my views were utterly contrary to the vast cohort of moratorium and anti-Vietnam [War] activists (p.87).

We are informed:

The NCC was born out of the great Labor split in the 1950s … It gave intellectual leadership to the DLP. Membership of the NCC was banned for Labor Party members. One response to this was that the NCC didn’t have a system of formal membership … Of course, right-wing Labor figures cooperated intimately with the NCC all the time … and, because the NCC closely studied communist and other far-left groups in Australia, it had a historical, working relationship with ASIO (p. 90).

Sheridan says of all of this intrigue – “I loved it” (p. 90). Part of this intrigue involved the NCC setting up groups to penetrate educational institutions. Sheridan writes:

The NCC didn’t have a high school group but it did have an active operation at the universities, which was run by Peter Westmore … At the time there was a left-wing high school publication called Student Underground. We decided to answer this with our own high school propaganda sheet called High Cool. My closest collaborator in this effort was a Sydney University student, Jeff Phillips, who went on to great success at the Sydney bar where he became an SC … I thought it was most important that we not look like conservative fuddy-duddies so we ludicrously called our outfit the Progressive Students Association. Given the far-left connotations of the word progressive, a term often used by communist front organisations, never has there been a more misleadingly named group than ours. (p. 92)

Sheridan provides some flavour of what it was like for the NCC operating after Whitlam got elected in December 1972:

One early development in the Whitlam government that really had us worried was Lionel Murphy’s raid on the ASIO headquarters in Melbourne in March 1973. Murphy was attorney-general and he ordered Commonwealth Police to break into ASIO headquarters and secure all files and safes where confidential documents were held.

I was in and out of the NCC Sydney HQ – a modest office space in Porter House, in Castlereagh  Street – all the time in those days. The NCC national office got a tip-off from within the federal government or its bureaucracy that a raid was being seriously considered on the NCC offices as well. Whether this raid was to be carried out, like the ASIO raid, by the Commonwealth Police, or whether by ASIO itself, was unclear. If it had been carried out by ASIO, the NCC would almost certainly have had some precise, advance warning.

The political outcome of such a raid would have been dynamite. If the NCC’s files had been seized and published this would have gravely damaged the Labor Right figures who worked so closely with it.

For a few days hundreds and hundreds of files were shredded, many of them union pamphlets and how-to-vote cards …The NCC resembled the Ottoman Empire in its attention to record keeping. Peter Westmore would write a weekly report to national HQ on his activities …

Even after shredding a lot of documents, in order just to function the NCC had to keep some records … For a few weeks, there was a roster of volunteers who slept overnight in the office on a camp bed, not to resist any raid but to urgently ring the lawyers if such a thing happened. One fellow who took his turn at the roster was Steve Harrison, who was then the leader of the NCC group at Macquarie University … He went on to a high-powered career in the union movement, for a time leading the ironworkers union nationally and playing a big role in the AWU. (pp. 96-9)

At this time Sheridan was writing stories for the NCC’s Newsweekly magazine anonymously (p. 99). He was by now well entrenched into the workings of the NCC:

Although still in high school, in 1973 I was invited to join Peter [Westmore] and Jeff [Phillips] and about twenty university activists on a bus trip to Melbourne … home of Santa [Bob Santamaria] and the beating heart of so many great ideological battles. We went for a training weekend at the Jesuit institution, Belloc House. There I saw Santa for the first time. He gave a spellbinding address on the global and Australian political situation. (p. 100)

In 1974, Sheridan went to the NCC’s national seminar, held at the De La Salle College, Malvern in Melbourne, where Gerard Henderson gave a keynote speech (p. 101). Sheridan writes:

The great thing I felt from going to these many different meetings was the sense of getting inside information, getting an accurate version of the big picture that few other people could get. The NCC certainly had its limitations but as an information and analysis network it had few equals. First of all, it controlled several big unions. Some of the leaders of these unions would give us hard-headed, no-holds-barred assessments of what was happening in the union movement and the Labor Party. At the highest levels, the NCC also had good relations with the leaders of the Liberal and Country parties. For 20 years it had a group of DLP Senators. It systematically studied all far-left movements. It had a limited but long and collaborative relationship with ASIO and insights into other security agencies. Santamaria himself had relationships with military chiefs. Santa had at that time a unique network of close friends and contacts throughout Southeast Asia, especially among anti-communist governments and movements, and among Catholic organisations. (pp. 102-3)

Interestingly Sheridan reveals: “As time went by, especially after an internal NCC split [!] took the unions away from it around 1980-82, the NCC moved further away from its best sources of information” (p.104). But in the early ‘70s we are told that the NCC had a training camp at Bilgola north of Sydney. Regular speakers at the camp, besides Peter Westmore, were journalist Peter Samuel, Professor Peter Lawrence and Joe De Bruyn (SDA).

