Carlton’s Controversial President George Harris – The Power and the Glory

 

This is an edited version of an article originally published on the website blueseum.org in 2010.

 

George Henry Harris elected himself President of the Carlton Football Club in 1964. Rambunctious and ruthless, he led the Navy Blues for twelve seasons and won four Premierships. Amid those triumphs, he became embroiled in one of the biggest upheavals in Australian political history. This is part of his story.

 

Harris was born in St Kilda in 1922, and grew into an energetic youngster with a passion for all things military. In 1938, when he was just 16, he joined the Commonwealth Militia (Army Reserve) by claiming that he was 18. A year later when World War II began, George, his older brother Joel and their father Joel Senior all volunteered for active service.

 

Having demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities, George was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant before his 18th birthday. In February 1942, the Harris boys were all stationed on the island fortress of Singapore when the entire Malayan peninsula was over-run by Japanese forces. Forced into surrender, they were sent to the notorious Prisoner of War camp at Changi.

 

There, George earned admiration for his commitment to the well-being of the men under his command, and his refusal to back down under threats of physical punishment. In one awful incident, he saved his own father from execution by standing up to a sadistic guard. Another time, he lost all of his front teeth when he was smashed in the face with a rifle butt. After four years in captivity, the Harris boys all survived and were repatriated home at the war’s end.

 

Ironically, George then enrolled to study dentistry. By 1964 he had graduated and opened his own private practice, while serving as the official dentist at Pentridge Prison. A life-long Buebagger, he was also Carlton’s club dentist – a role in which he enjoyed being a confidant, and a sounding board to some of the most influential people at Princes Park.

 

At that time, discontent was rife at Carlton. Without a flag since 1947, the Blues had made the finals only five times in the intervening seventeen years, and the club was crying out for a shake-up. Eventually, a group of prominent supporters formed an alternative administration they called the Progress Party, with Harris as President of a committee that retained only four members of the existing board. Six new business-oriented figures were to be added, including Melbourne City Councillor Ivan Rohrt, and two of Harris’ closest friends; Eddie Fakhry and Gordon Newton.

 

However, Harris’s most valuable ally at the time was Carlton’s former star wingman Laurie Kerr, whose blossoming public relations company created a slick marketing campaign urging Carlton’s members to attend an extraordinary General Meeting of the club at the Brunswick Town Hall on December 7, 1964. By coincidence, this was the 23rd anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, and like that infamous assault, it was a complete success. The incumbent administration of President Lew Holmes was turfed out in a landslide, and the Harris era began.

 

Like many driven people, George valued time above all else, and did not suffer procrastinators. By middle age he had filled out into an imposing, barrel-chested figure whose loud voice and brisk manner could often be intimidating. But he was also a man of wit, and a skilled salesman – as he was about to ably demonstrate.

 

The very first action of the new committee was to advertise the senior coaching position, as they had promised to do prior to the election. More than 20 hopefuls applied, but only three were granted preliminary interviews. They being former Collingwood captain Murray Weideman, plus Essendon legends Jack Clarke and Bill Hutchison.

 

Then, before the selection process had properly begun, Harris heard a whisper that Melbourne’s six-time Premiership player and captain Ron Barassi was thinking about retirement, and preparing to coach. Immediately, George sent two trusted associates; Graeme Emanuel and Kevin McEnroe, to talk to Barrassi with open arms and an open cheque book.

 

When the pair walked back into Harris’ office and confirmed a handshake agreement that Barassi would coach Carlton in 1965, George’s tenure was off to a flying start – almost. Early next morning, a sheepish Barassi rang Harris to apologise, and to tell him that after a sleepless night, he had realised that the time wasn’t yet right for him to leave the Demons.

 

Typically, Harris dug his heels in, and over the next three hours, summoned all of his persuasive charm and every angle he could think of to persuade Barassi that the opportunities awaiting him at Carlton were simply too good to refuse. Eventually, when George dropped his phone back into its cradle and wiped the sweat from his brow, Barrassi had relented, and formally agreed to captain-coach the Blues for the next three years.

