Australian Sports Foundation Prime Ministers’ Sporting Oration

21 November 2018

Sovereign Room - Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre - South Wharf (35 minutes)


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and, in a spirit of reconciliation, pay my respect to their Elders – past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge founder of the Prime Minister’s Sporting Oration, Dr Campbell Rose. Cam and I have known each other for some time, since his role as CEO with the Bulldogs.

He was even kind enough to take me to the rooms after a game to belt out “Sons of the West” with the players – a highlight for any Dogs fan and certainly a very memorable moment for me.

I’d like to congratulate Campbell on his vision to create this occasion. With many sporting accolades of his own, Cam’s now on a worthwhile mission to strengthen the future of sport in our great nation.

This annual event seeded in the Australian Sports Foundation will raise funds to invest in four key areas at the grassroots level:

  • women and girls sport,
  • physical activity for all,
  • leadership and decision making,
  • diversity and inclusion.

It’s an honour to be the inaugural speaker for this event, and I thank you all for being here tonight to support such a worthy cause.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Senator the Hon Bridget McKenzie, Minister for Sport
  • Senator the Hon Don Farrell, Shadow Minister for Sport
  • Sally Capp, Lord Mayor of Melbourne
  • Kevin Andrews MP, Member for Menzies
  • Mark Stockwell, Chairman and Patrick Walker, CEO and members of the Australian Sports Foundation Board of Directors… The foundation was established by the Hawke Government in 1986, and is the only body that can provide a tax deduction for donations to sport.
  • Foundation Partners to the Prime Minister’s Sporting Oration
  • Dr Susan Alberti AC and The Organising Committee of this Prime Ministers’ Sporting Oration initiative
  • The several Olympians and Australian Sports Representatives also in the audience tonight


As someone who makes a lot of speeches, I do like a good quote. A great source of quotes is the famous baseballer Yogi Berra.

He gave us some absolute crackers:

  • "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours." (Think about it)
  • "The future ain't what it used to be."
  • "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."
  • And "It's déjà vu all over again."

As we know, modern elite sport is live with recurring debates.

We have that déjà vu over and over again.

We love a good debate about sports governance.

We really like discussing culture.

Rule changes always get people very excited.

And league expansions, and particularly new franchises, can get people very, very interested.

Any new teams for Melbourne’s West, or Adelaide? I’m your patron in waiting.

New AFLW teams. New A League teams. New Big Bash teams. New Super Netball teams. Just call.

But my longstanding, deep personal interest as an Australian Rules fan is for a new AFL team to move beyond the traditional framework of place…and now that we have Women’s AFL teams, the next natural step would surely be… an all-star team of Redheads.

The “Rang-ers”.

This is a team I’ve been talking about creating since 2008 – first announcing the line up at the North Melbourne Grand Final Breakfast.

In my dreams, I have just kept adding since then so now I imagine a perfect footy Rang-er extravaganza:

On the goal-to-goal line:

  • full back – Dustin Fletcher backed up by Daniel Merrett;
  • centre half back – Justin Leppitsch;
  • centre – Cameron Ling and Adam Cooney;
  • centre half forward – Lance Whitnall; and
  • full forward – Jarryd Roughead and Jack Riewoldt.

I’d play myself, but I’m probably the only former prime minister who deep down doesn’t believe they could have played AFL. Except perhaps Billy McMahon.

For the redheads, Vossy could coach.

The great Norm Smith – The Red Fox - could be his role model.

Rhonda Burchmore could sing the anthem and then line up in the forward pocket.

Keith Greig, Brad Hardie and "Strawbs" O'Dwyer could be back in form and around the play.

Up back with Fletcher, I visualise that great sportsman – a former world Karate Champion - Chuck Norris who will bring new meaning to that traditional, somewhat sexist football moniker, “hard man”.

Young Doggie Ed Richards, he of Collingwood footballing royalty, will join the franchise running off the halfback.

Sorry Cam, but we need him.

Steve Hooker could switch codes and line up in Ruck. He will bring a new perspective to bringing height to the centre bounce.