There were lectures on Vietnam and PNG. An NCC union official told us about industrial politics. He said there were career opportunities emerging in the union movement … there would be openings for graduates prepared to work as research officers, industrial advocates, union organisers out in the field, and in office management … I attended two or three such NCC camps at Bilgola. Tony Abbott went once too … (pp. 104–5)

Sheridan provides information on how the NCC worked with the Right wing of the ALP to try to wrest ‘Left’ control of unions. One example was the FIA Port Kembla branch. “Privately Bob [O’Connell] told me how important these campaigns were. They were important not only in themselves, to keep the unions out of communist hands, but for the credibility of the NCC” (p. 107).

O’Connell told Sheridan that: “If you want to run a campaign against communist control of a union there’s only two groups that can do it, us and the NSW Labor Council, in other words the right-wing of the ALP” (p. 107).

Of 1975, Sheridan writes:

I threw myself into political activity. This was the year of the fall of South Vietnam to the communists, and the fall of the Whitlam government to Sir John Kerr. Saigon’s fall was the most important and bitter event of my life up until then. (p. 113)

Apparently, Sheridan “wept” in his bedroom. He was “overwhelmed with a searing grief” when Saigon fell (pp. 116-7). Sheridan reveals the NCC helped Malcolm Fraser in 1975 onwards because he was more inclined to help Vietnamese refugees (p. 121).[1]

Sheridan discusses at length the fate of the South Vietnamese who had worked for the Australians during the war. Yet he had already acknowledged that Australia had pulled out its troops three years before Saigon fell and the US had done basically the same thing, leaving their domestic ‘allies’ in the lurch. Sheridan is silent on this.

The “misguided youth” laments that South Vietnam could not be saved, as South Korea had been after the stalemate of the Korean War twenty years earlier. He describes South Korea today as a “brilliant society” (p. 120). He offers no acknowledgement that South Korea was run, before and after the war, by a vicious dictator – Syng-man Rhee, who, with the help of the then nascent CIA, murdered thousands of his countrymen and women because they were trade unionists, teachers, rural reformers and social activists of various hues.

This murderous purge process was to be carried out ten-fold in 1965 in Indonesia, where hit lists were created, again with the assistance of the CIA, that saw a million citizens murdered. Also, the recent attempted coup and counter coup in Turkey has lessons.[2]


Of the radical politics of the 1970s and 1980s, Sheridan makes a number of observations that suggest a confusion of its form and composition.

According to Sheridan the Australian Union of Students (AUS) was “the jewel in the left’s crown, specifically the Communist Party’s crown, second only to the giant metalworkers union” (p. 123). And in the 1970s and 1980s the dismantling of the AUS becomes a “cause celebre” for Greg Sheridan and his close friend Tony Abbott.

There were other targets too, including the radical Victorian ALP socialist left activist of the period Bill Hartley. Sheridan writes: “I went to see Bob Hawke at his Sandringham home to talk about Hartley. Hawke was bitter about Hartley’s role in the ALP” (p. 123).

Sheridan was always broadening his contacts. We learn that he met with Sam Lipski, newly appointed editor of Quadrant, “the political-literary magazine of the anti-communists in the Cold War”, as news of Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam came through (pp. 137-8).

In the following year, Sheridan went to Sydney University where his friendship with the future right-wing Prime Minister blossomed over a “shared … taste for polemical writing”. The pair gravitated to the Democratic Club, which put out a weekly broadsheet called the Democrat. As Sheridan explains, “In 1976 [it] was mostly written by Tony Rogers … [who] sported an effective Che Guevara hairstyle and impressive, drooping, revolutionary moustache. As ASIO might have put it, he and I had a lot of ‘natural cover’ among student activists”. By 1977, Abbott and Sheridan “jointly authorised”, “almost all the issues of Democrat” (pp. 149-52).

AUS national conferences became key events for the bonded pair to attend. Michael Danby becomes a key acquaintance.

Sheridan laments the demonstration at Monash University in August 1976, when PM Malcolm Fraser was locked up in a toilet. (This was led by Students for Australian Independence). Anti-left students like John Herzog (QLD) and Ian Blandthorn (VIC. a known NCC operative) were publicly condemned as agents of ASIO and/or Commonwealth Police. As was confidante Michael Danby. Such events justified in Sheridan’s mind that the AUS had to be gutted.

Sheridan was particularly upset about the wide range of political and social causes pursued by the AUS on campuses across the country, especially with the Vietnam War being over. They included women’s liberation, gay rights, Aboriginal land rights, environmental issues, workers’ rights, anti-colonial movements support (esp. on the African continent), and the list goes on. It was all too much for the NCC ‘hero’.

