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Give sporting politicians a sporting chance

  • 08 April 2015

Despite often treating sportspeople uncritically as celebrities for their on-field achievements, Australians are ambivalent about their place in public life.

The reaction of former Howard government minister Peter Reith to the defection from the Palmer United Party (PUP) of Senator Glenn Lazarus, the former champion Canberra Raiders rugby league forward, provides a good example of such ambivalence.

Reith launched an unfair personal attack on Lazarus as a 'dud from the start' and someone unsuited to and unworthy of political life, going on to say that:

The broader lesson from the saga is that a candidate for Parliament should not be promoted simply because he or she was good at sport, like Lazarus, a former rugby league player. It happens, but, fortunately, not too often.

Reith's broader lesson is meaningless because it applies to any occupation, even if, couched in such a simplistic way, he may have a point. No one should be promoted to Parliament simply because of professional success. Every occupation has something to offer; it is the whole person which should be judged for their suitability.

Sporting people, amateur and professional, have a long history in political life in Australia. In A Federal Legislature, Professor Joan Rydon showed how there were many well-known sporting identities in the early Commonwealth Parliament, including the boxer, Sir Granville Ryrie and the rugby league player, Senator Albert Gardiner. That has continued at the rate of close to 10% of all federal MPs since, including the Menzies era minister, Sir Hubert Opperman, who was a champion cyclist and Melbourne AFL player, Ray Groom (later Tasmanian Premier).

A sporting background may be a political asset because a public profile can be translated into votes. Some sports people may even be attracted to politics just because it is another type of public limelight. But it is a diminishing asset and should be treated cautiously. Just as Opperman didn’t 'cycle into Parliament', nor do today’s sporting MPs, like tennis player John Alexander in Bennelong, play their way into parliament. What they do after their sporting career, like coaching, commentating or running sporting clubs, or a totally different career, may be more important.

Whatever their attractiveness to political parties and whatever their motivation there have been many politicians with substantial sporting backgrounds. PUP also stood former Western Bulldogs star, Doug Hawkins, and former Australian boxing champion, Barry Michael, as candidates. Sporting champions who entered Parliament have included champion swimmer Dawn Fraser as an