July 1996. Sydney Cricket Ground. Trust office. Two new Trustees are visiting the Ground for the first time since their appointment. Neither has been to the Trust office before. They are super keen, manic some say, like children unwrapping Christmas presents. The Chief Executive has invited the pair to the office to see its operations, to receive a briefing on venues politics – and to meet the Chairman of the Trust.
Introductions are made, unnecessary though they be.
“Sir Nicholas,” we say.
“Call me Nick, please.”
The briefing takes place by the pool adjacent to the Sydney Football Stadium. It is spellbinding. Conventional wisdom is the SCG will not survive the 2000 Olympic Games: at Homebush tax dollars are funding new, purpose-built facilities on a grand scale that will offer seating capacity and creature comforts far superior to the SCG and beyond the capacity of its members to pay for.
In March 1995 NSW elected a Labor government. It is the first Labor government in the history of the state in which its members (excepting Michael Egan) have not grown up in and around the SCG and its precinct. The ministers, heathens in the mainstream of spectator sport, fall for this palaver hook, line and sinker. The Olympics minister has an agenda which makes him champion of Homebush. The SCG is without a champion.
Not in cabinet, that is.
The SCG has its champion in Nick Shehadie. He is supported by a cluster of Trustees who love this ground beyond reason. Behind them are 20,000 members, several in their seventieth year of membership, a great many in the fifth generation of membership. They are united by loyalty to qualities beyond defining, the sort of asset that cannot be entered in the accounts. Reverence does not quite express it.
Whatever it is, Nick Shehadie embodies it. Whatever it is, Nick expresses it.
Are you concerned about the Olympic facilities, Nick? We ask because we are concerned.
Not at all. Nick outlines the reasons each sport will want to stay. He does not doubt big money will be on offer to make them shift. The fans won’t follow. We might have to wait a while, let the novelty value pass, we hold on, we will be fine.
With dispassion he explained his confidence. His words that day I adopted as my own in a thousand background briefings, interviews on the record, set-piece speeches, ferocious letters to ministers and premiers, memos to bring the newly arrived into the knowledge. If any of those words landed, credit belongs to Nick.
Redfern is the clue
A biographical narrative of Nick begins with his birth in Redfern in 1926, the son of Michael and Hannah Shehadie who had migrated to Australia in 1920 with two young daughters. They were joining other wings of a family that had been settling in Australia since the late 1800s. His father was a priest in the Orthodox Church, so was his uncle. It seemed that all my Orthodox contemporaries has been married by one Shehadie or the other.
Redfern was the preferred Sydney location for Lebanese migrants arriving in the nineteenth century well into the twentieth. Many went bush. Nick had many towns he could visit where he was most welcome. He stayed for long periods. Bathurst Council lists him on their honour board of local sportsmen.
Redfern shaped Nick. His conversation turned to Redfern at any time. He enjoyed taking you to restaurants and cafes there. He showed me the homes where he lived and told stories of the neighbourhood.
Childhood is explanation for most of us. Home is not always an explanation. People grow up, move out, move on.
Nick did grow up and did move out. He did not move on. His affection for Redfern was unchanging. In Redfern so much about Nick is explained. You cannot understand Jack Ferguson without understanding Guildford. You cannot make a beginning on understanding Don Bradman without understanding the Bowral that once was and its surrounds, places very different to how Don portrayed them in his coddled myth-making. John Bannon was the essence of Adelaide.
This tribute dwells on Redfern because Nick absorbed the terraces he lived in and visited and walked past, he came to know their residents and their back stories. He lived a rich, full and safe childhood in those streets, laneways and parks. The rest of Sydney was so very close. He was Redfern through and through and always would be. He was not anchored by his affection. His world became as large as he wanted it to be.
The Redfern of Nick’s childhood and adolescence was solid Labor, a loyalty expressed whenever tested electorally, a loyalty built on faith in redistributionist policies, affirmed by practical measures when Labor was in government and in control of the local council.
From these streets and local schools emerged its parliamentary leaders. Suburbs like Redfern contributed disproportionately to parliamentary ranks.
