Politics & Sport
Amanda Smith: On The Sports Factor today, that hoary old chestnut: sport and politics, and in particular, the influence of sportspeople on the Republic debate.
Amanda Smith: Last weekend, the Federal Minister Tony Abbott called on sports people and other celebrities to stay out of the national discussion around the referendum for or against a Republic. This was amid the speculation that the former Australian cricket captain, Mark Taylor, was about to throw his support behind the 'No Republic' campaign. Well, Mark Taylor's keeping his views to himself; although plenty of high profile athletes have made their views public. And almost all of them for the other side, the 'Yes' vote. Today, we'll canvass some views on whether athletes should be mixing their sport with their politics.
And later in the program, the story of a suburban cricket club which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, and which was established with the explicit purpose of mixing sport and politics.
Before that though, to the Republic/No Republic question, and why so many sports people have chosen to support a Republic. Another former Australian cricket captain, Ian Chappell, joined the Australian Republican Movement a few years ago; and he believes that his Republican feelings were forged on the cricket fields of England and Australia.
Ian Chappell: I look back on those days as it was still Australia versus England, nothing more or less. We were playing for the Ashes; for quite a good part of my career, it was generally to see who was the best team in the world, clashes between Australia and England. That certainly wasn't the case in the latter part of my career, and certainly isn't the case now. But even despite that fact, I think for all Australian cricketers, and I'm certain, having faced John Snow from 22 yards, the sight of a green baggy cap didn't do much for his sense of humour. So obviously there was plenty of feeling in it as far as England was concerned.
I look back at those matches now and that's the way I think about them. It's just that for a long time I knew that I felt very Australian. And whilst I respected English cricket, I respect a lot of things that England has done, I don't particularly want to be told what to do by England or English people. And it was just one day I suddenly thought to myself, well, I've always had these feelings, it's about time I actually put my hand up. And that's why I joined the Australian Republican Movement. I thought well, I can go on thinking about it and perhaps occasionally talking about it, but at some stage or other, and I thought to myself, "do I feel strongly enough about it, that I actually want to put my hand up and let some other people know that that's the way I feel". And I thought, "yes, I do".
Amanda Smith: Former Australian Test Captain, Ian Chappell.
Now, Zoe Goss is another cricket player, one of Australia's most successful and best known female cricketers. She's played for the world champion Australian side, and in the national competition she's playing for Western Australia. And Zoe also bats for the Republican side. As an active campaigner, she's none too impressed with Federal Minister Tony Abbott's suggestion that sportspeople like her are sidelining the debate.
Zoe Goss: I mean, that's very disappointing. Essentially he's saying to the Australian public, "Leave all the decisions to the politicians" on this count. And that's pretty disappointing.
Amanda Smith: So you'd see it what, as a bit hypocritical maybe, that Mr Abbott could use his public profile, as a politician, to state his views as a Monarchist?
Zoe Goss: Sure. And I think really sport has been one of the few things in this young country that has unified people across all cultures. And I think it's a powerful thing, and people who are involved in it are very passionate, and of course that leads to being very passionate about your country as well.
Amanda Smith: Well Zoe, has your Republican position been in any way developed through playing sport, especially playing for your country?
Zoe Goss: Yes. When I was a kid growing up, I was actually quite envious of some of the - I mean, I'll set the scenario: there were 50 different nationalities at my high school, and Australians were a minority of 5%. And I was quite envious of some of the other students, how passionate they were about their culture, and the belonging that they felt, whether they were Italian or Vietnamese or Macedonian. And I didn't actually feel that until I started playing, firstly for my state, and then for my country; I didn't feel like I really belonged.
Amanda Smith: So you're saying that you developed that sense of belonging, of being an Australian, through playing cricket?
Zoe Goss: Yes. I mean cricket is a huge part of Australian culture. It just takes over in summer, and everyone is very proud of the Australian cricket teams’ exploits, and a lot of emphasis is put on it.
Amanda Smith: Well do you think that comment was made because, to date at least, most of the athletes and former athletes who have made public their views have come down on the side of a Republic, rather than retaining a Constitutional Monarchy?
Zoe Goss: Sure. That was probably a big motivation for him. They're going to try everything, aren't they? I mean even with regards to the question, I mean it seems so simple to me: No.1 just say Do you want a Republic? full stop. People either vote Yes or No. And if it's Yes, then you go OK, let's see what the best model is, not try and rush something through and confuse people and say, "Oh, it's going to be this, this and this". We don't have to rush through a change of constitution, we can take our time over it, and deliberate it and have public debate.
