We’ve been interviewing current and former politicians about the history of Australian politics, and particularly the history of Australian bipartisanship. Along the way, we’ve heard people argue that sport should be entirely non-partisan and apolitical. Yet we often find politics playing out in sport. Sometimes, it does so through controversy. The debate over whether Margaret Court should be celebrated at the Australian Open is an example. Other times, the intersection of sport and politics is widely beneficial. Take, for instance, the story from 1988 of how Melbourne won the right to hold the first Grand Slam at Flinders Park.
The Australian Open, originally known as the Australasian Championships, was first held in 1905 at the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground in Melbourne. A series of Australian cities would host the tournament: Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide. Even Christchurch (1906) and Hastings (1912) in New Zealand played host a couple of times. Melbourne consistently drew the biggest crowds and eventually became the only host city — with the tournament played on grass courts at Kooyong in the inner eastern suburbs.
When Kooyong’s main stadium was first built, it was a concrete marvel of an impressive scale. But by the 1980s, there was little room for spectators on Kooyong’s ageing wooden bleachers. The need for a larger and more modern venue was urgent. There was also renewed competition from other cities to host the Open. It was time for change.
This decade was the era of big teased hair for girls, mullets for boys, Crocodile Dundee, ‘I should be so Lucky’ by Kylie, and the infamous Nunawading by-election how-to-vote scandal (known as ‘Nun-a-bloody-wading’ by some Labor insiders).
Them were the days…
In 1988, Australian tennis star Pat Cash was defeated in a five-set marathon by Swede Mats Wilander. The match included a heart wrenching 14-game tie-breaker.
When players actually ran all over the court.
German Steffi Graf defeated American Chris Evert, to become the first German player of any gender to win an Australian Open singles title.
Everyone was blonde in 1988
We are still waiting for another Australian male superstar, but a female one has arrived. We have Ash ‘BARTY’ to cheer on at the first Grand Slam of 2020.
When the international tournament moved to ‘Flinders Park’ in inner Melbourne, it was the first to be played indoors and on a synthetic ‘Rebound Ace’ court. Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett later changed the venue’s name to ‘Melbourne Park’ (1996) to better promote Melbourne to the global audience that tuned in every January. The new tournament became a showpiece for Jeff Kennett’s Victoria. But Kennett wasn’t always in favour of shifting the Australian Open from Kooyong.
The move from Kooyong required a big investment, and legislative force. In the mid-eighties, both houses of the Victorian Parliament passed the Melbourne and Olympic Parks Act to establish the National Tennis Centre and Olympic Park at Flinders Park. The Act was a personal mission for the Labor Premier John Cain and his sports Minister Neil ‘Nipper’ Trezise. Though it won majority support in the parliament, the Act was hotly contested.
Liberal Tom Reynolds, Member for Gisborne, led the opposition to the legislation, saying in the house on 1 October 1985:
The centre will be constructed as a monument to the Premier; it will be done without consultation, discussion, forethought and without anyone knowing exactly what will happen and how much the centre will cost the public.
The Government has also said that it will relocate the Army depot. The Opposition has endeavoured to obtain ironclad guarantees from the Premier for many weeks. No doubt the Premier will declare the centre open just prior to the 1989 State elections and call it ‘Cain’s Cathedral’.
In today’s Sun newspaper — no doubt the most accurate paper — an article about the proposed National Tennis Centre states in part:
The State and Federal Government have agreed in principle to a land swap as part of the $53 million national tennis centre planned for Jolimont.
They may have agreed in principle but there is nothing in writing, no ironclad guarantee. The Premier, no doubt, rang up the Prime Minister and asked, “What will happen about this Army land, Bob?”
There are rubbery figures and insufficient information, and the deficit cash flow statement is not available. The public will lose an irreplaceable parkland, which is part of its heritage. The Opposition was put here by the people of Victoria in the recent Nunawading by-election to provide a safeguard. The principal aim and plank of the Liberal Party is that it would provide a safeguard.
The public strongly returned the Liberal Party to that position and anyone who doubts that need only look at the 4.7 per cent swing to the Liberal Party. The Opposition has been put here to safeguard the public of Victoria against the Government to ensure that Victoria’s heritage is not taken away from us, that Victorians will not be paying for this monolith forever and that the replacement of land will be unconditional and that the public will have an opportunity to discuss the matter.
Liberal Leader of the Opposition, Jeff Kennett, backed his shadow minister with a surprising line of argument:
I shall begin my speech with a Quote from Hansard of 25 March 1969. The Honourable J. W. Galbally was then the member for Melbourne North Province and was the Leader of the Labor Party in another place. He opened with a speech on the Royal Botanic Gardens, which you, Mr Deputy Speaker, may well remember. It was proposed that parkland would be taken away from the public in order to build a restaurant in the gardens. The Honourable J. W. Galbally started his speech by saying:
Hands off the Royal Botanic Gardens!
He continued to state, which is important:
Once the Government gets a foot into the parks and gardens, that is the end of them.
He also stated:
One cannot help regretting that another of Melbourne’s green patches has gone to provide for the freeway.
The Bill represents a total reversal of the position and philosophy of the Labor Party as it desperately strives to bring about change in the city. It is not as concerned about the heritage and history of the city as it is with trying to identify those projects that may give it some electoral kudos as it goes into the next election.
Crucially, the National and the Liberal parties adopted different positions on the Bill. A young Pat McNamara, National Member for Benalla, rose to speak in favour of the proposed legislation:
I should first advise the House that I have a personal interest in this matter as I am a member of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria at Kooyong. However, I have taken the opportunity of considering all sides of the matter.