Labor’s first NSW leader, Jim McGowen, was signature Redfern - boilermaker, Cleveland Street Public, Eveleigh Railway Workshops (Labor’s own university). McGowen was a founding member of the ALP in 1891. He became Labor MP for the seat of Redfern the same year. McGowen was Labor’s first Premier, lost to the ranks in the schism of conscription in 1916 (alone of the apostates permitted to resign not be expelled) and duly lost Redfern standing as independent in 1917. Jim McGowen was a Trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The man who defeated McGowen was Labor’s candidate, William John McKell, resident of Redfern, raised in poverty, Bourke Street Public, graduate of Eveleigh, student of Law part-time at the University of Sydney. McKell became a barrister in 1925. The Sydney Cricket Ground, the Sports Ground next door and the Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay were McKell’s oyster. McKell became leader in 1939 by defeating JT Lang, the incumbent and former premier. His approach to leadership, based on a deft combination of compromise and the assertion of authority, is properly called the McKell Model, the basis of Labor’s governance 1941-65 and again in 1976-88. The Model was destroyed in 2008.
Those who witnessed Nick on the boards he served were privileged to see elements of McKell.
McKell became a Trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1938 – that is, appointed by a non-Labor government - an exercise in bipartisanship wholly absent from modern Tory practice - and served as Trust chairman through the War and into the peace. He resigned from the Trust upon his appointment as Governor-General in 1947. He did not stop attending events at the SCG. When he ceased coming, Trustees knew his end was nigh.
The Shehadies and the McKells were neighbours. The future Sir Nicholas admired Sir William McKell. Bill’s mother kept a roof over the head of the family by taking in washing. The Shehadies gave Mrs McKell their clothes certain of efficient, reliable laundry. Think of the reversal of class assumptions – a dinky-di Anglo Celt taking in washing from the Lebanese.
Nick and residents of Redfern took it for granted that Bill McKell was available for a chat. A member of parliament was as one with his electorate. Then.
Lebanese children regarded Redfern as theirs to share with all who lived in it. Their ancestors might have arrived a century ago. Before assisted migration and welfare agencies for new arrivals, Lebanese were looking after their own. They had become or were becoming Australian, discernibly darker but wholly Australian. Nick knew of Lebanon through stories. Australia was his home.
The children and grandchildren of Lebanese migrants were not easily intimidated at school or in the streets. Nick laughed off what modern sensibilities label as racist abuse. Scoffing at the ridiculously offensive was a trademark of Nick. It was as well for the abuser that Nick scoffed, for Nick could handle himself. His family instilled in him a pride in who he was. School lunch packs were an authentic expression of parents proud of their culture. Out of those packs came food beyond the ken of those with roots in the UK and Ireland. Lebanese children in their consumption of the forbidding were enjoying food more nutritious than the norm among the dinky-di.
Sport precedes acceptance
In all sports Nick was talented. He loved to test his body and skills in competition and in tests against himself. In boxing he was a champion. He ran a place in middle distance at athletics carnivals. He makes a point in his memoirs that cricket was his first love. Being Redfern cricket was played in the laneways, the wicket a garbage bin, a game that was perfect for level, narrow streets for children of all abilities. His medium pace was good enough to earn him a place in Waverley’s under-16 Green Shield side. Only fine cricketers gain selection for Green Shield.
The surf at Coogee was nearby. Coogee brought him into the orbit of Randwick Rugby Club. He made friends for life in their ranks. Past greats of the calibre of Cyril Towers and Col Windon embraced him. After a few games Randwick deduced they had scored someone of uncommon talent. A club famous for its running game discovered they had a forward who could lead the pack. Rugby was about to take central position in Nick’s life.
Nick made his first grade debut for Randwick at 15. With each game Nick advanced on NSW selection. Once he was wearing the blue and performing, Nick entered the frame for Wallaby selection. 1947 was the year he hit the big time. He made his debut for NSW and was selected in the final Test against the visiting All Blacks. At season’s end Nick was selected in the Wallaby squad for the 1947-48 tour of the UK and France.
On that tour he witnessed the brilliance of Trevor Allan in all facets of play. Early on Australia’s captain was injured. Leadership fell to Trevor, all of 20. The youngest of players was leading veterans of war and life. Trevor commanded absolute respect. He was the finest player in the side, acknowledged by all. His exercise of authority was effortless.
1947-48 was the first tour of the UK by any Australian national side since the War. You will note it is a year ahead of the 1948 Invincibles. These men covered themselves in glory. Trevor Allan revealed genius that did not go unnoticed by the cashed up rugby league clubs in northern England.
