One of the most successful, yet controversial administrators in the long history of the Carlton Football Club, George Harris led the Blues to no less than four Premierships in his ten seasons as President. A serving soldier at 18, and the first-ever professional President of a VFL club, he was also a central figure in the controversial dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government in 1975.
Provided with thanks by the Carlton Football Club in commemmoration of Harris's great service to the Club

George Henry Harris was born in St Kilda in 1922. A strongly-built youngster with an interest in all things military, he joined the Militia (Army Reserve) in 1938 at the age of just 16 – simply by claiming he was 18. In 1941 George, his older brother Joel and their father (Joel Senior) all enlisted for active service in World War II.

Harris soon demonstrated outstanding leadership, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant before his 18th birthday. In February 1942 he was stationed on the island fortress of Singapore when the entire Malayan peninsula was over-run by Japanese forces. All three of the Harris boys were captured, and sent to the notorious POW 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. He once saved his father (himself a Major) from execution - by intervening on his behalf with a particularly sadistic guard. On another occasion, George lost almost all of his front teeth when he was smashed in the face with a rifle butt. Despite these dangerous episodes (and others), the Harris clan survived the rigours of imprisonment to be repatriated home at the war’s end.

George Harris
Somewhat ironically, soon afterward George enrolled to study dentistry. He graduated, and by 1964 was practising privately as well as acting as the official dentist at Pentridge Prison (a position that later would give his detractors the perfect opportunity to mock him). At the same time he was supporting the Carlton Football Club as the Blues’ honorary dentist, and in that role, he became a confidant, a sounding board, and a regular advisor to many of the more influential people around Princes Park.

By the early nineteen-sixties, discontent was rife at Carlton. Without a flag since 1947, the Blues had made the finals only five times in the intervening seventeen years. A group of prominent supporters, including Harris, ex-player Laurie Kerr and two of Harris’ close friends; Eddie Fakhry and Gordon Newton (father of later board member Richard Newton ) decided that drastic action was called for.

They founded the Progress Party; an alternative administration, with Harris as President of a committee that included four members of the existing board; vice-presidents Percy Bentley and Jack Wrout, former club captain Bruce Comben and committeeman Graeme Emanuel. They were joined on Harris’ ticket by 137-game dual Premiership player Rod McLean, long-serving club secretary Allen Cowie, Melbourne City Councillor Ivan Rohrt, and businessmen Newton, Fakhry, Allan Smallman, Kevin McEncroe and Wally Taylor .

With the assistance of Laurie Kerr’s emerging public relations company, the Progress Party then petitioned Carlton’s members to force an extraordinary general meeting of the club at the Brunswick Town Hall on December 7, 1964. By coincidence, this was the 23rd anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour – and like the Japanese assault, it was a complete success. The incumbent administration of President Lew Holmes was swept from office in a landslide, and the Harris era began.

Like many successful businessman, 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 voice and manner could sometimes be intimidating. But he was also a man of wit, and a skilled salesman – as he was about to prove conclusively.

The very first action of the new committee was to advertise the senior coaching position, as they had promised prior to the election. More than 20 hopefuls applied, but only three were informally interviewed; former Collingwood captain Murray Weideman, and two Essendon legends in Jack Clarke and dual Brownlow medallist Bill Hutchison.

Before the selection process had even properly begun however, Harris heard a whisper that Melbourne’s captain (and six-time Premiership player) Ron Barassi was considering future coaching opportunities. George wasted no time in sending two of his most trusted associates; Graeme Emanuel and Kevin McEnroe, to see Ron, with open arms and a virtually blank cheque book.

When those two men walked back into Harris’ office after gaining a handshake agreement from Barassi that he 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 George that after a sleepless night, he had reconsidered, and realised that the time was not right for him to leave the Demons.

Harris dug his heels in, and over the next three hours, he summoned every ounce 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 probably wiped the sweat from his brow) Ron had relented, and formally agreed to captain-coach the Blues for the next three years.

When the news of Barassi’s defection broke, it 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 of a club where his father had also played in a Premiership team - could consider defecting from the Demons. But Barassi himself knew that at Melbourne he would forever be in the shadow of his legendary mentor; the Demons coach Norm Smith. If Ron was going to coach a senior VFL team, then it would be on his terms, or not at all. George Harris was well aware of that condition, and had offered Barassi precisely that opportunity. It was one of the pivotal moments in the history of the Carlton Football Club.

Over the next eight seasons, Barassi fundamentally changed the mindset all-round at Carlton, and indeed, changed the game itself. Prior to his arrival, the Blues had seemed to be content to be competitive; basking in their status as one of the senior AFL clubs, and looking upon any year in which the club played finals football as a success.
Provided with thanks by the Carlton Football Club in commemmoration of Harris's great service to the Club

Barassi very quickly changed all that. He drove each of his players hard, demanding maximum effort on the track, and on the playing field. He preached the abhorrence of failure, and convinced even the veterans of the side that they could always improve their game. He was tough, he was uncompromising, and soon, justifiably successful when Carlton ended a 21-year drought with a narrow three-point victory over Essendon in the 1968 Grand Final. Harris, Barassi, and champion ruckman John Nicholls – who captained the Blues to the Premiership in his 200th VFL match – were the men of the hour.

Two years later, Barassi engineered a football miracle when Carlton recovered from a 44-point deficit at half time in the 1970 Grand Final, to steamroll Collingwood and snatch another flag with a glorious 10-point victory. That result shattered Collingwood’s confidence for a decade, and marked a new peak in Barassi’s standing within the game. It also fundamentally changed football, by shifting the emphasis from a player’s individual skills to his athleticism, speed and endurance.