He tells the story of the NCC wanting to protect a pro-NCC delegate at an AUS conference. He spoke to Santamaria. He writes:

He didn’t promise anything. He wasn’t sure what he could do. But he would look into it as a matter of urgency. As it happened, the NCC had an ex-military policeman among its supporters. He and a couple of friends suddenly became observers at the AUS conference … they formed a small security flying squad for the conservative delegate. (p. 170)

We are told the NCC initially disagreed about dismantling the AUS. Santamaria apparently supported the concept of unions and people being in one! However, Sheridan, Abbott, and Peter Costello (who had joined the anti-AUS push) eventually won the internal argument:

Finally the NCC itself realised that getting campuses to disaffiliate or secede from AUS was the best way to deny resources to the far left … Peter Costello went to see Bob Santamaria privately to try to get him to change the NCC’s policy … Peter rang the NCC headquarters and asked for an appointment. Santa was happy to see him. Peter, though not remotely a DLP supporter or associated with the NCC, admired Santa for his trenchant intellectual anti-communism. (p. 175)

The desperation to deny resources to any progressive cause was paramount. Sheridan and Co at this point start to use the media more significantly for their desperate anti-left cause. Writing, or organising the publication of, articles in the Australian, the Bulletin, the Catholic Weekly and, of course, Quadrant.

In addition to this media activity, the group also started to lobby Liberal Government Ministers:

A more astringent interview was with Senator John Carrick, the federal education minister. We wanted him to make compulsory student unionism illegal, a position that in time became Liberal Party orthodoxy and which John Howard and Tony [Abbott] later pursued in parliament. (p. 183)

Dirty tricks became second nature to Sheridan, as can be seen from the following subtle, but telling, comment:

At campus we were dealing with young people … I had worn a beard continuously since the day I left school … I thought it was good politics. I thought that we shouldn’t hide or disguise our policies or principles but nor should we needlessly distance ourselves from students culturally. I urged fellow Democrat Club members to grow their hair a bit longer. (p.185)

Sheridan became close friends with Michael Danby (Vic ALP) and Michael Easson (NSW ALP). He met Danby at a special AUS conference in 1977.

Michael [Danby] was a dedicated Labor man…Like me, he let student politics and other activities consume a lot of energy at the expense of his formal studies … His political identity was mainstream Labor and in the best tradition of true social democrats, he was a doughty foe of extremists on the left. In Democrat we had already started praising Danby for his courage. It was fatal for an ALP student like Danby to have a formal alliance with NCC groups, because the NCC was banned in the ALP. But an informal alliance of all moderate and mainstream people did come into being … Danby and I became such good friends that in subsequent years when I went to Melbourne I would stay with him and his wife. Also, I wanted to make a lot of contacts in mainstream Labor. Michael introduced me to many Labor people in Melbourne. (pp. 193-94)

Michael Easson, as an officer at the NSW ALP head office, facilitated Sheridan’s membership of the ALP, despite the Party’s prohibition on the NCC. By the end of the 1970s Sheridan left university and had become an NCC trade union organiser (p. 194 and p. 222). He writes of wanting to continue to pursue “the grim, politics of the Cold War” (p. 196), but his first job is to participate in a dirty demarcation dispute between two right-wing unions, the AWU and the SDA. He shaved off his beard, a requirement of the SDA leadership.

The SDA is historically linked to the NCC. But the main game is still the left. A mooted amalgamation in 1977 between the AWU and BWIU became a great concern.

The BWIU was led by Pat Clancy and controlled by the Socialist Party of Australia. The SPA was the slavishly pro-Soviet communist party … Indeed, eighteen months after the proposed amalgamation was announced, Clancy was given the Order of People’s Friendship by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Moscow regarded Clancy as so important that this award was front-page news in Pravda … shop assistants and the public generally, tended to associate the BWIU with the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF), led by the extremely militant Norm Gallagher, who belonged to the pro-China Communist Party.

What had these differences in communist dogma to do with Australian shop assistants? The answer: nothing at all.

Brian O’Neill was the secretary of the NSW branch of the SDA. He publicly opposed the proposed amalgamation with the BWIU. Immediately he did so, the federal SDA came to his assistance (p. 202).

Stopping the BWIU expanding its influence and coverage of workers was paramount. Jim Maher, Joe De Bruyn and Brian O’Neill are all SDA-NCC leaders who helped Sheridan into the big league. Another key operation in the early 1980s was to get the four NCC aligned unions in Victoria back into the ALP (achieved by April 1985).

The SDA was one of the four big, right-wing unions that re-joined the Victorian branch of the ALP under the guidance of Bob Hawke …The other three were the ironworkers, the clerks, and the carpenters.

Everybody knew what the politics of those unions was. None-the-less because the NCC was officially proscribed by the ALP, if you were ambitious for a career in Labor politics you played down NCC connections. (p. 211)

What Sheridan doesn’t comment on, or explain, is that the vote at the Victorian ALP state conference, that readmitted the four unions, was won via the votes from the left-wing AMWU led by John Halfpenny. The Metal Workers Union was a supposed “jewel” in the Communist Party’s crown with Halfpenny having been a leading member up until the 1970s.

Sheridan doesn’t stop for breath.

While I was at the SDA, I kept freelancing for the Bulletin, under the pen-name Lance Millard, a name that the Bulletin made up for me. I also freelanced for the Australian, under the name Paul Mann … The SDA didn’t mind what I did in my spare time but also found my media contacts useful. (p. 213)

Sheridan brags about his time in the union movement.