For Nick there were experiences to savour forever, a whole new brace of friends. Of Nick it was certain: if you were his friend, you remained his friend. Extending generosity and reciprocating were his joys. His public life and growing influence enabled him to express that generosity.
The closest friendship was with Trevor. Only death could end it. Theirs was a love that was a joy to behold. When Basil Sellers and the SCG Trust needed a validator of the accuracy of the Terrance Plowright rendering of Trevor in bronze we asked Nick to examine the sculpture and give his honest assessment. A long happy day when we travelled together to Wentworth Falls for Nick to pass judgement. Conversation did not flag that day. Conversation did not ever flag. To perform the unveiling it could only be Nick.
Nick became a Trustee of the SCG in 1978 following the passage of legislation that reconstructed the Trust and spilled all appointments. Appointing Nick was a signal by a Labor government that there was room on its boards for those not tied into the party. Nick was a stalwart supporter of Patrick Darcy Hills of legend, Chairman of the Trust. When the government changed in 1988, Nick remained a Trustee. Being seen as pro-Coalition amid no obvious Lib and Nat identities, Nick went on delegations to the Government. Always punctilious in his respect for the office of chairman, he did not open private channels to a minister and government wilfully bent on humiliating Patrick Darcy.
When a boofhead Class- A was insolent to Pat at a Trust meeting, Nick took umbrage on Pat’s behalf. He invited the offender to come behind the Ladies Pavilion. The invitation was not accepted.
Government changed again in 1995. There was no surprise Nick’s term was renewed in 1996 for another two years. Track gossip was, however, that his time on the Trust was coming to an end. The putative beneficiary of the purging made it crystal clear to the powers that be that assuming the chairmanship with the blood of Sir Nicholas on his hands would deny him legitimacy that he could not thereafter claim. Nick remained a Trustee until he was ready to step aside, a decision made for him by the appointment of his wife, Marie Bashir, as Governor of New South Wales.
Surviving a change of government was his metier. The Fraser Government appointed Nick the chair of SBS in 1981. By the end of his term in 1999, two changes of government later, he was the last surviving statutory appointment of Malcolm Fraser. By the end of his term with the SCG he was the last surviving statutory appointment of Neville Wran.
If the Fahey Government had been re-elected in 1995, Nick was slated to become Governor. If Australia had moved to a republic in 1999 with the president elected by a two-thirds majority of both Houses, Nick was on a very short list for nomination. Nick was supported by both sides.
Nick enters politics
Growing up in Redfern, a personal friend of Bill McKell, his private world consisting of a legion of ordinary local ALP branch members, Nick should have been natural Labor. Values like generosity and helping people in need were intrinsic to old Labor.
Assumption about where Nick might have aligned himself overlooks the blithe arrogance of the inner-city ALP Right of the 1950s, constructed on a half-century of unbroken rule in municipalities like Marrickville, Leichhardt, Botany and the plethora of little councils that dotted the inner-city pre-1948. The Council of the City of Sydney was the biggest prize of all. To be Lord Mayor of Sydney guaranteed a place on the national stage.
The state Labor government had secured local Labor control of the city by extending boundaries of the city into suburbs like Redfern and Glebe. Opposition to the Labor Party came from a private company calling itself Civic Reform, a Liberal Party front. Civic Reform formed the official opposition on the floor of council. To have any chance of securing a majority, Civic Reform needed to crack seats in fiefdoms thought to be beyond challenge, such as Redfern.
Ahead of the 1962 elections, Civic Reform invited Nick to stand under their banner. Such an offer was beyond the Labor machine. They ruled with, by and for their own and there was the end of the matter. Nick was a good bloke and a former Wallaby, for sure, but he wasn’t one of them. If Nick had misgivings about opposing Labor, he did not ever express them. He won a seat in his ward comfortably and held it.
Bob Askin ended 24 years of Labor rule in NSW in 1965. As was the way with state governments, once he had a majority in the Legislative Council, his government in 1967 sacked the council and placed the Town Hall under administrators. New elections were held in 1969 on boundaries much reduced. Redfern was outside the city. Nick remained inside. Civic Reform swept to power. Nick had his turn as Lord Mayor 1973-75. The Sydney Opera House was opened by Her Majesty on Nick’s watch.
