Trim, articulate and brimful of confidence, Graeme Northey will compere Australia Day in Goulburn on Friday with as much enthusiasm as he has done so for two decades or more. The only year he missed out on being MC was 2002 when he was announced Goulburn’s citizen of the year.
Graeme cannot wait to meet this year’s ambassador for Goulburn, entrepreneur Dick Smith. “I have a lot of admiration for Dick Smith because he is a doer, he is a self-made person, puts his money where his mouth is, is not frightened to say what he thinks,” he says.
He calls forthright, dogged businessmen like Dick Smith and Gerry Harvey scrappers. He reckons Australia needs more scrappers. And more common sense. And fewer rules and regulations. He doesn’t say as much, but Graeme Northey is a scrapper.
He is 64 and has never been unemployed. He managed a Holden dealership for 20 years, project managed construction of a crematorium and nurtures national cycling champions. He has been a photographer, computer programmer, sports editor, public speaker, relief barman, salesman, trainer, coach and the son his mother never forgave for leaving their hometown of Manilla in northern NSW.
Well of course she loved him. It’s just that Northeys are passionate people. Graeme’s late father, who built an ant-bed cricket pitch with his boys, was known in Manilla as Mr Cricket. Graeme feels blessed he lives in Australia and was born in the country, and yet everywhere he looks these days the nation which once punched above its weight is throwing in the towel.
He is struggling to forgive selectors for overlooking his close friend, Goulburn-born Trevor Bayliss as Australia’s cricket coach. “They should have appointed him instead of (South African) Mickey Arthur,’’ he says emphatically.
“I have a problem with Australian sport, where we think the best coaches are overseas. We have the best coaches in the world in all sports. We keep importing these overseas coaches… cricket, rugby and cycling. And swimming. Why do we do this? We have exported our best sporting products, all these coaches, all this knowledge.’’
The problem goes beyond sport. “We have this society now that wants everything bigger, brighter, quicker and cheaper, but are not prepared to pay the price for it. We have seen the demise of the local car industry. We build the best cars in the world, but we were not prepared to pay the price, we would rather pay for cheaper imports, and we have lost the whole industry. Why in Australia do we send all our raw products overseas and buy them back as finished product? We have priced ourselves out of the world.”
Bruce Northey worked dawn to dusk managing sheep and cattle farms and let his two boys Rodney and Graeme sit up late on Friday nights by the fire when Bob Simpson captained Australia against England. “Dad’s passion was cricket. He suffered a heart attack at 79 pulling the covers off a cricket wicket,” Graeme says. Bruce would come to Goulburn at the start of the cricket season and pad up and play alongside Graeme who was captaining the RSL second grade side.
His mother was born on May 9, 1927 when the original parliament house opened, so her parents christened her Berra, as in Canberra.
“We didn’t eat at night until Dad came home, which meant we could have been eating at anytime, he worked hard all his life.’’
The boys and their sister Janice had 7000-acre backyards, being the properties on which Bruce worked. They rode horses and played on billy carts.
Leaving school, he became a trainee accountant in Manilla’s department store. He saw little future there and applied for a job with the shire council. The shire clerk Vern Field who knew him through cricket, asked him for a chat after work and remarked on his written application being free of spelling errors. Later Graeme discovered that relaxed conversation was his job interview, a successful one and a lesson on managing people.
From that council he went to Kiama, then Goulburn City Council, working with town clerk Allan Williams, deputy town clerk Ken Brown and accountant Harry Rosevear. Graeme trained on how to write computer programs, and later switched jobs, joining Radio 2GN as the night DJ, selling advertising and as sports editor. In 1995 he won a national award for sports presenting, interviewed Peter Sterling, Rex Mossop, the United Kingdom’s voice of cycling Phil Liggett, and Bob Simpson, then touring the bush with legends like Doug Walters.
Organising Bayliss’ Goulburn testimonial and attending one elsewhere led to meeting Steve and Mark Waugh and Glenn McGrath. Later on in the Gold Coast, he struck up a long conversation with Mike Whitney. At one stage he considered a role with ABC sport, but ruled it out because it would have meant a move to the city.
Graeme says he was anything but a typical car salesman at Geisslers where he managed a sales and service team. “It is a people-business,” he says. “Your customer was king. I had my battles with manufacturers, I was always very forthright when it came to protecting one of our clients.”
He puts this sense of justice down to his upbringing. “We were not under-privileged by any means, we were very privileged in a lot of ways, but we knew the value of things and the sense of value has carried through. What I really hate these days is where big companies tend to brush people aside because that’s the system. Well, I don’t go along with that, if the system is not right, then I believe we should say so.’’
The end of his car career loomed when funeral director John Crookes hired him to help build a crematorium. “We always laugh because John handed me a briefcase full of papers and said, ‘here, fix it’. And we did. It is one of the things in my working life that I am very proud of. John was busy running his business, he didn’t have the time to devote to building the crematorium. I knew nothing about crematoriums, not a thing. I like to think I provide common sense to everything I do. I have always found the best knowledge to have is the knowledge you have to find for yourself.”
One day Graeme dusted off his old Malvern Star bike, took the mudguards and lights off and won a celebrity race, surprising everyone at the cycling club – and himself. “I was hooked and the rest, as they say, is history, ” he says. He bought a decent bike and his children Joseph and Keisha followed him into the sport.
He says their lives changed when Joseph made the NSW team as a 14-year-old in 2004. Graeme formalised his coaching and with wife Jenny watched their children excel as they reached adulthood. In the meantime he became the club’s coach, developed a juniors’ program and coached three state representatives and winners of five national medals.
“I enjoy coaching kids because they are responsive. My idea is you don’t only be a cycling coach, you have to be a life coach, you must relate to them. My philosophy is let them be a kid first and cyclist second. They have to enjoy what they are doing. Do well at school. If they don’t do well at school they are off the bike.’’
Coaching means helping manage children’s emotions and high expectations. “You get inside their head, you know what makes them tick. I know when they turn up for a training session, I say ‘hello’, I can tell by the response whether we are going to have a good day’s training.’’
Being super talented isn’t enough to succeed in cycling. Commitment is essential says Graeme, who travels 640 kilometres home to Manilla so often he is as much a local there as he is in Goulburn.