Overall the operation in the SDA was a tremendous success. Maher and De Bruyn built the biggest union in Australia. The NSW operation helped consolidate the SDA and build it into a tremendous power in national industrial and political life. If we had lost, many things would have been different in Australian politics, not least the character of the Labor Party. (p. 224)


Amidst all of the busy union and social activity, the thing I enjoyed most was continuing to write articles … In mid-1978 I could rejoice in the Bulletin, or at least my alter ego, Lance Millard, could, that the Victorian, Western Australian and federal governments all had legislation to outlaw compulsory student membership of political organisations. (pp. 225-56)

Late in 1978 Tony Abbott won the presidency of the SRC at Sydney University.

Tony’s election occasioned my first piece for the Australian … it led the opinion page … and was placed right next to a column by B A Santamaria. I was writing about Tony a lot … He was leading the fight against the extremists on campus and it was a fight I wanted to support. (p. 226)

By 1979 Sheridan is embedded at the Bulletin. Along with fellow journalists like Bob Carr, Trevor Kennedy and Malcolm Turnbull the targets become the broader union movement and whatever the upcoming ACTU or ALP conferences were to deal with.

Most of us at the Bulletin were mini-crusaders for our own causes … the Bulletin ran extensive coverage of communism internationally and within Australia. To some extent I under-studied Bob Carr in this. I began almost at once to write about intelligence agencies.

It was the Bulletin’s revelations of corruption on the wharves that led to the Costigan Royal Commission on the Painters and Dockers’ Union. This Royal Commission ran out of control and led to absurd and baseless allegations of criminality, and even murder, against Kerry Packer himself, but the Bulletin’s initial stories … were great pieces of investigative journalism. (p. 243)

Again, Sheridan skips over issues that don’t fit his ideological mission. Forget about the sideshow that concerned Kerry Packer, the Costigan RC found huge rorting and corruption in the wider corporate and business sector, with the infamous ‘Bottom-of-the-Harbour’ tax dodging schemes being exposed.

When Bob Carr stood for the NSW State Parliament in 1983 Sheridan helped Michael Easson “hand out How-To-Vote cards for him” (p. 247). By now self-delusion has taken over ‘hero’ Sheridan:

I no longer wanted to join anything or run anything. Rather, I wanted to change the world by writing about it. I had to get my new relationship with the NCC on the right footing. The NCC had no formal membership system, so I was not a member of it [!] … A couple of years later Tony Abbott would say, of himself, in a newspaper interview: ‘If the NCC had members, I guess I would be a member’. The same was true of me until I joined the Bulletin. After that, I was completely independent. (pp. 248-49)

In fact, by now Sheridan had been created as a classic ‘agent-at-large’, a real ‘agent of influence’ for the NCC and the nation’s arch conservative forces. He was an unapologetic spokesperson for big business, both domestic and foreign who ran Australia.

I didn’t want to be tagged as an NCC journalist. It wouldn’t be true, in that I was certainly not directed or controlled by the NCC, and it wouldn’t be fair … But an identification with NCC would be damaging. I was happy to be judged on what I wrote but not on any alleged secret memberships, hidden loyalties and the like … At the same time the NCC was for my first few years in journalism still the source of a lot of information for me. (p. 250)

He protests too much. He wanted his cake and to eat it too.

Sheridan keeps spilling the beans: “Unknown to me, NCC people already had a raft of connections to the Bulletin.” Frank Packer greatly admired Bob Santamaria and Jack Kane. He put Santa on television on his Channel Nine. He regarded the DLP as central in preventing an unduly left-influenced Labor from gaining office. He donated money to the DLP.

Before Bob Carr arrived at the Bulletin, many industrial relations articles appeared there under the by-line of one Joe Manton. Joe Manton’s pieces were so authoritative and well written … But no Joe Manton ever existed. On the basis of the political line these articles took … I thought it might have been the pen-name for John Maynes, the NCC leader of the clerks’ union. In fact, the articles were written by Mike O’Sullivan, a senior official at the clerks’ union who had previously worked full time at the NCC office. (pp. 251-52)

Sheridan reveals how close, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bulletin magazine was to the NCC and carried out its propaganda via its editor Trevor Kennedy:

Trevor Kennedy was also a friend of Jack Kane’s, who remained close to the NCC’s union operations and who was a big fund-raiser for Santamaria. After a few years at the Bulletin I became very friendly with Jack. He used to have regular lunches in his office with Alan Jones, the radio broadcaster, Bob O’Connell, and John Wheeldon, a former Whitlam government minister who would be a friend and colleague of mine at the Australian. (p. 253)

It was all a great tie-in, into the clandestine organisation that created Greg Sheridan. Big Jack Kane was one of the backroom men for the NCC inside the ALP and trade union movement milieu. When he died in 1988 Sheridan reveals Tony Abbott ghost-wrote Kane’s memoirs – Exploding the Myths (p. 255). The future conservative PM apparently also wrote newsletters for Jack Kane aimed at influencing “union politics” (p. 255). Meanwhile Sheridan kept focused on one of his missions:

I was to learn a lot about union elections and the world of Labor’s ideological struggles while working at the Bulletin.