The proposal put forward by the Minister will result in a world-class tennis facility, a world-class entertainment facility and a world-class training facility with accommodation for 28 juniors who can be billeted at the National Tennis Centre.
I hope it will lead to a resurrection, which is sorely overdue, of Australia on the world tennis scene. In future I hope we will see that Australia regains its rightful position as the No. 1 tennis nation and, at the same time, that Victoria retains its rightful position as the venue for the Grand Slam tournament, namely, the Australian Open.
The National Party sided with the Labor government to defeat the proposed opposition amendment: Ayes 51, Noes 30. Then, after going through the ‘committee stage’ (akin to five sets on the tennis court), the Bill was passed without amendment on 2 October 1985.
Pat McNamara of the National Party and Tony Sheehan of Labor both entered the Victorian parliament in 1982. Today, even though they are from different parties, they count each other as friends. Together they inaugurated a series of St Patrick’s Day dinners, and they enjoy a regular beer.
Looking back on the politics behind the construction of Flinders Park, Sheehan called it a good example of how political decisions are made and successes achieved.
Melbourne would have lost the national championship and it would not have been rated as one of the four world Grand Slam events if we had not pushed ahead building Flinders Park. John [Cain] said that would have been terrible to put to our children and really drove the notion of a dedicated Tennis Centre. He was opposed by many and the Kooyong establishment was against it.
Jeff Kennett opposed it vigorously and so did some members of the left of the Labor party. So that was an interesting trifecta. Some of those characters who opposed us most, later laid claim for the delivery and ownership of the Tennis Centre. But if Jeff had his way, it would have never got through Parliament.
Pat McNamara later reflected on how ‘politics can make strange bedfellows’. The Nationals’ decision to work with the Cain government to build Flinders Park and get the Grand Slam to Melbourne was ‘much to the displeasure of Jeff Kennett’.
It was a case of whether the international tennis event, one of only four of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, would come to Melbourne or go to Sydney or even Singapore. It hinged on building a new world-class facility in Flinders Park on the Yarra; the best tennis facility in Victoria (at Kooyong) wouldn’t make the grade.
The Liberals opposed the Flinders Park development along Batman Avenue on the basis that they wanted to keep it as a park — although Jeff doesn’t talk about this much anymore.
We weren’t in Coalition with the Libs. In fact, we’d never had a Coalition with them until I negotiated one in 1990. In earlier times, when the Country Party had formed government in Victoria, they relied on Labor support.
Our national party leader, Peter Ross Edwards, and the rest of us were convinced it was too good an opportunity to miss — so we sided with Cain to get the Grand Slam to Melbourne. It has been a terrific thing for Melbourne and Victoria, and one of the best political decisions we ever made. Mind you, I wasn’t too popular in Kooyong.
Tony Sheehan remembered difficulties in getting the legislation through the state’s upper house.
Robert Fordham was leading the negotiations at the time, when I inquired as to how we were going to get it through the upper house. It was either Robert or Nipper who said, ‘Well usually the Nats would settle for a car — I think we’ll probably get it over the line now’. That [giving a car to the National Party] might not have been the decisive factor, but history relates that we did get the Tennis Centre.
McNamara remembered things differently.
There was no agreement to vote for the Tennis Centre in exchange for anything, we certainly didn’t get an extra car, and there was no difficulty getting the Bill through the Upper House. Once the Nats voted for it in the Assembly, and spoke in favour, John Cain knew he would get it passed. In the Upper House we had six members and the balance of power.
I remember very well the discussion we had in our party room. Everyone thought Cain’s plan for a World Class Tennis Centre was a brilliant idea and much needed to get the event permanently in Melbourne.
Later, John Cain and I were both on the MCG Trust (Steve Bracks appointed me), and at MCG events John would regularly tell people he only got the tennis facility built because of our support.
It’s hard to imagine today that anyone could have not supported it.
In John Cain’s 1995 memoir, he reflected on the National Tennis Centre. The new venue succeeded, he said, only because people in government were driving to see it built. Problems were met as they emerged, and Cain refused to let the project ‘fall down the memory hole’ of blockages and delays. He also noted, ruefully, that Victoria gobbled up the new asset — and then wanted the next one, and the next.
Government must never overlook the fact that the electorate is grasping — some would say greedy — and always expecting more. At the first Australian Open at the new National Tennis Centre, Bob Hawke said to me, ‘This is terrific. People love it. But what they’ll be saying now is, well that’s OK, but what’s next?’ He was absolutely correct.
Reading the political wind — helped by the ‘Nun-a-bloody-wading by-election’ — John Cain went early to the polls on 1 October 1998. Despite the Liberals winning a majority of the two-party preferred vote, Labor managed to retain office by winning the seats it needed (only losing the lower house seat of Warrandyte in Melbourne’s north-east).
Cain’s days as premier, however, were numbered. Though he served longer than any other Labor premier in Victoria, he inevitably accumulated much weight in his political saddle-bag. In August 1990, Cain resigned. There are many views about his political demise and legacy, but the National Tennis Centre didn’t fall down the memory hole and is a great monument to the premier who transformed Victoria in a multitude of ways.
Following Cain’s death in December 2019, Jeff Kennett conceded he’d opposed the shift of the tennis tournament from Kooyong to Melbourne Park, and that this was a mistake. “It is possible,” he said, “that we wouldn’t have the Australian Open without [Cain’s] vision at the time and his foresight.”
What led Labor to pair up with the Nats to get the Grand Slam to Melbourne? Was it state interests, friendship, a love of sport, or just raw politics? Traces of all these elements are present in the backstory of a historic investment and a showcase event that now enjoys overwhelming public support.