We’ve all done it once, haven’t we? Please, please tell me that everyone’s done it at least once. Tell me that everyone’s made at least one split-second decision that felt logical, rational and decent at the time, which eventually turned out to be a disaster.
Even better, tell me that you would have taken the same course of action that I did. Tell me that the split second decision that you would have made would have echoed mine. Tell me that it’s not all my fault that I didn’t do everything in my power to alter what became one of the most distressing moments in Australian political history on Saturday.
Please, please, just tell me that it’s not my fault.
It was Monday the 25th of January, 2010. I had made quite a leisurely pace towards Day 8 of the Australian Open as the day on Hisense Arena started with a less than intriguing Mixed Doubles contest. I took a stroll around the grounds while awaiting the start of the ensuing three singles matches. I dropped in on the doubles scores on Margaret Court Arena and Court 2, and was stunned to see just how many people were lining-up to catch a glimpse of the Legends Doubles match on Court 3 between the Woodies and their former Davis Cup teammates Scott Draper and Richard Fromberg.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had also developed a following on Court 4, where he was hitting up in preparation for his match that I would watch that afternoon, while most of the other outside courts held the start of the boys and girls singles events.
I paused next to Court 5, where a couple of boys were starting their match under the watchful eye of their coaches. If you’re ever at a Grand Slam on such a day, do yourself the favour and watch these kids play for a few minutes at least. Sure, you start out by feeling like a relatively elderly underachiever, but such feelings are always replaced by sheer awe at the kids’ talent.
Throughout my time at the court, various members of the Channel Seven commentary team were doing pieces to camera next to me. I didn’t pay much attention to them. Until it happened.
John Alexander was quite happy to answer the questions posed to him by the junior journo – or perhaps he was an editor who was about to cut these pieces together for the next day’s Australia Day coverage. “JA” gave quite a lengthy responses to questions surrounding the future of Australian tennis, including lavishing praise upon our great players of the future such as Nick Lindahl.
The man asking the questions then had the cameraman pause the tape and he asked Alexander, “Do you mind if we ask you just one more question about what you like about Australia Day?” “Sure,” came the reply, and the camera was immediately turned on and the question posed.
The rest of the story would be utterly hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying knowing what we know now. Alexander didn’t have a clue. He paused to think, and then actually asked the journo to give him a moment. Oh how I wish I had timed that moment, because saying now that it must have been at least 3-4 minutes makes it sound like I’m trafficking in hyperbole. But I’m not. Those good few minutes were so damn long that I had to do everything in my power not to burst into laughter. Privately, I had often criticised JA in the past for his commentary – he rarely manages to succeed in actually telling the audience anything they can’t see for themselves, and my friends and family have always agreed that of a pretty ordinary bunch of Aussie commentators, he has consistently been the worst during the past decade. This moment was priceless.
Eventually, he was ready to go. The question was re-asked, and his response was a desperately long-winded stream-of-consciousness about a range of stuff including how safe we are as Australians. I wish I remembered more of it, but I was too busy trying not to crack up to truly take in his rather lengthy Pearl of Priceless Wisdom.
As soon as he was finished, he went to leave and I turned around to speak to him. And I could have said it, right then and there. I had it all worked out in my head:
“What are you doing, JA? You’re running for Bennelong in the next election, right? You’ve just been asked by some guy from Channel Seven what you love about Australia Day, and it takes you three minutes to come up with a shithouse long-winded answer…and you think you can be a politician?!? You honestly believe that you can survive in a debate with Maxine McKew when you need three minutes to prepare an answer about what you like about our National Holiday? How will you cope with questions without notice about taxes, health, education, superannuation, or anything else that might be thrown at you in circumstances when the cameraman is not going to give you any chance in hell to say ‘Can you just give me a moment with the camera off and then re-state the question to help me out of this one’? Mate, don’t do it to yourself – take a leaf out of Mal Meninga’s book and get out before you even start…otherwise, you’re going to make a damn fool of yourself.”
But I stopped mid-stride. It was one of those moments where time stands-still and your brain goes through a problem-solving process that feels like it takes forever, but actually fills you with a seemingly perfect logical response in a milli-second. “Don’t say anything,” my brain said. “Let him go. If you say something now, he might actually take this politics game seriously and start preparing for the campaign. He might work so damn hard at it that he actually improves his chances of, dare I imagine it, winning. Let him be. He’s clearly not taking it seriously yet, and the people of Bennelong will know just how slow and ordinary a politician he’ll be. Just let him be: he’ll lose.”
So I didn’t speak. I left my faith in the folk of Bennelong, and did not attempt in any way to talk Alexander out of running for office.
Relatively early on Election Night this past Saturday, it became clear that whoever the Liberal Party candidate was for the seat of Bennelong, they would have defeated Maxine McKew. Indeed, the fact that the Liberal candidate was shown at a local polling place seemingly unable to work out how to hand out how-to-vote cards and simultaneously shake hands with voters was irrelevant.This wasn’t a seat being fought out by the local candidates, but a seat won and lost thanks to the national campaign.
And it was then, when Kerry O’Brien revealed the result, that I knew I should have spoken when I had the chance at Melbourne Park. For had I said something, I may have given Bennelong and Australia the chance to have a member in the Federal Parliament who might actually have the potential to be an excellent politician. And at least then, I wouldn’t be here, haunted by the guilt of wondering if I could have made a positive difference to the country that day.
The fact that this result might mean that we tennis fans are not subjected to John Alexander’s commentary any longer is but a small consolation.
I’m sorry, Australia. I honestly thought I was doing the right and logical thing.
I was wrong.