The NSW right of the Labor Party (esp. the Labour Council) and the NCC co-operated in two big anti-left internal union elections that I heard [sic] about, and sometimes wrote about, while I was at the Bulletin.

The first was a concerted effort to challenge control of the Communist Party and the far left in what was then the AMWU. This campaign went on all the years I was at the Bulletin and beyond (p. 256).

The purpose of this particular campaign was straight forward. To protect US interests in Australia across the board.

The push against the left in the AMWU was all of a piece of Hawke’s effort over several years to bring the four right-wing unions into the ALP. This was part of Hawke’s effort to permanently change the ALP. Hawke was an immensely successful Prime Minister. He all but destroyed the left’s influence on foreign policy and national security … he changed the internal workings of the party to reduce the influence of the left. He worked at this for some years before he entered parliament … Hawke’s strongest supporter was Kim Beazley, who had views on national security, the US alliance and Australian defence that the left hated.

The resources of the Bulletin were used in a modest way to help the AMWU challengers. At a Sydney function that Bob Carr and I attended, Bob organised for one of the Bulletin’s photographers to take a posed photograph of the right-wing challenger, Charlie Bali, who was standing against the AMWU ruling team for the position of national organiser, with Bob Hawke. (p. 257)

Bob Hawke’s involvement in the internal affairs of the AMWU was known in various circles of the union movement. Yet the Victorian AMWU Secretary supported the re-entry of the four right-wing unions at a tumultuous ALP state conference at Coburg Town Hall in April 1985, to the chagrin of many other left leaning party affiliated unions. Sheridan speculates: “Perhaps the sense of being under threat because of their political extremism contributed to the AMWU’s relative moderation under Hawke’s wages accord” (p. 257).

In 1987 John Halfpenny stood for a Victorian Senate seat in that year’s federal election. He was unsuccessful due to preferences being directed away from him by several left unions.

Sheridan also comments on the NCC’s campaign against the leadership of the NSW Teachers Federation in the 1980s. An NCC candidate, Ivan Pagett, was successful for one term in office. He failed to change “the political orientation of the union” (p. 158). The fact that Pagett got anywhere at all was testament that some progressive unions at the time were quite complacent about taking the anti-union operations of the NCC seriously enough. Proper briefings and discussion with the rank-in-file was not a priority.

Sheridan reveals how John Maynes, through his role on the ACTU Executive as the FCU chief delegate, “cooperated with the NCC on the anti-left campaign in the AMWU and Teachers Federation” (p. 259). This revelation begs a question of what these big left unions were doing allowing the ACTU to be involved in this way. The ACTU had wider impacts on the broader union movement in the 1980s.

When the ACTU delegation, led by Secretary Bill Kelty, returned from a Swedish fact finding mission in the late 1980s, the Australian union movement was presented with a “survival master plan” based on “consolidation”. Unions would coalesce, amalgamate into natural “blocks” based on the relevant services and industrial sectors where they had members. It all went pear-shaped. The move to bigger and fewer unions was sold as a ‘circle the wagons’ strategy in the face of persistent conservative political attack and the growing evolvement of globalisation on the national economy.

Sheridan’s right-wing unions were quick to adapt to the ‘rationalisation’ game. Unions like the Ironworkers, AWU, Clerks’ Union and SDA began swallowing up smaller unions far quicker than the left unions. This happened, regardless of the particular Services/Industry criteria originally set down by the blueprint from Sweden. Sheridan’s right-wing unions embraced ‘rationalisation’ far quicker than the left unions. The Ironworkers, AWU, Clerk’s Union and SDA swallowed up smaller unions of their political persuasion. The left unions moved to follow suit. It became an ‘arms race’ type scenario. It was a stampede between left and right that had little to do with defending workers’ wages and conditions.

It was a disaster.

Instead of consolidating and growing the union movement, it was an acceleration of the slippery slope from nearly 50 per cent of union coverage in the late 1970s to just 19 per cent of the nation’s workforce by 2015.

Without specialised, dedicated union representation, craft by craft, trade by trade, skill by skill, profession by profession, working people from smaller associations politically co-opted to a designated bigger union became satellite fringe groupings. They tended not to identify with the ‘parent’ union on a number of levels and drifted away.

The nominated ‘super’ unions may have been bigger than the size of the originally designated core union but virtually from the start of the process never retained numerically the potential sum total of memberships from co-opted smaller unions. Employers across the board, bar a few exceptions, watched on as union organisers turned up less and less, to small and medium enterprises. The reshaped union movement struggled to adjust.

Sheridan reveals more of the Right’s tricks at the time:

Unions needed money to defend themselves … So many unions had fighting funds. Sometimes officials contributed part of their salaries to do this. Businesses might advertise in union journals or buy tables at union fund-raising dinners.