Barassi departed Carlton in 1971, having helped Harris and his committee to transform Princes Park into a powerhouse of the VFL. John Nicholls took the reins as captain-coach, and reached the pinnacle of his magnificent career when the Blues kicked the still current Grand Final record score of 28.9.177 in beating another traditional rival, Richmond, for the 1972 flag.
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Best on Ground in that Grand Final 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 being a young fellow 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 today, I hope you get a kick. That typified him. He expected standards to be high. He raised the bar – made the place professional. He brought in Barassi, who got things right on the field. He got the social club up and running and in that era Carlton was considered to be the most professional and financial club going around." By that time, the Blues’ senior players had christened Harris ‘Gorgeous George’ after the American television wrestler to whom he bore a faint resemblance. The laughs were confined to the change rooms at first, but eventually the nick-name was widely used – even by George himself.

Harris retired from the Presidency in 1974 to devote more time to his business interests. He had contributed an enormous amount of time and effort to the Blues in his nine years at the helm, but his position also enabled him to establish friendships with many of the country’s rich and powerful. In 1975, the Federal Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was in crisis. Amid a series of public scandals, ballooning inflation and high unemployment, the opposition Liberal/Country Party coalition had used its Senate majority to block the government’s money supply, in an attempt to force Whitlam to dissolve Parliament and call another election.

A year earlier, Whitlam and the executive council had authorised the borrowing of four billion US dollars from overseas financiers – at the time, the biggest loan ever authorised by an Australian government. The problem was that they did not obtain loan council approval beforehand, and the Governor General, John Kerr, was not present at the meeting. Having decided to go ahead with raising this enormous amount, the government then authorised two individuals to separately broker the deal. The first was a dubiously-credentialed Pakistani financier named Tirath Khemlani. 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, 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 at the time; "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 made an assessment, and 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, and after three straight losses, newly-appointed coach Ian Stewart was unable to continue - apparently because of symptoms relating to a heart attack. He was replaced by club stalwart Sergio Silvagni in a caretaker role, before captain Alex Jesaulenko accepted the responsibility of playing coach. ‘Jezza’ galvanised a dispirited team languishing on the bottom of the league ladder, and inspired his men into a brilliant second-half of the season. The Blues charged into the finals, only to fall at the second hurdle against Collingwood.

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.

By July of 1979 the optimism around Princes Park was heading for another peak when Jezza’s team won their thirteenth match of the fifteen they had played, to be entrenched on top of the ladder as flag favourites. 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 the rumour and innuendo that ensued was quickly swept aside however, on Grand Final day. In the last minutes of an enthralling contest against Collingwood, Blues utility Wayne Harmes’ individual brilliance produced a controversial goal from nowhere, and Carlton won a fourth Premiership in George’s tenth season in charge.
Provided with thanks by the Carlton Football Club in commemmoration of Harris's great service to the Club

Never mind that Collingwood’s hierarchy were incensed by what they saw as injustice (Harmes had knocked the ball back into play from the boundary line – all Collingwood thought it was out of bounds, but the umpire disagreed). And no wonder that George’s speech at Carlton’s Grand Final dinner ruffled the Maggies feathers when he said; "What’s better than beating Collingwood by ten goals? Beating them by five points!" Like every Bluebagger, George just loved it!

Apart from his twin triumphs in 1968 and 1970 with Barassi, this was perhaps George’s finest hour. After all, he had answered a call from his club in distress, and yet again delivered the ultimate prize. However, more storms were brewing on the horizon. Within a month, Harris was facing dissent from some senior members of the Carlton committee, as further revelations about the club’s failing business ventures came to light.

Harris decided on a bold action plan. He was confident that he had the support of the majority of Carlton members, and was looking to expose his detractors to a popular vote. At the Annual General Meeting of the club in December 1979, George denounced the incumbent committee for disloyalty, and submitted his immediate resignation. This quickly split the club into two factions; those for, and against Harris. Next, the committee appointed businessman Ian Rice as President, and replaced out-going board member Eddie Fakhry with the emerging corporate whiz (and chairman of the Henry Jones IXL conglomerate) John Elliott. The pro-Harris lobby quickly got busy, too. A petition calling for yet another extraordinary General Meeting – demanding that the club reinstate Harris - was soon circulating. It had the support of a number of club heavyweights, including the revered Alex Jesaulenko.

Both camps had shadow-boxed by calling public meetings to rally supporters to their cause, before the two sides 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 Rice who swayed the majority with his clear explanation of the financial crisis facing the club.
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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 Henry Harris was over.

There remains just a little more to the saga. From the turbulent end of his Presidency, George remained staunchly Blue. Although a stroke in 1991 slowed him down somewhat, he accompanied his wife Jean to Carlton’s Premiership Players Ball in 2004, and maintained a keen interest in the fortunes of ‘his’ team. Carlton had fallen into the doldrums again at that time, so George had a letter written and addressed to the club in February, 2007, which read;

''To my beloved Blues,

Please get your act together, we’re all hurting out here. We need strong leadership backed up by the type of loyalty that made Carlton famous.

I wish I could help. I can’t, but my heart’s still strong and it will always remain true Blue.

Yours sincerely and forever,

Few other people would be as instantly recognisable by their single-letter signature as George, and those words were typical of his attitude throughout a celebrated life that ended only a few months later. Carlton's most successful President, he passed away on November 26, 2007.

Blueseum: In the Heat of the Night - when George walked out | Our George Harris Image Gallery