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The Age

The football of politics

Date: 10/08/1999
Words: 1729
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 13
BILLY Brownless has never given a thought to politics but will decide today whether to join the league leaders, the Liberal Party, in a blind turn at Parliament.

``I s'pose I'm like half the population who see a politician and go `oh yeah'," says the wry ex-Geelong full-forward, who is better known for his high-marking skills than political acumen.

Brownless admits his very public drafting by chief talent scout and Premier, Jeff Kennett, has been ``a bit of a circus" and the butt of jokes. Tackled by the media as he left the Premier's office last week, Brownless was tripped up on what the issues were in Geelong and whether he supported the independence of the auditor-general.

What were the big electoral issues in Geelong North - literacy with schoolchildren, drug abuse?

``Ah, yeah, all those."

What about the independence of the auditor-general? What about the separation of powers? ``Ah, yeah, yeah ..."

``I don't have a great grasp of the political world," he admitted to The Age yesterday.

That hasn't stopped others from having a stab - most recently, Brownless's former Geelong teammate Paul Couch. The Brownlow medallist had to hastily join the National Party after the Deputy Premier, Pat McNamara, convinced him to run in a three-cornered contest for the Colac-based seat of Polwarth.

Scorned senior Liberals, doing their utmost to discredit Couch - who could steal their seat at the looming election - have questioned his ability to translate from the sports field to politics. Couch himself weaved around the question at a recent press conference in the centre square of Kardinia Park: ``I've got to get there first and take each term as it comes."

Sport and politics reached a cynical climax on The Footy Show last week when the Opposition Leader, Steve Bracks, who is a Cats supporter, made Brownless a counter-offer of a safe Labor seat. While Brownless is still learning the difference between Austin Powers, Port Power and the separation of powers, as Sam Newman observed, at least as a politician he can ``say nothing and absolutely mean it".

But not everyone is laughing at this head-long rush to fill the parliamentary benches with ex-footballers. ``It's a joke," says Phil Cleary, who can talk with some experience about both codes. Australian politics is so lacking in spirited players, he suggests, that the parties are tripping over themselves to recruit personalities such as Brownless.

``Smart political operators see that he's a bit different, he's well-disposed and a man of the people, so it all makes perfect sense," says Cleary, a former VFA premiership player and coach who served a term as independent federal MP for Wills and has a degree in political science.

``But the tragedy is that Paul Couch and Bill Brownless have never said a bloody thing about political issues. So this is really a reflection of the parlous state of the Parliament."

Cleary believes voters are crying out for people to nail their colors to the mast, but instead are getting populist slogans. ``What we've got is this kind of absurd post-modernism, where there are no particular political ideas."

According to Cleary, if Brownless and Couch are at all serious about politics, they should be prepared to tell people what they think. ``They need to realise that it isn't just a lark in the park."

Long-time Geelong fan and former federal Labor minister John Button says there's no harm in having a few footballers in Spring Street, but Couch and Brownless are clearly being used for their vote-catching potential.

``It represents the exploitation of popularity acquired in one field to another," Button says. ``No expertise or real qualifications necessary for the job. It's the dumbing down of Parliament."

Jeff Kennett - whose wife, Felicity, was recruited by Brownless as Geelong's number-one female ticket holder to lift the club's profile - says he'd be ``tickled pink" if Brownless returns the favor by standing in Geelong North, which Labor holds by an 8per cent margin.

Kennett, who is rumored to have the former Geelong captain Barry Stoneham on his shopping list, also tried to sign up Sam Newman for the Geelong seat of Bellarine in the late 1980s. (Newman sought preselection, but the locals ignored the lead from Liberal headquarters.)

The Premier, an ex-advertising man, says it does not matter that Brownless has no political experience. He says it didn't stop Brian Dixon, the champion Melbourne wingman who was a long-time minister in the Hamer/Thompson Governments. Or Ian Cover, who made the leap from football funnyman to upper house member last election. Or Labor's Neil ``Nipper" Trezise, another Geelong footballer who was a local MP for 28 years, including 10 as a minister.

