The view from Billinudgel

Marathon man
John Coates’ 27-year AOC tenure must end before real change can take place


John Coates has been the Australian Olympic Committee’s unchallenged supremo for 27 years – that’s already ten years longer than the reign of Robert Menzies as prime minister – and he wants another term to bring it up to 30.

It is simply too long. Whatever qualities Coates may have possessed in his heyday – and his longevity alone suggests they must have been formidable – after that length of time the place is in need of a remake.

Experience is worth keeping, but there comes a point when it’s self-serving – holding on to power for the sake of power. And this inevitably leads to cronyism, a refusal to hear criticism and what the lawyers delicately call a climate conducive to corruption.

The poster boy of this unwholesome atmosphere is apparently Mike Tancred, Coates’ personal spokesman and bosom buddy, who has become, at least temporarily, the scapegoat for the organisation’s woes. But of course the problem lies far deeper and is obviously more entrenched than one man. 

There may or may not be a need to drain the entire swamp; there may well be fertile and productive islets to be preserved. But even before the current challenge and the resulting controversy, it was time, well past time, for a clean-out – and that means, inevitably, a regime change.

Most leaders hang on past their use-by dates – just remember John Howard. But Coates is not interested in a peaceful transition, so whatever happens the resulting showdown will be an ugly one. Perhaps one with lingering bitterness that will impede and damage the purpose it is designed to serve – just remember Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.

As one might have expected over the decades, Coates has surrounded himself with a republican guard of powerful allies: a prime instance is Graham Richardson, the former Labor warlord who grew close to Coates in his early years and remains a zealous advocate. His loyalty is no doubt commendable but even Richardson must have his reservations; after all, he himself changed sides to leave Bob Hawke for Paul Keating.

The reality is that all institutions – governments, political parties, businesses, unions and even sporting administrations – eventually grow stale and need to be refreshed if they are to provide the services and credibility the public demands. We have seen this spectacularly on the international scene, where the International Olympic Committee and soccer’s FIFA both fell to pressure for reform after becoming world-wide sources of suspicion and contempt.

I suspect that the main reason the Australian Olympic Committee has not already followed them is that it has not been sufficiently noticed. Now that it has been, the mess will not go away – it has to be discarded and replaced and the sooner the better. Otherwise Coates will be remembered not as a sporting statesman, but as (to borrow Ian Botham’s memorable description of the then moribund Melbourne Cricket Club) just another of the gin-soaked old farts.

As a sadly short-lived but greatly revered former leader once said, it’s time.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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