Union

Never a believer in the adage that sport and politics shouldn’t mix, David Pocock has made it his mission to charge down the dysfunctionalities of government. But can he distinguish himself as a true independent? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

David Pocock’s next battleground

David Pocock playing for the Wallabies in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Oita, Japan.
David Pocock playing for the Wallabies in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Oita, Japan.
Credit: PA Images / Alamy

David Pocock quickly established himself as a fastidious trainer, a gifted ball thief in the breakdown, and a colossal and fanatically applied physical force. Three years after his retirement from rugby union, Pocock still resembles Thor, a granite sculpture, a softly spoken brick shithouse. For more than a decade, Pocock’s impressive, sharply defined mass of 105 kilograms unflinchingly gave and received the punishments of professional rugby. A summary of his injuries attests: torn calf muscle, fractured eye socket and two knee reconstructions. Sundry bruises, gashes and strains. Chronic neck pain. Several concussions. When he fractured his hand against Argentina, it was remade by surgeons with metal plates and screws.

More than most, Pocock was haunted by injuries. Collectively, he missed years of play. Despite this, he’s still considered one of his position’s finest players – and one of its most devoted and physically courageous. He won 83 caps for the Wallabies, captained them for a year before injury, played in two World Cups and was twice a finalist for world player of the year.

Throughout that career, Pocock also made a reputation for political engagement. He had an instinctive contempt for the blithe dismissal that “politics and sport shouldn’t mix”, maintained a political blog, and in 2010 declared that his long-term partner and he would not be formally married until the right was granted to same-sex couples. In 2018, after a referendum allowing the amendment of the Marriage Act, David and Emma wed in a park. “Married my best mate yesterday,” Pocock wrote on Twitter, accompanying a picture of the two carrying a portable icebox.

Pocock’s famous athletic gifts and physical courage didn’t immunise him entirely against internal criticism, but he made it difficult – impossible, even – for people to argue persuasively that his activism somehow diminished his devotion to the game or his teammates. No one ever doubted his skill, ferocity or commitment. In that knowledge, Pocock tells me, he’s secure. But he’s discreet about what private objections he faced within the changing rooms.

As prelude to a question about his former Wallaby teammate Israel Folau, I suggested to Pocock that if he were elected to the senate, he’d likely occupy a crossbench of eclectic configuration and requiring his negotiation with people with vastly different values. The devout Folau famously had his professional rugby contracts torn up in 2019 after a series of social media posts declaring his belief in the eternal, hellish fate of “homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters”.

And so I asked Pocock what he had learnt about negotiation, acceptance and the line between team unity and the assertion of your own values. “I’ve been very open in saying that I don’t agree with Israel,” he said. “But you know, he’s still part of the team and we could have a working relationship. The thing that you realise is that at the end of the day, you know, we’ve got a lot more in common than our politicians would like us to believe come election time and they’re trying to stir up some fear and pick up some votes.”

It’s not much of a response. But then, Pocock was always a team player.

 

Pocock retired from international rugby in 2019, and from professional rugby the next year. He was just 32. It is the athlete’s strange fate to blossom young and then find themselves ailing veterans not long after 30. For the professional sportsperson, retirement can feel like a death – not for the sudden loss of income and public attention, but for the loss of a singularly defining purpose. I wondered if this was true for Pocock, given his interests outside sport.

“I’ve been playing professional rugby since I was 17,” he said. “So it’s a big chunk of your life. And that’s what you know, and what you do, and it gives you a lot of structure. A lot of the whole year, most of the weeks are all planned out for you. So [retiring] was a really, really tough decision. When you talk to older players who’ve retired, they’ll tell you that you’ll know when you need to retire. It really did get to the point where I was still enjoying aspects of it, but I knew that I’d had a great run. It was a childhood dream of mine I fulfilled that has given me amazing opportunities. But it had also taken its toll physically and, you know, whilst I probably could have pushed on a few more years, I wanted to contribute in other areas.”

Those “other areas” now include running for the federal senate. Pocock was in Glasgow last November, at the same time as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), to discuss a conservation program he had begun in Zimbabwe. Australia’s scandalous reputation for inaction was made clear to Pocock, and it partially inspired his bid for the senate. “It really reinforced things that I already knew,” Pocock says. “That we’re out of step with the international community. That we’re not lifting our weight or showing leadership, and we’re actually missing out on an enormous economic opportunity, an opportunity to actually reduce household bills, to really build an economy for the future. We should be the envy of the world when it comes to the opportunities around the smart energy transition. But we’re missing out on all that.”

Pocock also wants a muscular federal anti-corruption body, smarter defence procurements, more attention to veterans, sustainable farming, and says that, alongside climate change, cost-of-living complaints are what he hears most often from voters. Ultimately, Pocock says, his desire to run is to serve as an antidote to a politics he believes has become dysfunctionally cynical.

Winning will be a stretch. The ACT’s two incumbent senators – Labor’s Katy Gallagher and the Liberals’ Zed Seselja – are expected to retain their quotas, plus Pocock is arrayed against a Greens and independent candidate.

But Pocock is sufficiently threatening that Seselja has labelled him a “radical” and an “extremist”, while the conservative activist group Advance has generated anti-Pocock ads painting him as a secret Green. One ad, posted to Facebook, shows a digitally manipulated image of Pocock opening his shirt, Clark Kent-style, and revealing a Greens T-shirt beneath. Pocock describes it as a “smear campaign” and says he’s lodged a complaint with the Australian Electoral Commission. “It’s going to get uglier, I think,” Pocock says. “We’ve already had signs defaced, knocked over, stolen. I guess that’s politics, right? And when there’s no truth in political advertising laws, you can kind of say whatever you want to try and win.”

In the face of Seselja’s cartoonish characterisations of him, Pocock, endearingly, has no equivalent script. But he may need to better defend against his wedging, a game played more ruthlessly by others.

Pocock makes a few pointedly flattering references to Jacqui Lambie as a successful model of indie representation. But Lambie is distinctively blunt. With Pocock, there are often long pauses before he answers questions, and you can sense him formulating what can be insipidly diplomatic responses. He can be fair to the point of banality.

It’s curious. As a man who has chosen to run as an independent, because “I have no interest in toeing a party line”, he seems unwilling or incapable of properly exploiting that very freedom. And he seems reluctant – with me, at least – to sharply and uncompromisingly distinguish himself from the Greens.

Perhaps to do so is to engage in the kind of politics he abhors. Another problem – if you accept that it’s a problem – may be one of temperament. Pocock doesn’t play politics with the ferocity that he played rugby. He’s softly spoken and it might surprise you to learn that a man who captained the Wallabies, chained himself to a giant digger, and is now running for the senate is shy and modest. But he is. David Pocock has done these things despite his introversion and humility.

But Pocock’s sincerity – and public profile – is there. So are 1500 volunteers, he tells me, an extraordinary number for a first-time independent senate candidate. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I could win,” he says. “We’ve built a policy platform that I think really reflects those hundreds, probably thousands, of conversations that myself and volunteers have had over the last few months, and that’s really exciting. It’s frustrating seeing the lack of meaningful action on all these big issues that I’m hearing from people across the ACT. So I really hope, as an independent senator, I can contribute to those conversations and actually get some action on them.”

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one: David Pocock’s duelling loyalties.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Playing politics".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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