Bob Askin liked the former Wallaby who might have been on the other side but wasn’t. Askin was a boy from Glebe who had crossed the class divide. They enjoyed each other’s company. One night in 1973 Bob asked Nick to call on him. The Premier’s office was on the eighth floor of the State Office Block of fond memory.
“Nick, I want you to do me a favour.”
“Mr Premier, you know I’d do anything for you.”
The Whitlam Government had won office in late 1972. Nigel Bowen, Member for Parramatta, had contested Liberal Party leadership but lost. Wanting to do more with his life, Bowen resigned his seat to take a judicial appointment.
“I want you to stand for the Liberal Party in Parramatta. There are a lot of Lebanese living in the electorate. We think you’re the right candidate.”
“But, Bob, I’m not a member of the Liberal Party.”
“That doesn’t matter. We’ll take care of that later.”
(How I have enjoyed repeating that story.)
With considerable misgivings, Nick agreed. His association with Parramatta had been limited to being president of the rugby club, an appointment made by the club because of the prestige his name afforded. Parramatta was unfamiliar terrain. His wife had her own career in medicine. The thought of moving into the electorate was not appealing.
A candidate for preselection who betrays any degree of reluctance is marked down, especially when facing a large field of candidates who are craving for the role. Nick was the pea, he had the backing of Liberal Party headquarters and the big end of town. Nick had expectation riding with him but lost to a very young Philip Ruddock. Nick downed a large whisky in relief. Once a year he raised a glass to the winner of Parramatta in gratitude everlasting for avoiding that fate.
Truth was Nick would have been hopeless in the practice of adversary politics. The city council could be rough but its membership was small, its chamber intimate. He could reach out. He liked to be liked. The brutality of the House of Representatives made him miserable. Being cat-called to unsettle him would have unsettled him. Once the other side detects your sensitivity, there is no mercy. Scoffing at idiocy was an effective response in a small meeting and face to face, it does not work in a parliament.
His escape was total. He has gone to his grave with his boast intact - “I was never a member of the Liberal Party”.
Perfect man for public office
With politics he was done, not public life. Those qualities that made parliament unsuitable made him pitch perfect for statutory appointments. Upon appointment, he was completely loyal to the board and incumbent chair, he cultivated staff and built relationships. Only good word of him reached the ear of the minister. His reappointment was a doddle. Change of government, change of minister, made no difference. He was loyal to everyone, above and below.
His stature was ever growing. By the 1990s the Parramatta debacle was a very long time ago. With the governments of NSW and the Commonwealth often in the hands of opposing parties, Nick was a safe appointment and reappointment. Competence was matched by courtesy. A government scored prestige for itself by having him on board. His knighthood, awarded in 1976, was an unstated bonus.
His innings were long, free of any hint of scandal, the final years the stuff of legend. As politics became increasingly ruthless. Nick was exempt. His term at SBS was 18 years. He was with the SCG for 23 years. His farewell dinners were grand affairs, swish occasions engulfed by affection. His farewell dinner from the SCG Trust was held in the dining room of the Football Stadium, the occasion for us to announce the stand opposite was being renamed the Nick Shehadie Stand, a decision we managed to keep from him. Staff on the other side unveiled the signage.
Humbled Nick was but not so humbled that a year or so later he needed to advise me people were telling him the sign was too small. Not that Nick was concerned about size. The sign was too small. We replaced the sign with larger lettering. He feigned the same humility with his knighthood: “I accepted it because I knew it would make my mother happy”. Enforced modesty was a lovable trait and so very Australian.
With his brother George he had been in an eponymous business operating out of a factory at Ashfield. Nick took me there, reckoning my fascination was inexhaustible, and he owed his brother a visit. The factory was manufacturing bodies for computers. The office was a scene from a WC Fields movie, correspondence and accounts item by item placed on top of the item below in a pile about five feet high.
How do you find anything, I asked.
Easy. I only need the date.
George, this pile in this order, it is must go the National Library. This is living history, a peerless insight into how small businesses run their affairs.
George scoffed. (Is this a signature of a Shehadie?)
Nick later told me they had sold the business. Its value as freehold must have been considerable. George not long after came to a game of rugby at the football stadium.
George, please tell me you have deposited those papers somewhere.
They are with God.
In their years of business together, Nick did not look at the books. He felt no need to look at the books. Once a year George declared a dividend and Nick received a cheque.