There was also a great deal of corporate giving, little of which was ever disclosed. When John Ducker was the boss of the [NSW] Labour Council, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from business for use in union elections … Ducker sought and received donations from Packer. A lot of donations were mediated through companies associated with the Metal Trades Industry Association. (p.261)

Sheridan continues:

The Labor Party had other institutional assistance resisting the coms, other strange allies. Occasionally ASIO would meet senior Labor Party office holders to tell them about communist efforts at infiltration of the ALP, especially about ALP members who might be dual card-holders for the Communist Party.[3]

Much is made of ASIO’s occasional liaison with the NCC. It also had systematic liaison with the ALP. Some of ASIO’s officers tried to recruit some Labor figures as regular informants on the activities of the communists they came in contact with …

There was a danger of injustice in the relationship between ASIO and Labor, that ASIO may have given inaccurate information about people. On the other hand, being a communist, even a secret communist, was not a crime. [!] (p. 262)

Sheridan might well acknowledge that being a communist is not a crime in Australia, but most of his political work didn’t affect ‘communists’ at all. He and the NCC impacted on progressive and social activists of all sorts, especially unions and unionists, who were not communist. Ninety-nine per cent of people targeted by Sheridan, the NCC and their friends at ASIO probably voted for the ALP and never uttered a desire for the imposition of a communist style regime in Australia. They did argue against many conservative government policies and for more socially progressive changes in society overall. Sheridan didn’t care: “For me the internal battles within and among unions were a great story and part of the wider political struggle of the Cold War” (p. 263). And yet he struggles to stay focused:

I have serious respect for sincere people committed to left-wing values, even if I disagree with many of their policy conclusions. Left-wing values often emanate from a concern for the poor or an objection to injustice. I admire people who live a life according to such principles. And even far-left union leaders often had a genuine concern for the welfare of their members … But I cannot have respect for communism as an ideology. (pp. 279-80)

Sheridan makes some interesting observations. One was when he met arch-conservative academic Frank Knopfelmacher (known by the nickname ‘Franta’). He reports:

Knowing I had been associated in the past with the NCC, he [Knopfelmacher] gave me a good character read on NCC activists: ‘The Santamaria types are a very unusual group, you don’t find them elsewhere in Australia, they are half altar boy and half ruthless gangster’.

He argued against taking a too strong a line against Norm Gallagher’s notorious BLF, because they were Maoists and the real threat in the world was came from the Soviet Union: ‘In any confrontation with the Soviet Union it is helpful to have one billion Chinese on your side’. (pp. 286-87)

Another observation concerned Sheridan’s praise of author Christopher Koch, especially about his novel, The Year Of Living Dangerously, about the Suharto military takeover of Indonesia in 1965 (p. 295). But there is no mention of up to one million people being slaughtered over the subsequent year. It is now well established that the vast majority of these victims were not PKI but agrarian reformers, social activists, teachers, trade unionists and farmers wanting a better country to live in.

Sheridan knew Koch was involved in the Quadrant magazine, which was an “anti-communist” publication, but “temperamentally liberal conservative” (p. 295). Sheridan concedes the magazine …

was part of the Association for Cultural Freedom, whose international body turned out, unknown to all of us, to have received some funds from the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Quadrant operated at the bloody crossroads I often found myself patrolling. My first big project for Quadrant arose from a collaborative effort with Nicolas Rothwell when he worked at the Australian and I was at the Bulletin. (p. 296)

After Sheridan started working full-time at the Australian, which he said was “the best move I ever made” (p. 312), he covered a NSW ALP conference at Sydney Town Hall in the middle of 1984. Paul Keating took the Left on in full-frontal style to convert the ALP to modern economic reform.

‘And let me say just this,’ Keating roared from the stage as the Left booed and the Right cheered, ‘let me just tell you this, only the conservatives, only the real conservatives’, then a glower at the BWIU delegation at the front, ‘will oppose the internationalisation of the Australian economy’. (p. 324).

Over thirty years later Greg Sheridan is still at the Australian carrying out the mission he was talent spotted and trained for; pushing the ALP more and more to conservative policies, lamenting progressive causes and promoting US military, intelligence and economic interests not only in Australia but in the wider region.[4]

As can be seen by Sheridan’s own words, as if broadcast with a megaphone, the 1970s and 1980s period of political protest, social upheaval and militant unionism was targeted by secret and semi-secret operations, aimed principally at thwarting and closely monitoring legitimate dissent. His book shows there was no uncovering of ‘nests of traitors’ operating as a fifth column for a foreign power with a masterplan to seize the reins of government.[5]

Clearly the NCC helped ASIO to accumulate lists of activists on campus, within the ALP and inside trade unions. This task is well documented in the 2014 book Dirty Secrets – our ASIO files, edited by Meredith Burgmann. There are 26 contributors in Burgmann’s book, most of whom expressed their “surprise by the lack of analysis in the reports [about them in their ASIO files]”. They missed the point. Most of their records were about collating lists; lists of who they were with at protests, at work and even socially. It was all about the lists and “nothing about what people thought or believed”.