 

The news of Barassi’s defection shook the VFL to its very foundations. It was simply inconceivable that the most influential player in the competition – a man steeped in the traditions at Melbourne, where his father had played in a Premiership team before being killed in World War II – could consider defecting from the Demons. But Barassi knew that at Melbourne he would forever be in the shadow of legendary coach Norm Smith. If he was going to coach a VFL team, then it would be on his terms, or not at all. Harris had offered Barassi precisely that opportunity, in one of the pivotal moments in the history of the Carlton Football Club.

 

Barassi revitalised Carlton, and changed the game itself. He was tough, he was visionary, and justifiably successful when Carlton ended their 21-year drought at last with a three-point victory over Essendon in the 1968 Grand Final. Two years later, he engineered a football miracle in the 1970 Grand Final, and won another flag when the Blues recovered from 44 points down at half-time to snatch a glorious victory over Collingwood.

 

After seven seasons with the Blues, Barassi departed in 1971, knowing that he and Harris had transformed Princes Park into a powerhouse. John Nicholls took the reins as captain-coach, and brought home Harris’s third flag as President when the Blues kicked the still-current Grand Final record score of 28.9.177 in 1972 to beat Richmond.

 

Best on Ground that day was 22 year-old Robert Walls, who, while talking about George Harris many years later, said; “the entire playing list were bloody scared of him. An imposing figure who used words we’d never heard of. A big barrel chest and a big boof head, and he always spoke down to you. I remember getting ready for a game, as nervous as can be. He sat next to me and said, ‘Walls, I expect you to play well today.’ There was no ‘good luck, I hope you get a kick,’ which typified him. He expected standards to be high, raised the bar, made the place professional.”

 

Around that time, the Blues’ senior players christened Harris “Gorgeous George” after the American television wrestler to whom he bore more than a passing resemblance. The laughs were confined to the locker room at first, but eventually the nickname was widely used – even by George himself.

 

In 1974 Harris announced his retirement from the Carlton Presidency, to take a path that would all too soon see his name splashed in lurid headlines across the country. Throughout his decade at the helm of the Blues, George had established friendships with a wide cross-section of the country’s sporting, political and business elite. Doors had been opened for him, and when he left Carlton, he began knocking on them.

 

By 1975, the Federal Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was in crisis. After a series of public scandals, ballooning inflation and high unemployment, the opposition Liberal-Country Party coalition had used it’s Senate majority to block the government’s money supply, in an attempt to force Whitlam to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

 

Meanwhile, Whitlam and his executive had authorised the borrowing of four billion US dollars from overseas financiers – at the time, the biggest loan ever authorised by an Australian government. A problem was that they did not obtain loan council approval beforehand, and the Governor General, John Kerr, was not present at the meeting. Nevertheless, two vastly different individuals were authorised to negotiate loans on the government’s behalf, with millions of dollars offered as commission. The first was a dubiously-credentialed Pakistani financier named Tirath Khemlani, and the other was George Harris.

 

When leaks from the Treasury Department led to a newspaper investigation and eventually, full exposure of the loans affair, Whitlam sacked his treasurer Jim Cairns in an attempt at appeasement, but it was too late. On November 11, 1975, the now Sir John Kerr withdrew Whitlam’s commission and installed opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, pending a new election. Four weeks later, Australia went to the polls and ousted the Whitlam government in huge electoral backlash.

 

Never comfortable in the media spotlight (he called newspaper journalists “the pricks from the press”) Harris sought refuge from the media glare by returning to Princes Park as President in 1978. “The club was on a real slide, and I started to be put under pressure by a lot of people,” he said later. “My ego told me that I could go back and kick things into shape once more.” The difference was that this time, George was to become the league’s first paid President.

 

“My first time as President cost me thousands and thousands,” he said; “and I didn’t even put in a bill for my telephone. My home phone accounts were like the national debt. I decided that I would not put myself in the position of having to run flat out in my consultancy work in various fields, just to make up for what I would have to do at the club. So I said that if it was going to take ‘x’ hours, I must be paid for those hours. Before I stood for election, this was spelt out in a letter to every member.”

 

It didn’t take long for George to start earning his money. Three weeks into the 1978 season, Carlton’s newly-appointed coach Ian Stewart abruptly resigned for reasons never adequately explained. Club stalwart Sergio Silvagni took over in a caretaker role, before Harris convinced captain Alex Jesaulenko to take on the role of playing coach. “Jezza” inherited a dispirited team languishing on the bottom of the ladder, but inspired them into a brilliant second-half of the season. The Blues charged into the finals, only to fall to Collingwood in the second week.