And our bright redhead stars of AFL-W will come across to join this disruptive outfit.

New North Melbourne AFLW signing, Ali Drennan will set the Rang-ers midfield alight.

She’ll line up with the Dogs signing Eleanor Brown in the midfield, (sorry again Cam) while another shinboner, Jenna Brunton will boost the team’s roving stocks.

Finally, in my mind, I see myself joining as number one ticket holder with that icon of Australian sport, Rod Laver.

I’d back these champions against all comers. Players would be dyeing their hair red just to have a chance of getting in.  But perhaps for a woman of my age, the less said about hair dye the better.

Sport and our national identity

Whether red headed or not, elite sports figures are role models and idols for young people and the wider Australian community…

Because Australians love our sport.

And haven’t we celebrated many, many great sporting moments over the years…

Like Kieran Perkins winning gold in the 1500 metre freestyle at the Atlanta Olympics;

Australia II taking home the America’s Cup in 1983 – and I’d like to acknowledge the skipper of Australia II, John Bertram, who is with us here tonight.

And the greatest sporting achievement in my recent memory… the Doggies 2016 AFL Premiership!

World records broken… personal bests smashed…

These moments, these victories, demonstrate to us the collective blood, sweat and tears of a team…or an athlete and coach… and can amount to something far greater than the sum of their parts.

When we see our team, or indeed our country win, and revel in the glory, it speaks deeply to our human desire to stretch beyond what we imagined possible into something greater than ourselves…

It can also join us in sadness, indeed even shame when our sporting greats let us down. We’ve seen this with our cricket team and ball tampering in South Africa. Or the Essendon Football Club’s supplement saga. While trust and integrity can be rebuilt, it still hurts.

With all its ups and occasional downs, sport binds us together.

Some might go so far as to say that a love of sport is as quintessential to being Australian as knowing the words to the national anthem, or…

  • absolutely putting your onions ON TOP of the sausage;
  • saying ‘no worries’ when really there is in fact great cause to worry;
  • ·ownership of at least one esky;
  • calling someone you’re having an argument with ‘mate’;
  • ·or not knowing how to make sense of anything without Bruce McAvaney.

While the debates over what is ‘Australian’ or ‘un-Australian’ – both serious and humorous - will roll on until the end of time, I think there is certainly something worthwhile to examine in the intersection of sport and our collective national identity.

This is the land that has historically prized the fair-go, which aims to be a nation where everyone, regardless of their culture or background, gets a real opportunity to make a success of their life.

Aiming for that fair go has been vital to us becoming such a wonderfully diverse, peaceful and prosperous place, rich in cultures from both our indigenous first peoples, and our large migrant population.

We are in fact, one of the most multicultural nations on earth, and proud of it.  But achieving a fair go all round doesn’t just magically happen. We need to work hard to ensure this is an Australia that is inclusive for all.

Sport is one of the greatest ways to bridge the cultural divide… it is one of the great levellers.

Sport can help transform attitudes cutting across age and gender, ethnicity and geography.

And sporting clubs are so often the heartbeat of communities, particularly in rural and regional Australia. Coaches, volunteers, fundraisers, team members and parents, all coming together for a shared interest in their chosen sport.

The mateship and lifelong sense of belonging found inside these clubs provides a commonality amongst a group of people who otherwise may not interact.

This kind of comradery has never been more important than it is today… given the new digital world of click bait ‘news’ and social media fed conspiracies which have made it an easy age in which to stoke fear.

An age in which the ‘us’ and ‘them’ debates are pushed to divide and destroy trust amongst communities.

As we look around the world, unfortunately it is all too clear that the politics of division is not just being pursued at the margins. 

In so many countries, it has been mainstreamed with leaders seeking votes by trying to make people fear anyone, and anything, that is different.

And unfortunately, at home, we have not been untouched by these kinds of appeals to spurn those whose skin is of a different colour, or who worship a different god.

There is no one, or easy way, to avoid this negative cycle of turning inwards and away from each other.