Nick had been in a lot of businesses over the years. His dry cleaning shop had the slogan “Drop your daks at Nicks”. He represented a tile manufacturer who employed him to make bulk sales. His work took him into the office of my father, an architect, plying his wares. Nick drove me to my parents’ home in Hunters Hill after one late meeting and dinner – I had come to Sydney by locomotive. “I’d like to see your old man.” My father had played rugby for Sydney Uni in the early part of the War at a standard high enough for Nick to have noticed. The “old man” was delighted to be seeing him.
Lunches and dinners at SCG occasions for majesty
The Trust Suite in the football stadium and the Trustees Reserve in the SCG were places of majesty during his time. Dress standards were high, possibly determined by his memories of Buckingham Palace. Standards certainly were exacting. Coat and tie for gentlemen, suit preferably, otherwise smart slacks. Whatever the temperature, a coat could not be removed. Not ever, not for anything. His successor enforced the standard however unreasonable. “The rules will not change while ever I am in charge and Sir Nicholas lives.”
In those rooms he assembled so many remarkable people. Each invitation reflected strategic considerations. We who knew no one who had kept company with the gods found ourselves in the company of Col Windon, Trevor Allan, Rex Mossop, the Thornetts, a disproportion from the Wallabies sides of 1947-58. Once a year he gathered surgeons for each part of his anatomy, shoulders to feet. His urologist was Herb Coorey, personal friend, introduced as “my prick doctor”. Yes, Herb replied, I’m a micro-surgeon.
Being outside the world of politics, being a bloke who counted McKell and Askin as friends, he was generally in awe of anyone who had ever been elected to a parliament. So Nick might mention in passing Don has asked me to call on him and Jessie when SBS meets in Adelaide. Seeing Sir Donald Bradman was a familiar part of his world, not a special occasion, yet the pending arrival of a jumped up no account backbencher made him very nervous.
Being present at such lunches provided him a bank of stories to supplement the core of his own fabulous experiences. Nick was a good listener, he knew how to encourage a raconteur in flow. He reckoned the best days of Test cricket was when it rained so long as he could sit with Arthur Morris and the Bedser twins and hear their stories. (The interaction of these three was a listening experience without parallel.)
Bluff pondering, affecting confusion, asking for explanation, these were techniques he brought to the negotiating table. The other party, in the presence of an older man, this living legend, treated his perplexity with politeness. Explanations followed that revealed more than they might have intended.
Being chairman of the SCG Trust was not a life of cucumber sandwiches and lemonade. Having steered the SCG and football stadium through the threat of sale in 1988-89 – reflective of the outer lunacy of the early Greiner years - Nick had to face and defeat the existential threat posed by the staging of the Olympic Games. With that three-week festival came a permanent building funded courtesy of the taxpayers, a failed stock exchange listing and borrowings. It was deliberately designed as an alternative venue for major events.
The Olympics were a juggernaut, thought to be unstoppable. Treasury forecasts assumed financial collapse of the SCG and its football stadium. Look back at the newspapers before and after the festival, the cockamamie was predominant. Laziness assumed the SCG was heading for certain demise: big events will shift, crowds will shift, Sydney will undergo a paradigm shift in its leisure, big crowds will become the norm. By blitz or attrition, the SCG is going under. Treasury made that forecast, their projections possessing a tone of certainty. Homebush was going to be the centre of sporting Sydney. It was too easy for sports writers to buy this lazy analysis. Much of the best writing on the business of sport was in the business pages. Being able to read statements of account, business writers hit nails right where they should be hit.
In a heroic life, this was Nick’s finest hour. Nick swallowed his pride when a disastrous decision was made to support this private entity as the operator of the new stadium. His predictions about the tastes of the Sydney sporting public came true to the letter. He lived to see all that he predicted come true: the SCG stands tall in the imagination of Sydney, revered as never before. That reverence is built on the blood left on its sacred soil by athletes of the calibre of Nick.
Sir Nicholas Shehadie AC lived a long life. He lived a good life. The friends he made were friends for life. He had no false airs, not with a knighthood and so many high honours, not after all those Royals and bigshots he had met. Essentially unchanged, he was a kid from Redfern, the child of migrants, who had married brilliantly, created his own family, soared to the heights and shed no one along the way. Nick was the best of Sydney and Australia.
13 February 2018