``The Parliament is for people ... it's a mixture of qualifications," says Kennett. ``You'd hardly want to have a parliament filled with radio jocks or advertising men or lawyers."

It's a fair call, according to Justin Madden, the former Carlton ruckman, architect and ABC football commentator, who heads the ALP's wish-list of recruits. (Even the Liberal talent scouts acknowledge Madden as the perfect sportsman candidate, and he ``never says never" to a political career down the track.)

``Not knowing anything about politics has never stopped anybody being a politician before; it probably makes them substantially better candidates," Madden says of the Geelong duo.

Another Carlton great, Peter ``Percy" Jones, who ran a memorable campaign for the Liberals in 1985 for the safe Labor seat of Melbourne under the slogan ``Point Percy at Parliament", says the public should not be amazed that footballers can talk as well as chew gum. ``Why should lawyers and school teachers always be the MPs?"

Madden says football is good preparation for the thrust and parry of political life, requiring hard work to keep your spot in the side. Brownless and Couch have thrived in a competitive environment and, if they get into the political arena, would not be content warming the back bench. ``They'd want to be in there getting the hard ball, in the thick of the mud," says Madden.

But that is part of the reason why few sports heroes make successful politicians, according to a Monash Mt Eliza Business School leadership expert, Terry Lee. In America the tradition is to recruit military heroes - witness the the wooing of Colin Powell - rather than sports heroes, because tacticians are of greater long-term value.

``Sports men and women should make good politicians because they're very achievement-oriented and they're prepared to put in the discipline to get the results, but they rarely do," says Lee.

Ironically, it is politics that gets in the way. Ric Charlesworth, the first-class cricketer, hockey player and Australian Hockeyroos coach, is a classic case of a high-achiever who made it into Federal Parliament but not into Cabinet. He quit Canberra after 10 years out of frustration with ALP factionalism.

Olympic swimming champion Dawn Fraser was without peer in the pool but lasted only one term as the independent MP for Balmain. ``I wish I had have taken politics at school," she lamented to The Age. While her gold medals helped win constituents' respect and trust, without the political clout of a major party she was outgunned.

Sports stars are often too individualistic for party politics, says Lee. Drafted for their celebrity, a different set of rules applies in Parliament.

But the major parties are not likely to let up on their pursuit of athletes with personality. Kennett called in the press this year just to announce that Oarsome Foursome member Drew Ginn had joined the Liberal Party.

In the National Party, preselection appears to rest on the three Fs: farming, football and family. Hugh Delahunty, who played nearly 50 games for Essendon, has been recruited to replace Bill McGrath, who played for South Melbourne. He could join past players Peter Hall (Carlton), Ron Best (player/coach of Victorian country champion side) and Kim Wells (Footscray) on the Government benches.

Like Tasmania, where ``The Doc" Darrel Baldock, John Devine and Ray Groom all got a leg-up into politics from fame on the football field, Victorian politics has a history of courting champion sportsmen. Cyclist Sir Hubert Opperman was a loyal Liberal MP, Jack Dyer stood for Labor in Prahran to try to knock off Australian cricketer Sam Loxton (who held the seat from 1955 to 1979), while Channel7's voice of football, Doug Elliott, was the MLC for Melbourne for nearly 20 years.

The attractiveness of candidates with a ready-made media profile in sports-mad Victoria has not faded. The National Party leader, Pat McNamara, who scored a coup by preselecting Couch, says it is often not what politicians say but how they present that counts with voters. But it would be foolhardy to preselect candidates according to how good their handpasses were. ``Sports stars can make good candidates ... as long as they've got the IQ to go with it," says McNamara.

Nipper Trezise, who gave up coaching Geelong to become the local MP, has some further advice for players aspiring to be politicians. ``It's not a gimmick, a part-time job or glamorous. You've got to have a genuine interest in people, particularly the battlers."

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