Greg Sheridan’s story is but a glimpse of a much wider global political phenomenon. He opens a small window into many incredible injustices imposed on many parts of the world during the ‘Cold War’. In the name of stemming the so called ‘Worldwide Communist Conspiracy’ hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, suffered incarceration, victimisation, torture and death. The only crime of the vast majority of these people was to seek national independence, self-determination, social justice, proper wages and conditions, rural land reform, or fair economic distribution.

Many others sought to be concerned about human rights, the environment, world peace, women’s rights, employee collective rights (eg: the right to strike), gay rights, multinational control of key national industries, poverty, racism, land rights and so on.

Many of these issues also concerned countless thousands of Australians over the years. Any many of them attracted the invasive attention of ASIO, which generated a massive filing system and compiled watch lists. Ninety-nine per cent of these people could not, on any measure, be declared a secret member of the ‘Communist Conspiracy’. All were, in fact, genuine, patriotic activists, with varied levels of commitment, interested in improving Australia as a nation state, socially, economically and progressively.

ASIO’s obsessive spying over many decades never found a covert, widespread network of hardcore ‘agents’ trying to turn Australia into a client state for the old USSR. Simply no comparison can be made, for example, with what a number of democratic nation states faced leading up to and during World War II, when dedicated fifth column spy cells tried to cause chaos on behalf of Nazi Germany (eg. Quislings, Mosleyites, etc.). Nonetheless, over time many progressive thinking citizens faced aggressive reactionary forces working to preserve privilege and the status quo. ASIO, for most of its history, assisted this process.

At the end of his book Sheridan poses the proposition: “When we were young, we had a licence to be foolish” (p. 352). There is nothing foolish in a lifelong career to undermine progressive causes and the lives of tens of thousands of activist citizens associated with them. He concludes with the question: “Will God forgive me for my wrongs?” (p. 353). No one can speak for God but there are countless people who will not forgive him for his role in the subversion of their democratic rights.




[1] Sheridan interestingly does not comment on the formation of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NUFLV) set up in both Australia and the US in the early 1980s. Created by former pro-US, ex South Vietnamese military commanders who infiltrated refugee groups, this organisation was known to ASIO and the NCC. In the US, recent de-classified FBI documents show the ‘Front’ was linked to murders and serious assaults on other Vietnamese refugees because they would not help fund their activities. The NUFLV was led by a former Vietnamese Naval officer, Hoang Co Minh, who wanted to reclaim Vietnam by forcing the thousands of post-1975 Vietnamese refugees scattered across the globe, to join his cause. ‘Front’ agents in Australia were known to have ambushed a picnic of Vietnamese refugees in Sept. 1983 at the Black Mountain Peninsula that juts out into Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Many Vietnamese community members recall “intimidation and standover tactics” used by the ’Front’ in order to raise money. The murder of an Adelaide businessman has been linked to the NUFLV. Mr Vo Van Ngo’s body was found bashed and stabbed on the Hume Hwy, near Wangaratta in Dec. 1985. ASIO said nothing at the time. There was other violence linked to the ‘Front’, including shots fired at the Vietnamese Embassy in O’Malley, Canberra and the bashing of Vietnamese students attending Canberra CAE. Hoang, the ‘Front’ leader, was killed in 1987 leading a group of fighters into Vietnam from Laos. Sheridan is silent on these matters.

[2] In July 2016 the findings of The International People’s Tribunal made public some of its key findings with respect to the military led purge and seizure of power in Indonesia that started in October 1965. The IPT held hearings in The Hague in November 2015 and found the slaughter of over 500,000 people was aimed at “annihilating a section of the population and could be categorised as genocide”. It also found that the US supplied lists of names of people to be rounded up when there was a strong presumption this would lead to their arrest and/or execution. “The UK and Australia conducted a sustained campaign repeating false propaganda from the Indonesian army, and that they continued with this policy even after it became abundantly clear that killings and other crimes against humanity were taking place on a mass and indiscriminate basis.” In 1966 then Australian PM Harold Holt said in a speech in New York about the Indonesian massacre, that “with 500,000 to one million communist sympathisers knocked off … I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place”. The report also said the propaganda against those accused of being linked to the PKI helped to justify the extra-legal persecution, detention and the killing of alleged suspects, and to legitimise sexual violence and other inhumane conduct.

Witnesses who started to speak out after Suharto resigned said the “majority who suffered during the anti-communist witch-hunt were innocent civilians. Many were tortured and detained without trial because of mere suspicion that they were friends or relatives of PKI members”. The ethnic Chinese population, en masse, were also singled out for vicious violent treatment. More evidence about the systematic and massive abuses by the Indonesian army in 1965-66 can be read in the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia of 2012 which spent four years interviewing 349 witnesses and victims of the 1965 purge. The Commission, a government agency, recommended the prosecution of army officials involved in the killings. More importantly, it found “adequate initial evidence” that state forces committed various crimes against humanity. The recommendations were not acted on by the government.