Amanda Smith: And for you, being truly Australian, feeling truly Australian, as an athlete, as a person, means being a Republican?
Zoe Goss: Yes. For sure. I mean there's aspects of our history that I think need to be carried through, but I think we're still a developing country and people shouldn't be scared of change. Change is good. It's the way people learn, and a nation learns.
Amanda Smith: Now I know that a couple of years ago Zoe, you were one of a number of sportspeople who signed a ‘Declaration for the Republic’ at a public event in Sydney. And I think at that time that you said that you hoped a change to the Republic would make Australians as passionate about their country as they were about their sport.
Zoe Goss: Yes. I still very much believe that. For example, in Melbourne the football, I mean it's a religion over there, and people are just so into it, it affects their whole week if their football team loses that weekend. It would be great if people felt that same intensity for their country.
Amanda Smith: Is that essentially, do you think, the reasoning behind the Republican Movement's eagerness to recruit athletes such as yourself, to link the enthusiasm for sport with the enthusiasm for a Republic?
Zoe Goss: Yes, as I said earlier, I think the one thing that unifies Australia is sport, across all the different nationalities that make up Australia. And even if you don't know a lot about the sport, you still want Australia to do well. It's a very potent thing, and hopefully it's going to have some effect. People may have been a little bit dubious about it: "why change something that's not going so bad?" And people that they respect and admire are standing up and saying, "Well look, be brave and make this change, maybe not for yourself but for the generations down the track."
Amanda Smith: Australian and Western Australian cricketer, Zoe Goss.
Well, despite the Republican views of Zoe Goss, along with a number of other sportspeople, like the basketballer Andrew Gaze, rugby league players Steve Crowe, Andrew Johns and Matthew Johns, the AFL coach Mick Malthouse; and former sports greats like John Newcombe, Ron Barassi and Wally Lewis, not everyone associated with sport shares those views.
Jim Wilson, who's a television sports presenter with the Seven Network, is one sports media personality who intends to vote 'No' in the November referendum.
Jim Wilson: I'm not staunch Monarchist and I'm not staunch Republican, but what I am, is that at this stage I'll be voting No on November 6th. Because I just feel like I need to know more about it, I think like a lot of Australians. It's not a case of ignorance it's just that we don't know the full picture. And the way it's worded at the moment, I'm a bit like what Peter Reith said the other day, and a bit like what I suppose Mark Taylor feels, the former Australian cricket captain, that at this stage I just don't think that on what's being proposed at the moment, that we can vote Yes.
Amanda Smith: Now I was interested in the comment made the other day by the Federal Employment Services Minister, Tony Abbott, when he said that sports people and other celebrities should stay out of the public debate on the Republic. What's your view, as someone involved in sport, on that comment?
Jim Wilson: I think we're all in the public eye, and I think Mr Abbott - I respect his opinion and I think in a lot of ways I agree with it. My big thing with the Republic is that it's got to be people driven, it's got to be public driven, and I don't think it should be driven by sports people, television commentators, sporting identities, whatever. I just think that Mr Abbott in what he's said, I think in a lot of ways he is right. I think that egos really have got in the road of a lot of it. And the individuals who are involved - I feel like some have been really driven by their own political means, and their own agenda. And I've got a massive problem with that. I mean I think we're all entitled to an opinion, but I just think at times there's a degree of grey about just how far some people in my industry have gone with it. I think it's a good chance for them to boost their public profile, and I think that that's very wrong. If the people want a Republic, then let's have a Republic. But it should not be up to two or three individuals, high fliers, so to speak, to go and comment as far as what they want, and that doesn't reflect what the Australian people want.
Amanda Smith: Do you think though that behind Mr Abbott's comment, given that he is himself a Monarchist, is that so far the great majority of sports people who have made public their views are coming down on the side of the Republic - because there is a whole raft of them, athletes and former athletes, who are openly Republican, while there's not really that many on the other side.
Jim Wilson: I think that's 100% right, and I think Mr Abbott knows that. I think that as far as the side of Monarchy is concerned, there hasn't been a lot of athletes that have come down and said, Yes, we are voting No on November 6, and I can understand where Mr Abbott is coming from. It should be a fair and reasonable debate about a significant thing for Australia on November 6. I feel at times the Republican thing has been pushed down our throats. I'm fiercely Australian and I will never feel like a convict, and when everyone says to me "Yes, but how about our ties to England?" When I travel the world, if I'm on a cricket tour or whatever, when I see our flag go up, whether it be at Sabina Park in Jamaica for a cricket Test, or whether it be a Lord's, that is our Australian flag. In Sydney next year when Kieren Perkins, or if Ian Thorpe wins gold, our flag is flying, Advance Australia Fair is playing, I feel 100% Australian. And I don't think we have got an identity problem.