But one of the best ways to build bridges across any cultural divide, and create a shared sense of purpose, is with sport.

Indeed we know that those who play sport are 44% more likely to have mixed ethnic friendships.

Sport can remind us in triumph… and in defeat… that great things are possible… but it’s only through collaboration that we can achieve them.

Sport and diversity

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating in his historic Redfern Speech in 1992, asked all Australians to imagine what it was like to be an indigenous Australian. 

He said:

“Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. 

Imagine [serving your country] in peace and war and . . . [then] being ignored in history books.

Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice.”

Each of these wrongs we are now trying to right and sport has and continues to be a vehicle for change.

It has provided a space in which indigenous Australians have been given a voice on a national and sometimes international platform to say “we are proud of our heritage, and we matter”.

It was Cathy Freeman who lit the cauldron for the Sydney Olympics. And then shortly afterwards when she ran her unforgettable 400 metres in Sydney and won the gold, she draped the Australian and Aboriginal flag over each shoulder, and ran her victory lap barefoot.

Freeman said of this moment:

"It was always a dream of mine to not only win an Olympic gold medal but to do the victory lap with both flags. I hold the Aboriginal community in such a high place in my heart so I’m very proud of my Indigenous roots."

A heart-warming moment, coming six years after she was outrageously criticised by Australia’s chef de mission at the Commonwealth Games for celebrating with an Aboriginal flag.

While Cathy is a standout – we have had so many Indigenous Australians who have excelled themselves on the sporting field… like former Senator Nova Peris and Grand Slam winner Evonne Goolagong, just to name a couple.

And when it comes to the great sport of AFL, we all think about the great Nicky Winmar who stood up to racism and displayed his pride and passion as an Aboriginal sportsman on the footy field, exclaiming “I am black, and I am proud.”

That was 25 years ago. And it was also a moment for which he was heavily criticised.

More recently we have seen Adam Goodes, a great AFL star and an Australian of the Year take a stance.

Goodes endured years of racist abuse on and off the footy field. When he decided to call it out during a match, he was booed relentlessly during games from then on.

Goodes however, undeterred, used his platform to advocate an anti-racism message.

Fortunately, codes like the NRL and AFL don’t just leave the work of reconciliation to brave indigenous players.  Each takes significant measures to improve attitudes towards indigenous players and combat racism.

Diversity… in all its forms,  inclusion, decency, respect – are all vitally important to our nation.

And sport can provide a platform to showcase how to get it right.

Invictus Games

Take the Invictus Games, recently hosted in Australia… Every single Invictus Games competitor has served their country in the army, navy or air force.

500 women and men, from 18 countries, competed in a range of adaptive sports from wheelchair rugby to sitting volleyball, swimming and athletics.

None of us can really imagine the trauma and pain that many of the Invictus Games competitors experienced.  

For many competing in the games, the healing power of sport has propelled their recovery, both physically and mentally.

But it doesn’t mean their struggles don’t exist.

And while professional athletes can begin to take on superhuman like qualities in our eyes, they have the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us…

Elite sports figures and their mental health

In my role as Chair of Beyond Blue, that’s something I’ve taken a particular interest in learning about.

The research tells us athletes are no more or less susceptible to common mental health issues than the general population.

But they are striving for peak physical excellence in full public glare.

They can have whole panels of radio and television commentators dedicated to microscopic analysis of their performance, injuries and personal attitude every time they compete…

It’s a bit like being a politician, come to think of it…but with less tiger balm and lycra... unless you’re Tony Abbott of course.

Even if athletes do not experience pressure to keep a brave face, they might expect it of themselves.

Professional athletes usually start their training from a young age, where they are often coached to be ‘tough’, to be ‘strong’, to ‘get their game face on’, to ‘suck it up’.

But they aren’t infallible. Nor should they be expected to be.

Speaking out publicly about mental health

While we are seeing improvements in attitudes towards mental health in Australia; the stigma of speaking about it remains an issue.

When swimming great Ian Thorpe opened up about his own mental health struggles, it took many in the public by surprise.