 

While Jesaulenko was working his magic on the field, Harris was busy restructuring the club’s financial affairs. Believing that the traditional methods of fund-raising through sponsorships, the social club and the benevolence of members would not be viable in the long term, he convinced the Carlton committee to turn the club into a company, to enable it to enter into commercial agreements. So it was that the Carlton Football Club Limited embarked on ventures in merchandising, housing, health and various other fields. And at the end of his comeback year, George happily reported to Carlton members that the balance sheet showed a healthy surplus.

 

July of 1979 saw optimism rising around Princes Park when Carlton won their thirteenth match of the season to remain entrenched on top of the ladder. The following day, the Sunday Age newspaper reported that the Blues’ bold foray into the business sector was not progressing as well as had been claimed. They had evidence of property deals gone wrong, and unusual merchandising agreements for products as diverse as wobble boards and spring-loaded chopsticks.

 

All of that was temporarily forgotten however, on Grand Final day, when Carlton edged out Collingwood in an other enthralling contest. Harris ruffled Magpie feathers afterward, and drew widespread criticism by chortling; “What’s better than beating Collingwood by ten goals? Beating them by five points in a Grand Final!”

 

Even so, this was perhaps George’s finest hour. Under persistent off-field pressure,
he and Jesaulenko had been handed a team in turmoil, and taken them to a Premiership the following year. But the afterglow from that twelfth VFL Premiership had barely begun to dim, before storms were brewing again in Carlton’s boardroom. Further revelations about the club’s failing business ventures had come to light, and Harris was facing mounting dissent from senior members of the committee.

 

Again, George reacted swiftly and boldly. Confident that he had the support of the majority of Carlton members, he decided to test his detractors with a popular vote. At the Annual General Meeting of the club in December 1979, he denounced the incumbent committee for disloyalty, and submitted his immediate resignation. This split the club into factions for and against him. Next, the committee appointed businessman Ian Rice as President, while he pro-Harris lobby circulated a petition calling for yet another extraordinary General Meeting to demand Harris’s reinstatement.

 

Each side shadow-boxed by calling meetings to rally supporters to their cause, before they met at last in open debate at Festival Hall on Tuesday, February 19, 1980. Taking the stage on a hot, emotion-charged night, Jesaulenko spoke of his determination to leave Princes Park if Harris wasn’t recalled again, but it was Ian Rice who swayed the majority with his clear explanation of the financial crisis facing the club.

 

George himself strode to the microphone to state simply; “If you tell me that I am not wanted at Carlton, that I will accept. There will be no after-the-balls, no legal action, no appeals.” When the only motion to be voted on – calling for Rice to be removed from the committee – was put to the members, they came down heavily in favour of the younger man. Ian Rice was the new President of Carlton, and the barnstorming reign of George Harris was over.

 

Image: George Harris in 1979. Courtesy of the Melbourne Herald Sun.

About

Conscription into the army ended Warren's dreams of becoming either a league footballer or a professional musician, but military service did at least teach him how to handle firearms, and to work behind a bar.

Comments

  1. Warren, Harris’ presidency was the real reason Carlton became loved by its members and detested by everyone else. He was Carlton. I always remember Lou Richards wishing him a happy birthday one morning on WOS. Lou invited all of George’s friends to join him for the party which will be in the phone box outside of Princes Park. Great read
    Cheers
    TR

  2. John Butler says:

    Warren, stories like this are catnip to Blues tragics such as myself.

    Given that background, it’s no wonder Harris was such a complex character.

    Thanks.

  3. Rocket Singers says:

    Thanks Warren for providing the prequel. Both are fascinating.
    Being based in Singapore, I was very interested to read about Harris’s Changi experience.
    Great read.

  4. Yes the resignation of Ian Stewart in early 1978 was never explained. You can surmise which urban myth you chose to believe, one may even be true, but after getting South Melbourne into the finals the previous season , the triple Brownlow medalist/triple premiership player didn’t last @ Carlton.

    Will we ever know what happened ?

    Glen!

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