Amanda Smith: Do you think, Jim, that there's anything in the nature of sport and the experiences of sportspeople, that is more likely to lead them to a Republican position?
Jim Wilson: I think in the 18-35 age group it's trendy to be Republican. And I feel at this stage it's become a bit of a thing with sporting people or people in the entertainment industry that's just gathering them in for the Republic. They all tend to be "Oh yes, you should be part of that Republic". Now for example, Mark Taylor on the weekend, he really didn't show his hand, and yet because he came down on the other side as if he was siding with John Howard, because the former Australian cricket captain siding with the Australian Prime Minister - whee! But if it's someone saying "I'm Republican", it's OK. But I just feel like the way the wave of support is going, it's very trendy to be Republican, and it's a big no-no to be Monarchist.
Amanda Smith: Nevertheless, do you think that the Australian Republican Movement's ability to recruit this considerable number of high profile athletes to their cause is giving them an edge in their campaign that the No Republic campaign hasn't been able to match?
Jim Wilson: Up until about three weeks ago I would have said yes, the wave of support behind the Republican Movement was being hugely affected and influenced and supported by sporting people and sporting identities, and radio, TV identities, whatever. But now I think it's slowly coming back, because I think people are thinking OK, we're three months away. Like I've just been saying in the last five minutes, we're three months away from a very significant vote. Hang on a minute, let's have a look at really what's being on offer. And reality's starting to take hold, Whereas, as I said before, three weeks ago I think, yes, the opinion of sporting identities in general was having a big effect.
Amanda Smith: As far as perhaps playing the Republican Movement at their own game, do you think that it would be a good idea for more sportspeople, like Mark Taylor or whoever, if they are pro the No Republic - Australians for Constitutional Monarchy - should come out and be public?
Jim Wilson: As you know on your program, sport drives a lot of our thinking and public belief, and whatever else. I don't mind if sporting people, because they're such in the public limelight, they're all entitled to their opinion. I don't want to see the No vote, though, trying to canvass support, rallying around the troops and getting Mark to - or if Mark Taylor, who I've got a lot of time for, if the former Australian cricket captain said to me tomorrow, or if Shane Warne said to me tomorrow, "I'm voting Yes on November 6th", I'd go, "Yes, that's your absolute prerogative" But I'd hate to see it turning into a like a ‘Celebrity Wheel of Fortune where we have you know, on this side we've got Zoe Goss and we've got Mark Taylor, and on this side we've got Jim Wilson and someone else. It's not about that, it's not about egos, and it should never be like that. I'd hate to see us go down the path of the United States, where Whoopie Goldberg's singing at the Presidential - you know I just think it's extremely crass. And it's not about entertainers or sporting identities, it's about the people. That is the crux of the whole thing.
Amanda Smith: Sports presenter with the Seven Network, Jim Wilson.
And that's the politics of sport and celebrity, when it comes to the referendum on the Republic.
And now to a bunch of cricket players who refuse to keep politics out of sport, in fact they revel in it. This is the story of a suburban sports club with a difference. In August 1979, the Royal Park Reds Cricket Club was established in Melbourne by a group of left-wing activists who wanted to express their politics through playing sport. So much so that they proclaimed their recruiting zone for players to be "not so much geographic, as philosophical". Well last Friday night, current and former members of the Reds got together for an anniversary dinner to celebrate their 20 year history.
MC: Good evening and welcome Ladies and Gentlemen. On this momentous occasion the 20th anniversary of -
Amanda Smith: One of the founding members, who's still playing with the Reds Cricket Club is Alec Kahn. Alec says that the club was formed to challenge the idea of sport being non-political.
Alec Kahn: I think there's always been an element on the left, or in left-wing thinking, that likes to be a bit outrageous, a bit in-your-face. And sport is such an apolitical arena that I think there was something a bit exciting and daring about being overtly political in that arena. I think most of the individuals involved had had experience with cricket clubs and they regarded them as hot-beds of either sexism, or racist comments, reactionary comments. And so I think they liked the idea of getting together in a cricket club that was a bit the other way.
