Phil Jarratt reflects on Nat Young's foray into politics.
The first time I met Nat Young (the original) was 42 years ago at a dive in Woolloomooloo with peanut shells all over the floor. The occasion was the presentation party for the inaugural Coke/2SM Surfabout contest, then the world’s richest.
The big bucks ($5000 total purse) had dragged the two biggest names of the 1960s out of retirement, Midget Farrelly from his boatshed shaping bay at Palm Beach, Nat from his north coast Nirvana where he was the figurehead of the country soul movement, in which the competitor’s jersey had been swapped for the higher consciousness of organic food, eco-awareness and heaps of dope. But five large is not to be sneezed at, so Nat had put the dogs in care and driven down from his kingdom.
Considering the facts that he’d been a hero of mine for a decade, awe had struck me pretty much speechless, and as a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph I had presented in a striped suit and tie, the conversation went quite well. We talked politics. He told me how Labor was the only hope for the country, and that we all had to politicize and help get Gough Whitlam returned. I told him I’d campaigned for Labor in Canberra in 1972 to get out of National Service and would do so again. It was a pretty selfish reason, but Nat seemed to approve.
The bar was packed, hot and steamy when Nat was called up to receive his third place trophy and $600 winnings, but it was about to get hotter. Nat made the same political speech I’d just heard in private, held up his cheque and announced that he was going to donate it all to the Australian Labor Party. The audience was about evenly divided between hooters and cat-callers, the executives from Coke and 2SM looked horrified as the cameras whirred and the flashes popped.
Nat Young had just turned their megabuck marketing extravaganza into a political stunt for the bloke who was trying to get loans from the Iraqis to keep the country afloat! Not even Michael Peterson’s classic non-speech and darting eyes could rescue the fact that the show had been hijacked.
Following up the story, a few days later I accompanied Nat to the Sussex Street headquarters of the NSW Labor Party, where at a full media photo call, he was to hand over the fat cheque to the national secretary of the ALP, a beefy, bespectacled bloke named David Combe, who, unbeknown to us at the time, was the actual bloke trying to stitch up the Iraqi loan. After the photo op, Combe invited a few of us back to an office for beers. He was chuffed, slapping Nat’s back and trying to talk surf. This was going to go a long way towards delivering the rebellious youth vote, one that Whitlam had certainly had when he came to power 18 months earlier, but had started to slip away.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally reflected on that meeting, the visible bridge between party politics and youth culture, the invisible divide that lay behind it. Of course David Combe was not to know of Nat Young’s frequent public endorsements of marijuana and the alternative lifestyle (“Simply by surfing, we are supporting the revolution,” he wrote in Tracks in 1971), and Nat could not have known that Combe was a dirty pool deal-maker, up to his armpits in the loan affair, and later to be expelled from the Labor Party over allegations that he had been compromised by the Russians.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and nothing is ever for nothing. A couple of weeks later Nat Young sat beside Gough Whitlam at Labor’s campaign launch at the Sydney Opera House. He was the 1974 campaign’s Little Pattie. At least he didn’t have to sing “It’s Time”.
I satirised the whole episode in an article for Tracks called “As tall as a Grafton jacaranda”, in which I postulated that Nat could very well run for prime minister himself at some future election. Nat took it in good spirit, and indeed he did later seek a political career, running unsuccessfully for the NSW seat of Pittwater in 1987 as an independent campaigning on ocean pollution prevention.
There have been other real surfers who have made an impact on Australian politics, notably NSW Green Ian Cohen and Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, but far more common is the politician who comes out of the closet as a surfer only after having climbed the slippery pole. Tony Abbott is the most obvious case, a very late adopter who sadly dragged his mate, NSW Premier Mike Baird (a real surfer) down with him.
Sorry, Mike. A few too many photo ops kooking it out with the Mad Monk to retain any surf cred.