June 10, 2004 | Jeff Wall

Celebrity Politicians – the record is not encouraging

THE endorsement of Peter Garrett as Labor Candidate for Kingsford Smith is now a foregone conclusion. If his proponents had looked over the record of “celebrity” candidates in Australian politics they might have had second thoughts.
Choosing celebrity candidates is not new in state or federal politics. Both major parties do it…….and so do the minor parties.
I have been thinking about a few I know or know of. They have not, overall, been spectacular political successes.
One of the first truly celebrity candidates was Hubert Opperman, then the world’s leading cyclist. The Liberals endorsed him to contest the 1949 election in the federal seat of Corio against the Labor Government’s Minister for Post War reconstruction, J J Dedman.
He won the seat and held it until 1967 when Harold Holt shunted him off to the exhaulted perk of High Commissioner to Malta. He was Minister for Immigration in the Menzies Government, a role he served in with less than average distinction.
The by-election caused by his departure was won by the Labor candidate, Gordon Scholes.
The Labor Party later chose another sports star, Rick Charlesworth, who represented Australia in hockey and later coached the Hockeyroos with great success, to contest Perth. He won the seat, never made the Ministry, and ended up cutting short his political career to return to coaching hockey fulltime.
There have been many more celebrity candidates in state politics – again with mixed success.
Sir Henry Bolte seemed to like them. The VFL star, Brian Dixon, won the seat of St Kilda for the Liberal Party, and went on to be a Minister – but he ended up losing the seat. The great test cricketer, Sam Loxton, represented Prahran for many years – but never made it to Cabinet.
Perhaps the biggest star ever to enter politics was also a Bolte appointee. I can still recall the headline coverage when the Liberal Party endorsed the Seekers band member, Athol Guy, for the seat of Gisborne. I had the privilege of getting to know Athol as a result and brought him to Brisbane for a couple of fundraisers.
But Athol never made it to Cabinet either – and ended up cutting short his political career, a result, I suspect, of finding politics frustrating. That shows how bad a judge I am, as I believed Athol was Premiership material!
The Labor Party in SA ran the test wicketkeeper, Gil Langley, in the marginal seat of Unley – he won and went on to become a very popular Speaker of the SA Parliament.
The most recent recruit is the AFL great, Justin Madden, who is Sports Minister in the Victorian Labor Government. Time will tell whether he goes any further.
The international experience is mixed as well. There have been a few successes and some spectacular duds.
Perhaps the biggest dud of all has been Sebastian Coe, the Olympic Gold Medallist, who was chosen by the Tories for a marginal seat. He won, but lost it in a landslide when Tony Blair was elected to Government. Then he became Chief of Staff to the hapless Tory Leader, William Hague.
More recently he has been elevated to the House of Lords. In that role he has become a media “star” for all the wrong reasons – the London tabloids are having a field day exposing his “gold medal winning” extra-marital activities!
Form students might suggest that even though Peter Garrett will get into Federal Parliament, it might not be wise to place a bet that he will be there for a long time, or make much of a difference no matter how long that time is.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:02 am | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. I too am suspicious of celebrity candidates, but I’m not sure if Garrett is in quite the same category as a star of sport or entertainment. ALthough he may be best known for Midnight Oil, I suspect his major appeal is for his support of environmental casues (and also some other “radical” views).
    He does have, as far as I can see, a fair bit of experience in non-parliamentary politics through his involvment with environmental groups, etc. In that way he is actually more like someone coming out of a career in the unions or business into parliament. As he already has a high public profile, a sort of parallel might be Bob Hawke.
    I don’t really see Cheryl Kernot in the same “celebrity” category. She was just a politician who changed parties and found her position in the new party rather uncomfortable at times.
    It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. A lot of it will be up to Garrett. He seems a pretty intelligent person with a fair bit of political experience who should know what he’s getting into. As long as he can operate within an environment requiring compromise and alliance building he may do quite well.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — June 10, 2004 @ 11:33 am

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