Australia: change when change is required

Greg Sheridan, When We Were Young And Foolish: A Memoir of My Misguided Youth with Tony Abbott, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Other Reprobates, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2015

Sean Jacobs

It’s often said that many young Australians find public debate bitter and lacking in civility. Greg Sheridan’s When We Were Young And Foolish, however, gives some perspective on the political currents of past generations, which make today’s social landscape appear mild by comparison.

Although Sheridan looks at the political elites of Australian politics he actually devotes more time to exploring the political landscape where they cut their teeth: the Catholic-Protestant divide, Labor’s split over communism and the venom of student and union politics. These, thankfully, are cleavages no longer dividing Australian life.

‘For more than 150 years,’ Sheridan writes, ‘Catholic versus Protestant was the key divide of our nation.’ Some newspaper job advertisements, as late as the 1960s, even confronted Catholics that they needn’t apply. Marrying across the ‘divide’ was enough to split families, as Sheridan’s own experience as a young Sydney-sider attests, and professions could be divided along denominational lines. Despite talk of inequality, ‘ceilings’ and discrimination young Australians can be thankful that career and social life is no longer led by what type of Christianity they follow.

Communism is another seismic international and domestic force that young Australians will find hard to appreciate. ‘I didn’t want my government supporting a communist victory in Vietnam,’ reflects Sheridan on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, ‘because everywhere the communists won in the twentieth century they brought re-education camps, gulags, dictatorship, oppression and economic misery.’

It’s puzzling why so many Australians not only cheered for a communist win in Vietnam but how such a depraved ideology achieved support among Australian political parties and unions. The Communist Party of Australia, writes Sheridan, ‘seldom took a position at odds with Moscow’ while the Socialist Party of Australia ‘slavishly followed the Soviet line on everything.’ Both parties, rather than being fringe political dwellers, possessed control of significant unions. Communist support within the Labor Party, in fact, contributed to the great 1955 Labor Split and the formation of the (anti-Communist) Democratic Labor Party.

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