April 2015

The Nation Reviewed

David & Goliath

By Sam Vincent

Rugby star David Pocock says sport and politics are always mixed

On a Sunday at the start of last summer, David Pocock and eight other activists were arrested at the Maules Creek coalmine in north-east New South Wales. I started following the rugby player on Twitter that afternoon, and the social networking service surmised that I might also like to follow other Wallabies known to the police: Quade Cooper (53 caps, one burglary charge); James O’Connor (44 caps, a drunken airport ejection by the Australian Federal Police); Kurtley Beale (49 caps, too many misdemeanours to list here). Crudely lumping the former Wallabies captain and current ACT Brumbies vice-captain in with that lot was apt: no one quite knows what to do with David Pocock.

We meet a couple of months later, on the eve of the 2015 Super Rugby season, in the cafe where he first learnt of the campaign against Australia’s newest coalmine. I’d wager that Pocock has the biggest biceps in Canberra’s inner-north lentil belt; though he has been studying a Bachelor of Ecological Agricultural Systems while sidelined by injury, his permanently flexed guns certainly make him stand out among Lyneham’s emaciated hipsters and bin-diving students. Initially gagged from talking to the media about his arrest, Pocock is now free to speak. He escaped conviction after Gunnedah magistrate Peter Miszalski dismissed the charges – of trespass, remaining on enclosed land without lawful excuse and hindering the work of mining equipment – citing the 26-year-old’s extensive charity work and exceptional character.

The history of Australian sport is not exactly replete with examples of professional athletes using their status to advocate political change. Peter Norman, the 200-metre silver medallist at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, famously stood in solidarity with Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they gave the Black Power salute at the medal ceremony; Nicky Winmar and Michael Long, indigenous AFL players, took on-field stands against racism in the 1990s; Adam Goodes was appointed 2014 Australian of the Year, though that just shows how broadly accepted the campaign to stamp out racism in sport has at last become. In campaigning publicly against fossil fuels, Pocock stands alone.

Perhaps it’s because he has only been an Australian since 2002. The maxim that sport and politics don’t mix, he admits, rings hollow for someone who came of age in a Zimbabwe of disappeared dissidents and empty supermarket shelves. At the 2003 Cricket World Cup, batsman Andy Flower and bowler Henry Olonga brought widespread attention to the Zimbabwean catastrophe when they wore black armbands to mourn the “death of democracy” there. Flower sought asylum in England; Olonga, who as a black man arguably ran a greater risk of reprisals, later joined him. “To see what they did at huge personal cost to themselves,” says Pocock, “it certainly does ring hollow.”

The Pocock family had never considered leaving Zimbabwe, but when their farm near the central town of Gweru was listed for seizure under the dictator Robert Mugabe’s populist land redistribution scheme, David’s parents applied for skilled-migrant visas in Australia.

Smooth roads and an education system without the cane weren’t the only culture shocks for the 13-year-old David: he was dismayed by the way Zimbabwe and the farm seizures were reported in the Australian media. Why, he asks now, did it take the eviction of a couple of hundred white families to turn Mugabe from darling to despot, and not the ethnic cleansing of 20,000 Ndebele he had overseen in the 1980s?

Sport eased Pocock’s transition. At East Brisbane’s Anglican Church Grammar School, the shy newbie with the funny accent struggled to make friends – until he ran onto the pitch. “Sport is at its best when it is challenging society to become more inclusive,” he enthuses.

He has used his profile to fight against racism, sexism and homophobia, and to support community projects in rural Zimbabwe and war veterans in suburban Australia. Standing up to the mining industry – an industry he believes benefits a minority of executives at the expense of humanity’s future – fits his message of inclusion. When, last September, the collective who have agitated for the Australian National University to divest itself of fossil-fuel investments sought high-profile Canberrans to join the campaign against Whitehaven’s $767-million Maules Creek project, Pocock was their man.

By his own admission, the wealth rugby has brought Pocock sits uneasily with what he sees as a troubled Australia. He cites “the continued search for more profits and more money; the growing rates of homelessness, inequality, environmental destruction” as particular concerns, and says he would have protested whatever his profession.

In many ways, Pocock’s views are not so different from those of the other 20-something students in the cafe: “Average Australians,” he tells me, “have far more in common [with each other] than anyone who’s running the show.” At times – and this is the meanest thing I’ll say about him – he can sound like Russell Brand: “The system doesn’t work.” He is both earnest and passionate. He didn’t ask for his celebrity, but nor will he waste it.

And so at 5.45 am on 30 November 2014, a farmer, a philosopher, one of the philosopher’s students, a data analyst, a campaigner for climate action group 350.org, a public servant, a retiree, a rugby player and his masters-student wife illegally entered the Maules Creek coalmine. While two members of the party stayed on the ground to liaise with the security guards and foreman who would soon be called, the other seven clambered atop an excavator, unfurled a banner (“CITY AND COUNTRY: UNITED WE STAND”) and locked themselves, in four groups, to the machine. Over the next 12 hours, before being cut free by police, they watched the sun rise over what had months earlier been rare box-gum woodland, discussed the effect of coalmining on the local community, and engaged in surprisingly collegial banter with the star-struck mine staff. (Two others arrested with him at Maules Creek tell me that at no stage during the planning, execution or aftermath of the action did Pocock and his wife, Emma, who was also arrested, seek special treatment.)

“While everyone may not agree with the actions I took,” Pocock blogged afterwards, “I hope they will see this as an opportunity to further the conversation about climate change and engage more people in helping to shape what is all of our futures.” A conversation certainly ensued, but was it about climate change or the novelty of Pocock’s involvement? Pocock is frustrated that opening a new coalmine, given the climate situation, isn’t regarded as inherently newsworthy.

Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham stated at the time that Pocock’s action brought the team neither significant support nor condemnation; Pocock tells me he was “blown away” by the volume of well-wishing he personally received. For their part, the Australian Rugby Union tried to dismiss the incident as the distracting consequence of his two-year injury layoff. (The ARU refused to comment for this story, instead recycling the statement it issued after Pocock’s arrest, explaining that he had received a “formal written warning” – the practical effect of which remains unclear.)

How expendable is a player who mixes sport and politics but who, when fit, is perhaps the best flanker in world rugby? What influence, if any, does the resource sector have in Australian rugby – the game, traditionally, of the Brisbane and Sydney business communities? Writing in support of Pocock’s activism in Fairfax newspapers the week after our interview, his former teammate Clyde Rathbone disclosed the scolding he had received from management following his own tweets about the links between junk food and childhood obesity. (McDonald’s sponsored the Brumbies.) “There are times,” wrote Rathbone, “when an athlete’s moral imperative collides with the financial interests of their employer.”

And with Maules Creek now approved and running, have we seen the last of David Pocock, activist? “I don’t think that he’ll stop,” says one of his fellow protesters. “He’s not going to stop thinking about this stuff.”

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a writer, farmer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars.


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