Amanda Smith: Now I notice in the commemorative booklet, Alec, that you've put out for this 20th anniversary occasion, a photograph of the 1982/83 Premiership team, and they're standing in front of a roughly painted banner which says 'Bringing the class struggle to the cricket pitch.' Now did you really believe that you were, or was that a bit of a joke?
Alec Kahn: It was a bit of a joke. I think we actually thought that it might be a way for the left to attract people, I suppose on a semi-social basis, into its circles. But no, I don't think we ever expected to actually fight the class struggle on the cricket pitch!
Amanda Smith: The meeting in August 1979 that established the Royal Park Reds was held in the inner suburban house of Tony Roberts. Tony's now retired from playing, but acts as their unofficial historian.
Tony Roberts: Personally, I'd played with a club which was pretty ockerish the year before. It was the first time I'd played since I was at school, and I found playing enjoyable but the social atmosphere was a bit off-putting. We had some social matches between the International Socialists, a political group that I was in, and the Communist Party, over a couple of years up to 1979. And after the second or third one of those in early 1979, we started talking to the people from the Communist Party about the possibility of joining together and forming a team.
Amanda Smith: Yes, well I'm interested to know why you did choose cricket. What about its English, imperialist connotations, didn't that concern you?
Tony Roberts: Never. Cricket was part of my life from the age of eight. And I think I wrote in the article about the history of Royal Park Reds that Kim Philby always wanted to get the cricket scores from England when he was in exile in Russia; it never bothered him! All the alternative sports were either a lot worse in those respects, you could think of things like rugby union or tennis or golf or sailing. Or frankly, a little bit too violent and off-putting, like Australian rules or rugby league. For us, soccer was out of bounds. Back then, things like baseball and basketball just were off the horizon. Basketball I suppose is the ultimate Disneyland sport as far as we're concerned, and we'd never want to go in for that. Besides, most of us would be about six inches too short for basketball.
Amanda Smith: But there was also no sort of left-wing uneasiness with sport, or with competition?
Tony Roberts: I think people, women who we were involved with, might have had that attitude, and there were probably a lot of men who were in the left-wing groups like I.S. who might have had an anti-competitive attitude to sport. But there were certainly enough of us to form a cricket team who didn't have qualms about competition.
Amanda Smith: But the Royal Park Reds had only been playing in their suburban competition a few years when they met with their greatest crisis. And ironically, the crisis came about as a result of one of the reasons they'd chosen to play cricket, rather than any other sport, in the first place. This, according to founding member Alec Kahn, is the amount of time during the course of a game that cricket allows for talking and discussion.
Alec Kahn: That's true. I think yes, it does have the sort of culture of off-the-field natter and there's plenty of time to do it. And I think left-wingers have always been keen on chewing the fat over political issues, social issues.
Amanda Smith: Yes well there was mention in one of the speeches tonight about rigorous debates regarding the merits of meritocracy.
Alec Kahn: Ah yes, well that was actually an oblique reference to our first split. Because like all good left-wing organisations, we had a split. And it tended to be between I suppose what I would call the more Leninist types, who wanted to see a committee elected, and have the right to then choose the best teams for the club, and choose on form, and what I'd call the more Anarchist wing of the club who thought that that was all a bit too structured, people should be able to associate with who they wanted to, play in whatever team they liked. Maybe I'm putting too much of a political slant on it, maybe it was just two different cliques in the club. But I think there always was a bit of a political undertone to it.
Amanda Smith: And that led to the split in 1985 when you broke into two different Reds clubs?
Alec Kahn: That's right. We'd tried to coexist with these two factions for a while, but it didn't work out.
Amanda Smith: Well as a politically and ideologically based club Alec, who have been your greatest adversaries in the competition that you've played in?
Alec Kahn: Well it's strange. I guess in the early competition we played in, the North Suburban Cricket Association, that was a very working class competition, and we used to come up against some pretty redneck sort of sides. The faction that I went with, that went into the turf Mercantile Competition, we've come up against quite a few sides that are based around business houses. So I guess we'd feel a lot more ideologically sound playing against them. Places like Coles Myer, Yarra Park, which is based on Price Waterhouse I think. One of our great early victories in that competition was against the Stock Exchange.
Amanda Smith: And one of your famous lines of sledging I understand was yelling out "All Ordinaries, All Ordinaries!"
