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How a statue of Dennis Lillee ignited a culture war that’s set fire to the WACA

Ben Harvey
The Nightly
5 Min Read
The dispute at the WACA has pitted conservative and progressive factions against each other, and led to Cricket Australia investigators being dispatched from Melbourne.
The dispute at the WACA has pitted conservative and progressive factions against each other, and led to Cricket Australia investigators being dispatched from Melbourne. Credit: The Nightly

“The notion of reducing one of the world’s greatest fast bowlers to a place between a white woman and a black man . . . is an unforgivable insult.”

So begins a complaint — laced with language many would find racist and misogynistic — lodged by disgraced former Liberal senator Noel Crichton-Browne.

His grievance was the perceived belittling of Dennis Lillee by flanking his proposed statue with female Test great Zoe Goss and an Aboriginal player representing a 19th-century team of Indigenous cricketers dubbed the Invincibles.

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Mr Crichton-Browne, who was thrown out of the Liberal Party after threatening to “screw the tits off” a female journalist, sent the email to the chair of the WA Cricket Association in September 2022.

It, and other correspondence obtained by The Nightly, lifts the lid on a cultural war in cricket that has pitted conservative forces aligned to Lillee against a progressive faction led by Australia’s most-capped female test player, Christina Matthews.

It is a battle that led Cricket Australia to dispatch investigators from Melbourne amid accusations the WACA board was stacked with “lesbians” and suggestions that players at an Aboriginal academy should be DNA tested to prove their race.

The suggested placement of a statue of Dennis Lillee at the WACA Ground was at the dispute’s centre.
The suggested placement of a statue of Dennis Lillee at the WACA Ground was at the dispute’s centre. Credit: PA Images via Getty Images

A battle that saw the trans community and some of this country’s most celebrated cricketers dig opposing trenches in a divisive argument over whether urinal-free toilets were a stalking horse for a gender agenda.

For people such as Mr Crichton-Browne, it is a battle against wokeism and it starts with three statues currently being designed with the view to placement outside the WACA Ground.

“The notion of reducing one of the world’s greatest fast bowlers to a place between a white woman and a black man as a political statement by the WACA board and CEO is an unforgivable insult to both Dennis and the WACA members who are entitled to expect him to be honoured by way of a statue for his cricketing greatness,” Mr Crichton-Browne wrote in September 2022.

“That a statue of one of the world’s greatest fast bowlers is to be stuck between an anonymous Aboriginal person and a woman cricketer whose achievements cannot be spoken of in the same breath as Dennis’ is an outrageous insult to Lillee and the membership.”

Mr Crichton-Browne’s email to the then chair of the WACA, former WA politician Tuck Waldron, was one of several complaints from members who believed Ms Matthews was using her position as chief executive of the association to wage a gender war.

The openly gay former wicket-keeper put noses out of joint early in her tenure when she clashed with Lillee, who was a long-serving president when she took the job in 2011.

Noel Crichton-Browne slammed plans to put a statue of Dennis Lillee ‘between an anonymous Aboriginal person and a woman cricketer’.
Noel Crichton-Browne slammed plans to put a statue of Dennis Lillee ‘between an anonymous Aboriginal person and a woman cricketer’. Credit: John Mokrzycki/WA News

A Lillee-backed refurbishment of the WACA was scuttled under her watch and the swaggering master of the six-stitcher was apoplectic.

He quit as president four years later, ostensibly because of the decision to move big-ticket games from the WACA to then-premier Colin Barnett’s new stadium at Burswood.

“I cannot stand by and watch what is happening at the WACA,” Lillee said at the time. “I do not wish to be part of it any longer.”

It was suspected that the transferal of matches from the ground was not the real reason Lillee quit. He wasn’t used to not getting his own way and Ms Matthews’ open defiance infuriated him.

“Once you’ve stood up to Dennis Lillee in his own backyard, there aren’t many things in life that can intimidate you,” read the opening line of a news story about Matthews in 2020, when she was being considered to replace Kevin Roberts as chief executive of Cricket Australia.

Lillee’s home near Augusta, on the south-west tip of Australia, is 300km from the grandstand that bears his name, but his influence on who gets elected to the WACA board remains strong. He doesn’t need to pressure people to achieve his aims; most are so enamoured they fall over themselves in the rush to please him.

“As you well know, Lillee is a saint in this State,” Mr Crichton-Browne said in his 2022 email.

One of Lillee’s fans is property consultant Paul Collins.

Christina Matthews retired as WACA chief executive last month.
Christina Matthews retired as WACA chief executive last month. Credit: Daniel Wilkins/The West Australian

Elected to the board alongside Brad Hogg in June 2022 after Graeme Wood and Mike Veletta quit as directors, Mr Collins led criticism of a decision last year not to install urinals in the men’s toilets in a refurbished part of the WACA Ground.

“Toiletgate” replaced “Statuegate” as the lightning rod for Lillee-aligned opponents of Ms Matthews.

“Never before has a CEO of our 138-year-old association caused such embarrassment for the WACA,” Mr Collins complained to Ms Matthews in an August 2023 email.

His behaviour became so aggressive that Cricket Australia dispatched investigators from Melbourne. The amount of poison they uncovered in the boardroom shocked the delegation.

It is understood investigators were told Mr Collins had claimed in a board meeting last year that the presence of two “lesbians” on the directors roll (Ms Matthews and chair Avril Fahey are both gay) meant the WACA did not need further LGBTQIA-awareness training.

Cricket Australia was told that Mr Collins opposed a Pride round because it discriminated against people who were celibate and that he argued for players in the Aboriginal talent academy to be DNA tested to prove their race credentials.

Paul Collins is said to have opposed a Pride round because it discriminated against people who were celibate
Paul Collins is said to have opposed a Pride round because it discriminated against people who were celibate Credit: Michael O'Brien/WA News

Ms Matthews, who retired as chief executive last month, blamed Mr Collin’s behaviour for two extended periods of stress leave she took in late 2022 and October 2023. She produced more than 50 emails in which Mr Collins bullied and harassed her.

WACA chief operating officer Justin Michael complained his physical and mental health was impacted by the stress of dealing with Mr Collins. Their relationship soured to the point the men could not be in the same room.

As in-fighting grew worse, Ms Fahey convened an in-camera board meeting on September 5, 2023, to discuss what to do with Mr Collins.

Directors voted to allow him to continue on the board as long as he agreed to stop contacting staff directly, channelling queries through the chair.

The intervention failed to contain him and in January his fellow directors acted. Mr Collins’ membership was suspended, which triggered his expulsion from the board.

The businessman said he was being penalised for speaking out about the urinal fiasco. The self-styled “men’s martyr” fired off his own legal salvo, claiming the two-month ban breached the Corporations Act.

He demanded an apology and on Thursday the WACA board caved in.

The WACA is yet to decide on a new chief executive. It is likely that whoever is selected will have Lillee’s imprimatur.

One of the new boss’ first decisions will concern the future of the statues that so incensed Mr Crichton-Browne. They are still in the design phase and their fate will speak volumes about the WACA in a post-Matthews world.

Mr Crichton-Browne and Mr Lillee declined to comment. Mr Collins said it was his job as a director to “ask the hard questions and raise issues of concern”.

“I encourage all members of the WACA to continue to ask questions about the design, costs and funding of the WACA Ground redevelopment,” he told the Nightly.

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