Andrew Barr wants sporting infrastructure to be his lasting legacy to the ACT. Photo: Graham Tidy
When Andrew Barr was a child, he was known as the rugby league computer and could reel off his Western Suburbs hero Terry Lamb's every statistic.
It flies in the face of the general conception the former ACT sports minister is an AFL man, due largely to his deal to bring Greater Western Sydney to Canberra.
Barr might no longer be the sports minister, with that role going to Shane Rattenbury, but he will still be in charge of our big venues and sporting events. And he wants sporting infrastructure to be his lasting legacy to the ACT.
In his eight years as sports minister, he spent more than $165 million on almost every sport imaginable, but it is the Giants deal that has been the most controversial in the eyes of the electorate - spending Canberra's money on a Sydney-based team.
Barr concedes that is the case, but stands by his decision to give GWS $23 million over 10 years to play three home-and-away games at Manuka Oval every season. Without it there would be no lights at Manuka Oval and Australia's cricket team still would not have played in the nation's capital.
He sees the sports portfolio, which has an economic impact estimated to be more than $300 million a year, as a way to bolster the ACT's economy and make it less reliant on the public service.
Barr wants to use the Giants' link with Virgin to help bring international flights to Canberra airport, and he said part of the $23 million was for tourism.
His research indicates Canberra's biggest market is western Sydney, and money would be spent advertising there without the Giants deal.
"I recognise there's a degree of controversy around that, but I think the evidence of benefit is there not just in AFL but for cricket," Barr said. "Without that investment [in the Giants], cricket would still be languishing. We would not have seen the Australian cricket team play in our city; we would not have hosted the Sheffield Shield final. We would not have seen the structural reform that is allowing Cricket ACT to take on a much stronger role within the Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia framework.
"We now have a venue that is taken seriously as a major event venue."
As the Manuka upgrades continue, Barr has turned his attention to the future of Canberra Stadium.
The ACT government is looking for foreign investment to help build a covered, rectangular stadium in Civic, with the benefits to extend beyond sport.
Funding has been set aside for the design work in this year's budget, which will look at fixed seating compared with expandable, indoor versus outdoor, and Barr said it should include underground parking to ensure it had a constant revenue stream 365 days a year.
"Yes, it's a big investment, but it's now pretty well beyond doubt that the infrastructure we have will need to be replaced within the decade," Barr said.
"It will be a poor outcome for the city if by the mid-2020s we have not replaced Canberra Stadium, because it will be 50 years old and it will be at the end of its useful life.
"If Canberra wants to have teams in national competitions, we need to have the appropriate level of infrastructure to support that, and we've got to be thinking about how best to deliver that.
"It's got to be done; I'm very firmly of the view that has to happen. It has to be done sensibly, it has to be done affordably and we need to get an infrastructure outcome that benefits the city ... and that's the biggest challenge for us. If we're going to have an investment of many hundreds of millions of dollars, that it delivers multiple benefits."
Barr was born in Lismore but moved to Canberra when he was four years old.
While he started out as a Wests fan, he quickly converted to the Raiders and caught the bus to Seiffert Oval to watch the Green Machine. It was not until he was 10 that a family friend convinced him to follow Hawthorn in what was then the VFL.
There are not many sports the self-proclaimed sports tragic has not played - tennis, golf, netball, basketball, Aussie rules, rugby league - and he was in the same junior cricket team as Essendon's James Hird and former Wallabies captain George Gregan.
If there is a celebrity game on in Canberra, Barr is probably playing, although he admits to being hopeless at soccer.
He has helped Stromlo Forest Park become a cycling mecca and several new teams have realised almost instant success on the national stage.
The redevelopment of the tennis centre at Lyneham means the Davis Cup could come to Canberra, and the University of Canberra is positioning itself as Australia's leading sports university, with the ACT Brumbies as a tenant.
Canberra's centenary of sport was a veritable feast, with netball, cricket, rugby league, Australian football and rugby union all coming to the party.
Obviously, Canberra's centenary provided a "once in a 100-year opportunity", and Barr hopes to leverage a similar smorgasbord of events for next year's 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. An AFL Anzac Day game is top of his list.
"I love AFL, but I'd have to declare myself as a more recent convert to AFL," Barr said. "When I was five, they called me the rugby league computer. I knew every stat about Terry Lamb when he was playing for Western Suburbs before he went to Canterbury. I used to go for Wests before I went for the Raiders. I used to catch the bus out to Seiffert Oval to watch the Raiders play every second weekend.
"I reckon Super League and that whole fiasco in the mid-90s took some of the passion from me around league. The game's not what it used to be."
Barr has been with partner Anthony Toms for 15 years, but said he has experienced very little homophobia despite dealing with the blokey world of sport. Apart from the odd slur shouted during a celebrity game, the abuse he has received is insignificant compared with what indigenous AFL players Adam Goodes and Nicky Winmar have experienced in their careers.
"One time at Manuka in a goal-kicking competition there were a few things yelled at me from the crowd," Barr said. "It was loud enough for everyone to hear. There will always be a few people who don't like your politics or don't like you as an individual. There will always be people who question decisions, and that's fair enough, but what no one likes is being attacked personally for one attribute or another. But let's be realistic, in public life you're going to get some barbs."
ANDREW BARR'S MAJOR DEALS
Gungahlin Enclosed Oval and Leisure Centre, $41.2 million
Lyneham sports hub and tennis centre, $23.55 million
GWS Giants deal, $23 million
Manuka Oval upgrade and lights, $15 million
Stromlo Forest Park, $12 million
University of Canberra sports commons, $5 million
Brumbies headquarters, $5 million
One Day International, Australia v West Indies
Rugby League Anzac Test
AFL Hall of Fame
Cricket World Cup