Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 21 June 2008, p. 43.
Who says sport and politics don’t mix? At the personal level they definitely do. In Geelong we have had a number of political representatives who owed a great deal to their previous sporting careers. Sir Hubert Oppermann’s stellar cycling performances in the 1920s and 1930s paved the way for an equally illustrious Federal parliamentary stint as a Liberal MHR for Corio from 1949 to 1967. He was Minister for Shipping and Transport and later Minister for Immigration under Bob Menzies and Harold Holt. Neil ‘Nipper’ Tresize, Geelong’s nuggety captain and premiership player in 1951 and 1952, won the Victorian seat of Geelong for the Australian Labor Party in 1964 and was Minister for Sport from 1982 to 1992.
Ian Cover missed out on a career on the field but turned his contribution to the Coodabeens into a political success as a Member of the Legislative Council of Victoria from 1996 to 2002 and a shadow minister for Sport and Recreation and later Racing.
John Curtin, Australia’s wartime prime minister from 1941 to 1945, played football for Brunswick in the Victorian Football Association between 1903 and 1907. The story is that in his first attempt for public office, he stood for secretary of the club and was defeated.
Victoria’s current Planning Minister is Justin ‘Harry’ Madden, Carlton ruckman and another premiership player. Like the others he always had more strings to his bow than just his capacity and skill as a player. A qualified architect and designer of the façade of the entrance to Waverley Park, he hides a very sharp mind under an everyman personality.
But he was not the first Carlton player to make a career in Victorian politics. As readers of this column will know I have been involved in the debates about the origins of Australian Rules football. When researching the topic I used the work of a Scottish settler in the Western District, William Dawson, who provided a detailed account of the Aboriginal game of marngrook. His book was published in 1881. Towards the end of his account he noted, ‘nor is the fact of an aborigine being a good football player considered to entitle him to assist in making laws for the tribe to which he belongs’. When I read that, I thought it was just a throwaway line. But then I remembered that Richard Twopenny, who wrote Town Life in Australia which came out in 1883, mentioned ‘Some measure of the popularity of the game may be gathered from the fact that the member who has sat in the last three parliaments for the most important working-man’s constituency owes his seat entirely to his prowess on behalf of the local football club. In no other way has he, or does he pretend to have the slightest qualifications.’
So, I thought, perhaps there was a real person who provoked these comments. I consulted my sports history colleagues Robin Grow and Mark Pennings. Sure enough, John ‘Jack’ Gardiner, former captain of Carlton, defeated the sitting member for the Victorian lower house seat of Carlton at the election of January 1880 and held it until 1891. He continued to play for his club until 1883. He was a fast-moving defender and managed to kick four goals in his career. In Parliament he was not so conspicuous, though in his second term, while still a young man in political terms, he spoke out against the attempt by another young man in a hurry, Alfred Deakin, when the latter moved a motion to shorten parliamentary speeches, surely one of the most beneficial proposals to come before any legislature. After he was defeated in 1891, Gardiner became a Melbourne City Councillor and, after a brief retirement to the country, returned and represented the Victoria ward for almost 30 years. He was still an Alderman when he died on 29 October 1929 at the age of 81. His death coincided with Black Monday of the Wall Street Crash, but the two events are probably not connected.