Thorpe had from all appearances, a dream sporting career – world titles and gold medals abounded.

An adoring public revelled in the successes of ‘Thorpedo’ …many Aussies waking at all hours of the night to watch his races on the telly and share in the glory of one of our swimming legends.

But Thorpe was dealing with much more than appeared on the surface. In his own words he said:

“It would have appeared as though I had grasped the world with both hands -- a gifted athlete, student with a youthful naivety and innocence who chooses to believe in the best the world has to offer ….My future seemed boundless. This is part of the deception of depression and also mental illness: what may appear at face value is a stark difference from the agony that lies within.”

Many more athletes like Ian Thorpe have found the strength within themselves to speak out about their own mental health struggles.

We’ve seen people like cycling champion Anna Meares be very open about her own difficulties in the lead up to the Rio Olympics.

While Meares is no stranger to adversity, having managed to overcome many setbacks in her professional career, including a broken neck... the lead up to the Rio games presented new challenges.

At a time at a time when her body was not able to perform at the same level it used to,  Meares had to condition her mind as much as her body to redefine what sporting success would look like, and determine which opinions about her career actually mattered.

And footy players like Alex Fasolo, Aaron Francis, Travis Cloake and Tom Boyd have all put their hand up and talked about their mental health struggles publicly.

In doing so, they have demonstrated in the most public of ways that…

Firstly…mental health conditions really are very common and can affect everyone… no one is immune.

Not you, not me, not the young aspiring athletes of tomorrow, not the top athletes who compete today.

Secondly…asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a show of strength.

Those who have spoken out have helped others who might have been too afraid to talk about their mental health, to find the confidence to do so.

And we are talking about millions of Australians.

Almost half of us will experience some form of significant mental health issue in our lifetime.

That means around 240 people here tonight will at some point be living with and managing some degree of anxiety or depression or other mental health condition.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting one in three women and one in five men.

Depression affects one in eight Australian men, and one in five Australian women. We know that depression is a high-risk factor for suicide.

Every day – 365 days a year – it is estimated that 200 people will attempt to take their own lives.

On each of those days an average of eight Australians will die by suicide.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data recorded 3128 suicides in 2017.

That is twice the annual, national road toll.

While we will never know the trigger for an individual’s decision to end their life, we do know the risk factors.

We know particular groups are at greater risk, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, members of the LGBTIQ community and men who are reluctant to reach out for support when they need it.

Men are far more likely to die by suicide than women, although more women will attempt suicide.

Lifestyle issues, financial worries, relationship breakdowns and undiagnosed and untreated depression all contribute…and we know there is an indisputable link between mental and physical health.

The link between mental, physical health and sport

The way we think and feel can affect our physical health. It should be self-evident that we need to be looking after our minds in the same way we do our bodies.

Few of us would feel any hint of shame at visiting a GP for a cough. We’d visit an optometrist if we found ourselves squinting at words on a page.

Why, then, wouldn’t we see a professional if our thoughts were not serving us well? If our moods were keeping us down?

If, overwhelmed by panic, we consistently become short of breath?

By working within the sporting community to raise awareness about mental health, we at Beyond Blue want to spread the message that it’s okay to seek help.

It’s why we have launched a new partnership with Tennis Australia, and partnered with the Invictus Games.

We’ve also worked with the NRL and the AFL, with Sydney and Hawthorn battling it out for the Beyond Blue Cup.

But just to let you in on a little secret… when the idea was first floated by Jeff Kennett with the rest of the Board, they rightly feared it was just an excuse for him to put on his Hawthorn jacket again…over his suit jacket of course!

But Jeff was right to see sport is at the core of Australian life, and it’s why Beyond Blue pursues these partnerships.

Sport is where so many Australians naturally gather to participate, to celebrate and sometimes commiserate…

If we can leverage that into a place where it’s also okay to talk about mental health, we can help end the stigma…

And perhaps… just perhaps, our next generation of Australians will not face the same kind of barriers in sharing their mental health concerns… and become a generation that doesn’t think twice about asking for help with their mental health when they need it.