Alec Kahn: Yes, "they're All Ordinaries", and it drove them crazy. The captain turned to the umpire and said, "Can't you shut these imbeciles up?"
Amanda Smith: Well now Alec, the Berlin Wall's been down a good ten years now. What's happened to the politics and political leanings of the club in its more recent history?
Alec Kahn: Well I guess like the left generally, the politics have been in retreat. I think it's much more a bohemian club now. It tends to attract a lot of artists, poets, performers, a few film makers and so on. So it's still got that slightly off-centre feel to it, but I think it's certainly lost that political edge that it had in the early days.
Amanda Smith: Does that sadden you as a founding member?
Alec Kahn: No, I think originally some of us had a fantasy that this would be a cosy little left-wing enclave, but I guess opportunism takes over. Someone brings along a friend who's not all that political but a terrific cricketer, and suddenly you bend your principles a bit, because it's much more fun than being flogged all over the park because you're being ideologically pure.
Amanda Smith: And it's a mark of the extent to which things have changed for the cricket club that one of its newer members, the stand-up comedian Hung Le, pointed out in his speech at the 20th anniversary dinner that he'd left Vietnam as a refugee, fleeing from Communism, only to come to Australia and find himself playing for the Reds!
But in trying to put their politics into practice, both on the cricket pitch and in the organisation of the club, the Reds have tried various experiments over the years. Now that many of them have children, the players themselves run a child-minding creche at their games. Although attempts at gender equity took an even more radical, if somewhat unsuccessful, step in the early days, as Tony Roberts explains.
Tony Roberts: There was a lot of talk in the early years of women who were associated with the club wanting to play. But they never actually got to the point of turning up to practice, and pressing for selection. So we never had to really put that to the test. I do remember when I was the umpire's secretary for our association, that I took the bold step of getting the first woman umpire in our local North Suburban Association, to umpire one of our matches. But it's been written up as an absolute disaster, as she apparently was trying to strike a blow for women and hadn't done much about reading the rules of cricket.
Amanda Smith: Nevertheless though, the club as I understand it, has never had a women's auxiliary to make the tea and sandwiches for the players?
Tony Roberts: No-one would have ever dared consider that.
Amanda Smith: Now as a social experiment I suppose, has the Reds cricket club worked in the way that most sports clubs would say is the only thing that really counts, and that's winning competitions?
Tony Roberts: Oh we've done a fair bit of that too, I would have thought. It's a bit hard to know where to strike a balance. There was one year where one of the teams tried to appoint every one of its players as captain for one week throughout the whole ten or eleven weeks of the season.
Amanda Smith: Along socialist principles?
Tony Roberts: Yes. (I think in Monty Python they wanted everything to be elected by a democratic vote in a collective - in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as I recall.) Well that flopped, they were hopeless. They got themselves together under one captain and won the Premiership the next year. So we can adapt ourselves to reality in that respect. Most of our socialist experiments have been tempered by the need to get the thrill of winning when we're playing against the opposition.
Amanda Smith: So what do you reckon has kept you together as a club these 20 years, despite a loosening of the political ties that did bring you together in the first place?
Tony Roberts: Partly I suppose the fact that there are quite a lot of people who want to keep marking the occasion of the fact that we did form ourselves in the first place. I think that probably helps to create a sense of continuity. But the way the club's grown in the last ten years, even in a sort of apolitical sort of way, would indicate to me that there's still a lot of people who want to react against the '80s and '90s way of doing things. And as long as there are a lot of people who are put off by commercialism and gung-hoism and Wall Street and all that kind of thing, I think there's going to be plenty of people who want to go and play for the Reds. And say, "We play for a club that actually stands for something a bit different to you."
MC: ... perhaps we should give the clubs, three cheers at this point. Hip, hip!
MC: Hip, hip!
MC: Hip, hip!
Amanda Smith: The Royal Park Reds and Mercantile Reds Cricket Clubs, both factions at their 20th anniversary dinner in Melbourne last Friday night, to celebrate their founding back in August 1979.
And I must say, I've never come across such a bunch of sportsmen, not only committed to their sport and their club, but who also treat it all with a disarming kind of self-deprecating humour. Which that's pretty well summed up in their motto: 'Win nervously, lose tragically'.
And that's The Sports Factor for this week. I'm Amanda Smith and I'll be back next Friday; hope you'll join me.
The Sports Factor can be heard on Radio National, 8.30am Fridays (Repeated Friday evenings at 8.30pm).
© 1999 Australian Broadcasting Corporation