For eight months In 1992, my name appeared on the senior playing list at Hawthorn, and over the course of the season, I played 8 reserves games for 25 kicks, 8 handpasses and 3 goals. Predictably, I was delisted by Allan Joyce’s match committee in June 1992, and as they ushered me towards the door at Glenferrie Oval, I swore I would make them regret the decision for the rest of their lives. They haven’t.
What happens when you discover that your moderate footballing talents were just that, is that you relish opportunities to play against anybody who actually made it. You want to prove something to yourself, to the other player, to passers by taking their dogs for a walk. You want to demonstrate that had events taken a slightly different turn, you too could have been a star.
Which is why I asked Justin ‘Harry’ Madden, the 332 game, dual best and fairest winning, Carlton premiership great, if I could conduct an interview about his candidacy for the upper house seat of Doutta Galla over a game of competitive kick to kick. Madden, famous for his good humour and unaware that he was dealing with an embittered AFL reject, happily agreed. ‘Sounds like a bit of fun,’ he said. ‘You bring the footy.’
The first inkling Madden had into how competitive I wanted the kick to kick to be, came at his front door in Essendon, where I arrived wearing a mouthguard. Much to my disappointment, Harry was himself wearing a jacket and tie. He explained that immediately after my interview, he had to do a shopping centre tour with Steve Bracks, and had to look the part.
‘Can you at least put on some footy boots,’ I asked, concerned that Madden might be planning to perform at half tilt.
‘Na, I’ll be right in these,’ Madden said glancing down at his size 16 Windsor Smiths.
We began the game and interview down the road at Clarainda Park, my friend Harves kicking gentle drop punts at us, a sheet with my interview questions lying on the ground beside us. I asked Madden whether he came from a political family, just as he edged me under the ball and pulled in his first mark.
‘Not particularly political … the Maddens are an Airport West family … a traditional Catholic background in a working class suburb,’ he said, swinging the footy onto his business shoe. ‘We’re keen to see things improve for people … to change things for the better.’
I was ropable. Not so much on the social justice thing, that seemed fair enough, but after just one kick Madden had skipped away to a 1-0 lead. I stepped back and locked arms with him as Harves set up the next contest.
‘The political thing probably developed a bit more through the players associaaaaaation,’ Madden said, the sentence degenerating into a groan as I buried my elbow in his side. The kick fell short and into my waiting arms.
‘Is that something you chose to do or was it inherited?’ I asked, quietly celebrating drawing level.
‘It’s one of those community organisations where you sort of get roped in … they ask for volunteers to step forward, everyone steps back, and I wasn’t quite quick enough,’ Madden grinned.
But you sensed that Madden feels a real sense of pride for what he achieved in his reign as president of the AFL Players Association. In 1993 he fought successfully to reform the standard player contract, arguing that the time commitment involved for AFL football justified amongst other things a minimum wage, and restrictions on when and how a club could terminate a contract. Madden revolutionised labour relations in the AFL, forcing clubs to finally acknowledge that playing football was indeed labour. He led the players to the Industrial Relations Commission to forge the first collective bargaining agreement, winning players a larger slice of the revenue pie and a share in merchandising dividends. Every AFL footballer now earning a comfortable living (as every AFL footballer now does) owes thanks in part to Justin Madden.
I dug my knee into his back in an ugly attempt to mark. That was for not pushing the reforms through in 1992.
You’ve got to be happy with a 4-1 lead, but I did have to remind Madden that just because he was recounting the issues facing the people of Doutta Galla, didn’t mean he couldn’t force a contest. Madden ran through the loss of services in the region under the Liberal government, particularly in health and education, the inequity of the Tullamarine freeway toll on the people of the western suburbs, and something about a toxic landfill which I missed because I was on a searching lead. Harves anticipated my break and delivered lace up. 5-1. Forget about the ethics of leading during kick to kick. This was turning into a drubbing.
‘People in this part of the world are forever getting the raw end of the pineapple,’ Harry was saying when I returned, before admitting with a grin that both ends of the pineapple were raw, and what he’d meant to refer to was the rough end of the stick.
Talking about injustice in his electorate seemed to fire up the 208 cm Madden frame (6’10”) and he plucked the next two marks from somewhere very high up. Then within moments of getting started on independent contracting and the way it was eroding worker rights, he took another grab. Suddenly it was a 5 marks to 4 and all the momentum was with the really tall guy who’d finished runner up in a Brownlow.
Harry was reading the questions himself now.
Harves would kick the ball, we’d contest it and then Madden would lean forward and read from my sheet. I think he was hoping we could get through the interview a bit quicker if he took charge.
‘If elected, will I be going to the front bench?’ Madden read. ‘Well, there’s every chance if I’m keen enough. If I can get enough of the ball.’
Mark to me. Mark to me. He wasn’t even trying any more.
‘Do I think the ALP can win the election?’ Madden continued. ‘I think we’re running a very good campaign, but obviously we’ve got to cover a lot of territory. The challenge is people who think they’re in a comfortable position … whether they’re going to be content with another term of Jeff and a further winding down of services … I don’t think anyone can guess how they’ll vote at this stage.’
The next grab was mine too, despite some attention from a nearby eucalypt.
‘What do I think of Jeff Kennett’s decision to encourage Sam Newman last election and Billy Brownless this election to stand in Geelong? Well … they’re great blokes, but maybe they’ve lost a yard or two.’
I took out my mouthguard. The score was 31-4 in my favour, but admittedly, my last two dozen marks had come uncontested. The man who in my view stands on the very precipice of becoming the tallest politician in the world was quite clearly letting me win. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to get all sweaty in his business shirt before the shopping centre walk. Maybe it was because he was inexplicably playing kick to kick in the Clarainda Park mud with somebody he didn’t know. Hard to say..
In any event, I won a hollow victory that I plan to talk about for the rest of my life.
‘You know what, fellas,’ Madden began, having more bounces on the way to the car than he had in 18 years of senior footy, ‘Steve Bracks will be upset when he finds out we’ve been out for a kick. He would have loved to be here.’
I must admit that I hadn’t thought to invite the Leader of the Opposition – although you can always use an extra crumber. Then again, why stop at Bracks? In a footy finals election in which meaningful debate has been declared an unnecessary democratic trimming, maybe kick to kick is as good a way as any to sort a few things out. Roll out the candidates on both sides of politics. Bracks on Kennett would obviously be the key match-up, although I say we should make the contest interesting and put them both down Carl Ditterich’s end.
We travelled from the park back to Madden’s house, and I made the same comment about the car’s lack of leg-room that he must have been hearing for getting on twenty five years.
‘I wonder if the upper house benches will have enough leg-room?’ I added, grasping my theme and strangling it to death as we pulled into his drive. But Madden laughed. Not just a ‘you painful unimaginative bastard, thank God this is almost over’ laugh, but a genuine guffaw. A laugh that stated resolutely to everyone around, ‘by golly, he just pulled a tallness gag and I like it!’
We hopped out of my car and Madden folded hmself into an official vehicle that was waiting at the curb. The shopping centre beckoned.
‘You never know Tony, if I spend long enough in office I might shrink to be the size of Billy Hughes.’ he said. Madden was palming off witticisms on midget prime ministers from the First World War, and Harves and I didn’t want to go home. That’s the wonder of the man who used to be called ‘Harry the Giraffe’. There are very few moments when you’re around him that you wish you weren’t.