The recent attempted coup and counter coup in Turkey in July 2016 saw mass arrests, sackings and purges of tens of thousands of soldiers, police, teachers, academics, judges, journalists, some politicians and assorted public servants. Some commentators have made comparisons with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power with the round ups after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979-81 and Hitler’s exploitation of the Reichstag fire to declare a state of emergency in 1933 and basically abolish the rule of law in Germany. That thousands are being held in sports stadiums around Turkey is also reminiscent of the coup in Chile in 1973. The speed and scale of Erdogan’s reaction has been described as “breathtaking” and “cannot possibly be based on evidence of complicity in the failed coup”. The declaration by his regime of a three months’ state of emergency to take extra-legal steps to “cleanse” the state apparatus and armed forces of “perceived enemies” has been described as “worrying”. The government eventually admitted it had “prepared lists” long before the coup was attempted.

[3] The Drum – ABC on-line, published on 27 August 2013, an article entitled: “The real threat to Australia’s sovereignty”, by Julian Assange. He wrote in part:

All countries need a strong defence to maintain their sovereignty and self-determination and to ensure they are not imposed upon by others. But are our interests best served by subordinating Australia’s military, diplomatic and natural resources to US agendas? Even former PM Malcolm Fraser now says that Australia has become beholden to US interests. This is not just a matter of military and intelligence capacities; it also runs to economic and corporate policies … It is rife in, mainstream Australian politics, especially in the ALP, for senior figures to be compromised by US connections. Take Bob Carr, for example, our current Foreign Minister, who was sucked into the US system back in the 1970s when he was feeding information to the US embassy about the Australian union movement. He admits that while working with the unions in his 20s he met with the US embassy … Or consider Mark Arbib, formerly a member of the Labor cabinet and one of the primary power-brokers that put Gillard in place in the coup against Rudd. In US cables released by Wikileaks, he is described as a key source for the US embassy throughout his political rise. The Kissinger Cables released by Wikileaks this year also reveal the extent of Bob Hawke’s attempted political subversion by giving the US political intelligence on the Whitlam government.

At the time it is interesting Arbib and Hawke didn’t deny these 2013 assertions. In fact Arbib not only resigned from cabinet soon after, but parliament as well and disappeared into obscurity.

[4] On 21 July 2016 Greg Sheridan wrote a puff piece about the then visit to Australia by US Vice-President Joe Biden. Under the headlines: “A tough strategic narrative underpins America’s optimism––Vice-President Biden reminds us the US is here to stay, with our help, as an Asian power”. He wrote: “US Vice-President Joe Biden gave a very good and also an important speech in Sydney yesterday … The lesson he read to Australia and the region is don’t lose faith in America. The US remains the most powerful player in Asia and is central both to security and the region’s economy”.

[5] From The spy catchers-The Official History of ASIO-1949-1963, Vol. 1, David Horner wrote:

One contentious issue concerning ASIO … was the extent to which it co-operated with other anti-communist organisations, including the RSL, the Movement (later known as the National Civic Council) and the Sane Democracy League … The anti-communist organisation from which ASIO received the most information was called the Movement, although ASIO in its files called it Catholic Action. Headed by a Catholic lawyer, BA Santamaria, the Movement was a network of Catholic activists who were working to counter communist influence within the trade unions.

From The Protest Years-The Official History of ASIO-1963-1975, Vol. 2, John Blaxland wrote:

In the meantime, ASIO’s efforts at fostering a more positive image were being undermined by its engagement with other organisations, although ASIO didn’t see it that way. ASIO officers thought that their relations with the RSL, the Liberal Party and the DLP were ‘positive’.

The DLP’s association with the NCC is described in Volume 1. In the very next paragraph Blaxland reports:

When Senator McClelland, a minister in the Whitlam government, claimed there were ‘strong suggestions’ of links between the DLP and some members of ASIO, ASIO replied that ’No such links exist’, it claimed, stressing further that ‘ASIO maintains no connections with any political party, but merely serves the government of the day’.[!] ASIO’s relations with the NCC went back to 1949, when it inherited contact with the linked group, Catholic Action, from the Commonwealth Investigation Service … Their [ie CA] objective was to destroy the ‘Coalition of the Left’ which they saw as including various communist groups, Trotskyists, anarchists, and the ‘ALP Socialist Left’ as well as draft resisters and ‘humanists’.

Under the sub-heading ‘Reflections’, Blaxland writes:

One [ASIO] writer observed that communist domination of the 1950s peace movement appeared to fit ‘comfortably into ASIO’s world-view. But ASIO did not adjust well to the emergence of a different anti-war movement in the 1960s and, in effect, ASIO had ‘turned dissent into disloyalty’.


1 thought on “Nothing Foolish Here

  1. Nick Butler says:

    Well done Brian, especially your explanatory notes at the end.

    Why did Sheridan write this stuff, I wonder? Perhaps some move towards the IPA which seems to be in the ascendent now.

    Nick Butler


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