WITH sport so major an ingredient in Australian cultural life it’s not surprising new Labor leader Mark Latham announced he’d welcome, with “open arms” outgoing Test cricket captain Steve Waugh should he ever seek a political career.
The Latham remark reminded me of two experiences I had just before Christmas – one while in Adelaide’s CBD, the other in Carlton – related to sporting personalities.
While strolling past South Australia’s State Library I noticed about 15 older folk, each wearing an impressive medal, standing on a corner of an adjacent park.
Being curious, I walked across and asked a gentleman why they were there.
He said a nearby monument commemorating the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was about to be unveiled by the governor.
“I’m from WA so don’t know your governor’s name,” I said.
“It’s Her Excellency Marjorie Jackson-Nelson,” he said.
“What, the early 1950s Olympic sprinter?” I exclaimed.
“Oh, yes, and a fine governor she is,” he replied.
Sure enough, Her Excellency arrived shortly after to conduct the brief ceremony, after which the 16 or so of us shook her hand and exchanged brief niceties.
A few days later, in Melbourne, I recounted to a mate how I’d unexpectedly met Marjorie Jackson, the famous ‘Lithgow Flash’, winner of two Olympic and seven Commonwealth golds.
“You realise Victoria also has an Olympian Governor?” he said
“No, who is it?” I asked.
“John Landy, the miler, the second man to run the mile in under four minutes.”
That naturally prompted me to wonder if we were perhaps witnessing the beginnings of Olympians displacing clergymen and soldiers in vice-regal appointments.
If so, Premier Geoff Gallop certainly has plenty to choose from, including Herb Elliott, Shirley Strickland de La Hunty, (one-time Democrat candidate) Shane Gould, and even high jumper Chilla Porter, who for years was the WA Liberal Party’s director.
That said, what the Waugh, Jackson-Nelson and Landy cases show is that sport and politics in Australia can and do mix, even if only rarely.
Because sporting stars and their achievements are so widely and highly admired, senior politicians sometimes seek out such people for public life to perhaps help elevate their own as well as their party’s profiles.
Little wonder that, soon after Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney, the media was ablaze with claims of her being destined for greater things in another sphere.
More pertinent, however, is the fact that both John Landy AC MBE and Marjorie Jackson-Nelson AC CVO MBE have impressive CVs over and above sporting achievements.
And Steve Waugh’s non-cricketing works are already considerable.
Nor should our politicians’ attraction to such personalities be seen as something new.
WA Liberal MP for Dawesville, Arthur Marshall, for instance, was a professional tennis player who worked as a coach, especially with school children.
Before him came another Liberal and footballer, Ross (later Sir Ross) Hutchinson, who represented the seat of Cottesloe between 1950 and 1977.
Although the Liberals seem better at attracting sporting stars WA Labor has also been represented in this quarter with former WAFL and then Victorian footballer Stanley Heal, MLA for Perth/West Perth between 1950 and 1965, and later came Olympian and State cricketer, Ric Charlesworth.
Sir Ross’s success may have influenced local Liberals because, in 1971 East Perth ruck-rover Mal Atwell contested the then Labor seat of Clontarf for them.
In 1974 two other high-profile footballers donned Liberal colours – West Perth ruckman Brian Foley contested the safe Labor seat of Mt Hawthorn, and Perth ruckman George Spalding made a bid for the upper house.
There are similar examples on Australia’s eastern seaboard with probably the most illustrious being Hubert (later Sir Hubert) Opperman, an Australian cycling great and winner of the 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris marathon among his 100 big news making wins.
He won the long-held Labor seat of Corio at the historic 1949 Menzies landslide, holding it until retirement in 1967.
Australian Test cricket opener Sam Loxton was a Liberal MP for more than two decades, having entered parliament in Victoria’s historic 1955 move away from Labor following its split over Communism and the US alliance.
Victoria’s current Labor Sports Minister, Justin Madden, played with Essendon and Carlton.
And a minister during Victoria’s Rupert Hamer Liberal years was Melbourne wingman Brian Dixon.
In South Australia Labor attracted Test wicket-keeper Gil Langley, while NSW had swimming great Dawn Fraser as an independent.
Liberals from an earlier era can tell you that Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, a cricketing devotee, made several behind-the-scene bids to get Australian Test captain Vic Richardson, grandfather of Ian, Greg and Trevor Chappell, into politics.
The reason those moves failed was because South Australian Liberals wouldn’t oblige by giving Richardson the nod.
However, whatever one’s view of politicians turning to sporting personalities to help lift party profiles, it’s worth keeping in mind that sporting greats are unlikely to ever outnumber union bosses and lawyers on front or back benches.
Doubters should remember that WA Labor’s Stan Heal was toppled by Liberal lawyer Peter Durack, who later moved to Canberra, where he became attorney-general. And after Sir Hubert retired, Corio was won by Labor’s Gordon Scholes, Geelong Trades Hall Council president.
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