For decorated Paralympian Liesl Tesch, a move to NSW parliament’s lower house opened up a new world of dirty tactics and absorbing games. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Paralympian Liesl Tesch’s path to politics
This is part two of a two-part series.
Liesl Tesch’s historic debut for Alcalá was played in Melilla, an autonomous city and colonial hangover that shares the geography of Africa but the dominion of Spain. As Tesch waited for tipoff, her eye on the ball, an opponent reached over and grabbed her breasts. “I just had the game of my life, and I shook his hand at the end,” Tesch remembers. “And then I translated to my teammates what happened after the game, and when we played the return game, they gave him a bit of a walloping.”
Tesch spent five years in Europe, playing in Alcalá, Sardinia and Paris. In each place she experienced sexist abuse and resistance, but this isn’t what she’s taken from those years. As soon as I mention “Europe”, she tells me she has an enormous smile on her face. “I had always wanted to live in another country and learn another language,” Tesch says. “At the time, one of my girlfriends said: ‘But what about your superannuation?’ And while I only earned a pittance [playing basketball in Europe], I had a dream time. [I told my friend] ‘You know what? You’re going to be saving up for the rest of your life to do what I’ve just done.’ ”
After silver at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, there was another silver at Athens and bronze at Beijing. In 2010, Tesch’s Australian team would beat the United States – the world’s best – at the Osaka Cup. Tesch would retire from wheelchair basketball the next year, but not from Paralympic competition. Remarkably, she would win gold at the next two Games in London and Rio – in a completely different sport.
Before Tesch’s retirement from basketball in 2011, she had begun sailing. In 2009, she competed in the Sydney to Hobart aboard the yacht Sailors with DisAbilities. That year, the crew included a blind man, a double-amputee and childhood polio victim.
SBS made a documentary of their race, which caught the eye of Daniel Fitzgibbon, a quadriplegic sailor and silver medallist at Beijing. He reached out to Tesch, and they soon formed a championship partnership in the mixed SKUD-18 – a sailing boat designed for disabled competition. Their partnership yielded two gold medals.
In Rio de Janeiro, Tesch made news with the gold medal – and also for being robbed at gunpoint. Days before her medal race, she was on a bike ride with her physiotherapist when two armed men cut them off and demanded money. “The guy in front of me had the gun initially pointing at my legs, and I thought ‘Well, I don’t really need my legs,’ ” Tesch says. “But then he lifted the gun up and asked for money in Spanish. I lifted up my singlet and said ‘Look, I’ve got nothing’, and he just grabbed my bicycle and pushed and I just toppled over because I’ve got no balance in the world. I went to the police station that afternoon, and I couldn’t identify the person because I was just staring at his gun. But I could tell you exactly what that gun looked like.”
It says a lot about Tesch that the subsequent media interest was almost as much of a hassle as the robbery itself. Tesch was naturally shocked by the crime but quickly shrugged it off. She had to. Tesch needed to return her focus to the race. Which she did. Victoriously.
Broadly speaking, there are two classes of politician. The larger class consists of careerists: those possessed early of political ambition who have, since university, single-mindedly sought their preselection through various stages of tribal ingratiation.
The smaller class comprises those who have distinguished themselves independent of politics. People for whom a political career was a late and curious prospect, and whose distinction their adoptive party has sought to have reflected off them. Liesl Tesch is in the latter class. You can tell because she doesn’t own a TV and signs off her emails with “Love and gratitude”.
In 2017, New South Wales Labor senator Deborah O’Neill persuaded Tesch to put her hand up for party preselection for the state seat of Gosford on the Central Coast. The seat was to be contested in a byelection after the resignation of the Labor incumbent, Kathy Smith, who had announced the aggressive return of cancer. Tesch secured Labor’s nomination and then won the seat. Smith would pass away just a few weeks after Tesch delivered her inaugural speech in the NSW parliament – the first from a wheelchair user.
In that speech, Tesch talked about her parents’ influence, Smith and her loving familiarity with the Central Coast. She also described the difficulties of mobility she faced in NSW’s Parliament House: an inaccessible pool and gym; long detours through the hospital next door in order to join her colleagues out the back of parliament.
Had access been improved in the four years since she became the member for Gosford? “The heritage architect looked down his nose at me when I first got into the parliament,” Tesch says. “He said, ‘This is the oldest parliament in Australia.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, good, but there’s a woman sitting in that chair over there and we can make some changes…’ But just five or six weeks ago, this beautiful sandstone ramp was finished down to the Speaker’s Garden, where we have a lot of functions. Before that [to get to the garden] I’d clunk down a set of about eight stairs backwards, and then I’d zoom around, through the hospital, round the front of the parliament, down through the bowels of the parliament and back up, and then I’d be with my colleagues there. But just that has been a four-year battle. I’m sure if I was in the government, it would’ve happened a little more quickly.”
As a former political outsider, I asked Tesch what had surprised her about her new profession. “Coming in, I actually thought politics was fair and had clean rules, but I think politics in some ways is dirtier than sport by a long shot. I mean, [in sport] there’s interpretations [and] pushing everything to the edge, whereas in politics it’s almost … betrayal and manipulation. Sometimes you’re swearing under your breath and smiling beautifully, and sometimes I’m really astonished about how we’re not all working together for the greater good of our community. And then even if we are, it turns into these weird political games that makes it look like we’re not.”
When we first speak, Tesch is concerned that a promised assignment of Pfizer vaccine doses for her region has suddenly been redeployed to high-school students in Sydney. She’s been in and out of meetings on the issue all day. “I think Coasties in general have been so patient with the government,” Tesch says of her constituents. “But with the changing parameters and the changing instructions – even as the local member of parliament I have given up memorising the rules, because the rules change so very often. So I understand that the community is now getting frustrated. The government’s in a very difficult position to communicate a clear path, and they’re not really doing that very effectively. And then when we’re being told we’ve got vaccines, and then we’ve been told we haven’t got that vaccine, it undermines the confidence in any of the messaging that’s out there.”
About her constituents, Tesch tells me about increasing fatigue, broken supply chains for tradies, and the slow delivery of financial assistance. But she says – only half-jokingly – that being an athlete is a selfish pursuit and she’s grateful now to work for others. “I feel like those conversations I had with wine around the camp fire are now meetings that I have at 8 o’clock in the morning in my office. So it’s really an incredible privilege that I never expected to have to be able to take my conversational concerns about politics and policy futures from the camp fire into the office and to the table.”
This is the second in a two-part series on Paralympian Liesl Tesch. Part one covered the beginnings of Liesl Tesch.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Playing politics".
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