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Give sporting politicians a sporting chance


Sporting Politicians by Chris Johnston 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 Independent in NSW, St Kilda AFL wizard Darrell Baldock in Tasmania, and hockey player and cricketer, Ric Charlesworth, in federal politics.

The current federal parliament also includes hockey player and athlete, Senator Nova Peris, and the international-standard rower Senator Cory Bernardi.

Professional sport is a perfectly acceptable occupational background for politicians. The characteristics needed to succeed in high-level sport, including determination, endurance, physical and mental courage, hard work and performing on the public stage are transferable. Success in team sports brings the additional skill of co-operative team work.

Some well-known, former professional sports people would make a valuable contribution to public life as politicians; some already do in the non-government and corporate sphere. But some others are unsuitable of because of their other personal characteristics. Like prospective politicians from any background they should be assessed individually.

The general lesson from the example of Glenn Lazarus, who is actually quietly capable, is that he is as well suited as if he had come from another background, like his fellow cross-bench senators, who have been lawyers, blacksmiths, builders, business and army people. It is not only their other personal characteristics that matter, but also their political environment.

The experience of these cross-benchers is that they are thrust into the lime-light even before they are sworn in and forced to adjudicate on a decidedly unsporting contest between the Liberals and Nationals on the one hand and Labor and the Greens on the other. The issues at stake are complex and you can never please everyone.

So don’t let your prejudices, for or against, about sportspeople get in the way of a fair judgement about the job they do when they get into politics.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Glen Lazarus, Peter Reith, politics, parliament



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Existing comments

Thanks, John, for such a well argued defence of those who come from many different backgrounds to offer themselves as parliamentary representatives. It may be that those with success in sport may have a better understanding of the views of those they represent than thosse candidates who have been part of the political party structures for all their working lives!
Another recent example of one who has gained much respect for his political stand is Brumby and Wallaby player David Pocock. His political awareness comes from personal family experience in Zimbabwe when many land owners, his family included, were forced off their farms by the Mugabe government, with the result that much of the productive land is now idle, and the country must imppot food.
He has turned this experience to supporting farmers in northern NSW who are being forced from their highly productiveland by the rapacious coalmining companies. A well informed sporting success is an asset to the community ast large. We hope Peter Reith will acknowledge this!

Doug Hewitt | 08 April 2015  

This is an astute comment from the ever-sagacious Professor Warhurst. The piece by Mr Peter Reith was offensive (even by his formidable standards) in particular because he was a member of the Howard government which happily promoted Pat Farmer, mainly because, as a runner, his was a prominent and electorally-advantageous "name". It is a reminder that, apart from the good sense of Professor Warhurst's commentary, "people in glass houses should not throw stones." Everyone should remember the often-voiced criticisms that there are too many lawyers and former political "staffers" in our Parliaments and that, as with the community itself, diversity is to be sought and celebrated.

Dr John CARMODY | 08 April 2015  

Senator Lazarus is well suited to the role he now has & he has stood up for refugees & against CSG mining, which is damaging both the natural environment & fertile food producing land. The Abbott government stands condemned on both accounts. The old National Party MPs are also totally comprised by their LP coalition on both accounts. It is just as well the NP is no longer called Country Party, as the NP is destroying good country land by allowing CSG & unfettered coal mining eg on Liverpool Plains in NSW & on fertile Darling Downs farming land at Acland in Qld. The cross bench Senators are proving the necessity & value for Australian democracy of proportional representation in the Senate

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 08 April 2015  

A cogent, balanced and clear article. Just as I would have expected from Ex Prof John Warhurst. I doubt very much if Senator Lazarus would have so eagerly promoted the fabrications of the Children Overboard saga as did then Minister Reith. Senator Lazarus has too much respect for the Parliament and the people of Australia and, I might add, for the truth to exploit a tragic event at sea for a partisan political purpose.

Uncle Pat | 08 April 2015  

There may be some good reasons why the “Brick With Eyes” is unsuited to be a Senator but so far I have not heard them. At a time when we regularly hear complaints about the number of lawyers, political staffers and unionists entering Parliament and the need for representatives with wider life experience on all sides, a sporting background is no more a hindrance than any other occupation. I doubt Reith would have even raised the subject if Senator Lazarus was a member of the Coalition, so the problem for Reith is not to do with Lazarus’ sporting background, otherwise he would have been fuming about Pat Farmer a few years back. Farmer incidentally worked hard and deserved to be a Parliamentary Secretary during the Howard years. Time will tell if Lazarus is a dud or not but on his performance so far he does not deserve criticism by a discredited pensioned-off party hack.

Brett | 08 April 2015  

" Like prospective politicians from any background they should be assessed individually"....
We have often been urged to vote for candidates according to their personal integrity. But if they are standing as a representative of a particular party, they are pressured to echo the policy of that party, or risk not being endorsed at the next election. Too many good people toe dubious party lines because of fear or misplaced 'loyalty'. Similarly many of the best theologians in the Church are silent or have been 'gagged' for the same reasons.

Robert Liddy | 08 April 2015  

Albert Gardiner played Rugby Union for NSW against the British Lions. 17 June 1899. Rugby League was first played in Australia in 1908.

Peter Gardiner | 06 November 2016  

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