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John Alexander: The people’s champion

Former tennis star John Alexander was always at ease on the tennis court. And though he is now playing a different game, one thing has remained the same: who he is playing for, writes Backbench Insiders’ Danna Diaz.

One of John Alexander’s greatest achievements came early in his career. At the age of seventeen, Alexander made tennis history by becoming the youngest player to represent his country at the Davis Cup in 1968. Although he and doubles partner Ray Ruffles lost their tie, Alexander won the respect and admiration of the Australian people.

In 2009, while others of his generation had reached the pinnacle of their careers and were contemplating retirement, the former tennis champion made a bold

John Alexander
Source: APH

career change into politics, running for the seat of Bennelong, in metropolitan Sydney. He was 58-years-old at the time with no experience in politics.

Entering politics as a novice, Alexander was playing on a completely unknown surface. But he still had the admiration of the people, and the strong support of the Liberal Party.

The seat of Bennelong has a long Liberal history. Since its creation in 1949, the Liberal party’s founding father John Cramer held the seat for 25 years. The baton was then passed to John Howard, who held the seat for an incredible 33 years.

So when Labor’s Maxine McKew, a former ABC television journalist, famously won the seat from Howard in 2007 it was more than a historic victory for Labor. It was a symbolic attack on the Liberal party by the people of Bennelong.

In a strong show of faith, the Liberal party entrusted Alexander with the responsibility of winning the iconic seat back for the Liberals in the 2010 federal election.

And Alexander repaid the faith in full, often having to play a tough game against McKew. The match ended with the former Davis Cup star winning the seat by a margin of 3.12 per cent.

McKew blamed the result on the turmoil within the Labor Party, with Kevin Rudd being dumped as leader only months before the election.

But Alexander says there were a lot of people in Bennelong that felt as if the Labor representative had forgotten them.

‘We got deeply involved in the community, in the issues and in a greater concern that the government was not doing a good job.  And things needed to change,’ he says.

The former athlete’s confidence and determination to win is something he mastered on tennis courts around the world. And it was these sporting qualities he brought to the game of politics.

Alexander started tennis early in his life, and played his first major tournament at the age of 10. His talent was obvious and legendary Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman trained Alexander when he was 16, while his mentors included greats such as Bob Helton, Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall.

‘I grew up with a bunch of tennis heroes,’ says Alexander proudly. ‘By the time I was in year four I got to play with Ken Rosewall.’

‘JA’ as he is fondly known, quickly became a household name and was ranked as high as eight in singles and two in doubles. In a career spanning twenty years, Alexander won seven singles and 27 doubles titles and was one of Australia’s longest serving Davis Cup players.

So it’s not surprising that Alexander chose sport as a vehicle to make an impact in Bennelong, a diverse and multicultural metropolitan area in northern Sydney.

‘What we became aware of was the Chinese and Korean students at school did not involve themselves with what you would call traditional Australian sports,’ says Alexander.

So he launched the Bennelong Table Tennis School Program initiative, which he hopes will engage not only these students but also attract others who are marginalized by their sporting choices. The initiative has now gathered momentum and 40 schools in the Bennelong area will soon receive their table tennis tables and racquets.

Alexander has no doubts about the benefits of such programs.

‘The best thing you can do for your physical health is to exercise, the best thing you can do for your mental health is to exercise and the best thing you can do for your social health is to engage with people,’ says Alexander.

But Alexander’s focus is no longer limited to the sporting arena.

Alexander leads the Liberal Party’s Sustainable Cities Policy Taskforce and also serves on the coalition’s Policy Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

Alexander recently wrote a policy paper on the master planning of Australia’s long-term growth. In it, he outlines the need for high-speed rail networks that will link all major cities and help alleviate traffic congestion.  He also plans to develop infrastructure projects that will ease cost of living pressures.

But some of the infrastructure projects have caused additional pressures for Alexander, with the future of Ryde Civic Centre in particular causing heated debate in the community.

The Ryde Civic Centre has divided the community since 1995. And there has been no clear resolution as to whether to redevelop the site or to maintain the aging seven-story building. And Alexander, who maintains an open-door policy so he can meet his constituents, has been caught up in the debate.

‘He’s tried to take an agony uncle approach, a sympathetic ear, but there’s no substance behind it, no true engagement,’ says a frustrated Ryde resident of Alexander.

But Alexander is not disheartened by the criticisms and enjoyed the challenges of being a rookie politician.

‘Well it’s been a very exciting period.  With a lot to learn and you sort of operate two different worlds.  The world in Canberra and the world in your local electorate, which I’ve been quite familiar with,’ says Alexander.

Alexander has indeed a long relationship with the Bennelong electorate. He ran a tennis coaching school in North Ryde in the late 70s.  He was also the co-founder of the company that developed the Ryde Aquatic Centre, the venue of swimming events at the 2000 Olympic games.

Alexander has developed a number of multi-activity sports centres around Australia before turning to politics, including Memorial Drive in Adelaide and Royal Kings Park in Perth. And Alexander cites certain frustrations with the development process as the reason why he entered politics in the first place.

It took seven years for Alexander’s company to acquire a 50-year lease from the South Australian parliament to redevelop Adelaide’s Memorial Drive, the scene of his Davis Cup debut. He hopes that as an elected member, he is now in a position to develop policies and strategies in health and fitness faster.

And developing sports facilities remains close to Alexander’s heart. When asked what he would be doing if he had lost to McKew in 2010, he answers without hesitation: ‘I would be building sports clubs.’

But then, with a typical athlete’s determination to win, Alexander adds: ‘I really got enthusiastic about this career path, so I dare say I would have continued to try.’


Danna Diaz is a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe. You can follow her on Twitter: @dannamdiaz

To view profiles of some of the other backbenchers as part of upstart’s Backbench Insiders project, click here.

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