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
``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
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
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
``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
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
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,"
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."