 ‘Be You’

An ambition to create the most mentally healthy generation ever is what has led Beyond Blue to launch a new program for Australia’s children, young people and their educators.

We know that depression and anxiety can develop early in life with most issues emerging well before somebody turns 25.

In fact, half of all adult mental health conditions emerge by age 14. In Australia last year, one in 7 children aged between four and 17 had a mental health condition. That means 560,000 children in Australia between the ages of 4 and 17 experienced a mental health issue.

If left untreated these conditions can dramatically reduce a young person’s chances of leading a happy, healthy, contributing life and might develop into a serious mental health condition.

Forty per cent of parents tell us their child’s mental health issues were first noticed in school.

So the staff of schools and early learning centres are dealing with these issues every day.

Many are relying on instinct, empathy and goodwill to pick up signs that a child is not coping.

They may notice that a normally happy student has become withdrawn or is disengaged from school, no longer enjoying the things they once loved.

They may notice that something is not right, but they don’t know what’s wrong.

Or what to do about it.

Our new Beyond Blue initiative, called ‘Be You’ will change that.  I recently launched it with Australian swimming star, media personality and Beyond Blue Board member Johanna Griggs.

Be You is comprehensive on-line support that has been designed for busy educators – from those training to join their profession, to our most experienced principals, teachers and early learning staff – and it’s free.

It will give educators the confidence they need to intervene, to make inquiries and to know where to go and what to do if a young person is in need.

With our delivery partners - Early Childhood Australia and headspace - we have employed 70 ‘Be You’ support staff around the country, who are trained and ready to go, and will provide an additional layer of support on top of the on line resources.

It has been a massive and complex undertaking.

‘Be You’ takes a holistic approach to mental health – emotional development, relationships and overall wellbeing are all influencing factors in a child’s development.

And you guessed it, physical exercise, and sport really matter.

The link between exercise and good mental health is well documented.

Exercise can release endorphins and serotonin, which boosts mood…

It can improve sleep, which also helps to regulate moods, increase energy levels and improve memory and learning…

Children can learn lifelong skills like decision making, team work, discipline and leadership when they play sport…it also provides a great opportunity to socialise and build interpersonal skills.

The research also tells us that fitter children achieve better academic results and stay in school longer, and it is especially the case for boys.

Funding for grassroots sport

These are but some of the many reasons why more funding for grassroots sport should be a priority.

Let me add one more.

At present our country is seeing a rapid growth in female sports participation with more women participating in traditionally male-dominated sports…a wonderful outcome…

But local clubs are struggling to keep up with the demand and provide appropriate facilities.

Things like female change rooms important, but including women takes more than that. 

Many mums are reluctant to get involved in sport themselves because they are usually the primary child carer and do not have the time to train or play.

Right now there are clubs fundraising for child care to allow parents to also enjoy the health and social benefits of playing sport.

Clubs are also crying out for more fields, pitches, courts, lighting and equipment to meet the demand.

We should hear and respond to that cry.  We should ensure every club has what it needs to make the biggest possible contribution to our sense of connection with each other, to the development of our children, to our physical and mental health.

Just think of the sporting legends we could have missed out on if they never got the chance to play…if Gary Ablett didn’t have a footy field to kick around on … if Rod Laver didn’t have a court to practice, if Cathy Freeman didn’t have a track to run…

All Australians deserve an equal opportunity to participate in sport and access to suitable local facilities. And whether kids turn into professional athletes or not, they all deserve a shot to play on the team and strengthen their bodies and minds.

Just think of how fractured and disconnected we would be if local sporting clubs closed or routinely had to turn large numbers of people away.

Investing in grassroots sport is an investment in our collective national future… and this is the fundamental role of the Australian Sports Foundation, and I’d particularly like to commend their work to you all.

Tonight’s event is a perfect moment to issue a call for all of us – Federal, State and Local governments, philanthropists and businesses to do more.  I hope you take that message with you and live it out.

Go Rangers! Go Dogs! Go sport of all types in every part of our great nation.

Thank you for being here tonight.