When you meet him in most circumstances, Simon Watkins will likely impress you as a kind, intelligent, and generous man. But for several years and especially since the opening of the Victorian Centre, he has earned a reputation as a malcontent, trouble-maker, and thorn in the side of the Victoria Croquet Association management - labels he has worn like badges of honor. As another critic of Victoria croquet politics has publicly said of the Cairnlea Centre, "Everyone across Australia is aware that the Vics have been told not to speak up, and none of them will if they know what’s good for them." It could be that Watkins does NOT know what's good for him, but the fact is that he has not been shy about "speaking up," and the sheer volume of his complaints is too immense to chronicle here in detail.
Watkins, 52, has had an active life that included racing high-performance catamarans. He started playing croquet in 1995 and within five years achieved a high ranking, now hovering somewhere around #17 in Australia following his retirement from competition in March 2011. The high ranking qualified him for a place on several Victoria state teams. When Watkins became a widower in 2008, he changed his life priorities and decided to retire, travel Australia, and play croquet, which brought him into closer contact not just with players and facilities around the continent, but also with the officers and boards of the croquet entities - especially in his home state of Victoria. His working knowledge as a qualified carpenter and builder has informed numerous acerbic and all-too-public observations on the quality of work done to build the Cairnlea Centre.
With a strong and irrepressible sense of fairness and order, Watkins has detailed many problems with the Victorian leadership revolving largely around alleged violations of formally adopted agreements, transgressions of constitutional principles, and breaches of standard business practices. Most of them carry financial consequences, and some of the most interesting complaints revolve around issues of ordinary personal courtesy and fair play.
What would "any average Luddite" know?
For example, when Val Brown, former president of the Victoria Croquet Association, explained her failure to respond by email to a communication from Watkins by saying she had been on extended travels, Simon's private response included the comment that "any average Luddite could read their emails from anywhere on the planet and not just the beige box in the sitting room."
Ms. Brown took offence and launched a Member Protection Complaint against Simon, and as a consequence of her response, the contents of the exchange became public knowledge, thus exposing the entire affair to public view. The email exchange was intended by Watkins to be in confidence, and Brown was advised against proceeding with her complaint, yet she persisted until April 2009, when Watkins was informed that she had withdrawn her complaint.
Thereafter, Watkins was chosen through the normal selection process for the Victorian team at the end of November 2009, at which time, Simon says, "Val Brown autocratically banned me and kicked me off the team," violating VCA policy and abusing her constitutional powers. Simon recalls, "After numerous telephone calls and letters from solicitors she relented and reinstated me at 4.00pm on December 24, 2009."
Such apparently baseless actions made public were characterized by Watkins as harassment. However, the "any average Luddite" scandal was still not over. In April 2010, after the death of George Latham, secretary of the VCA and the motive force behind the building of the Victorian Center, his successor Mike Cohn tendered a letter from Ian Cunliffe to the State Council advising them that a way to deal with Simons Watkins was to form a Disciplinary Tribunal. According to Simon, "The Council would reasonably - but incorrectly - infer that the letter was coming from the Australia Croquet Association solicitor acting at the direction of the Australia Croquet Association." Though Cunliffe was appointed chair of the Tribunal, he withdrew a few months later, and the newly appointed Chair of the Council informed Simon at the beginning of August 2010 that the tribunal would be held near the end of that same month.
How the Member Protection Policy works
Simon recalls, "During the time between the State Council forming the Tribunal and the actual Tribunal I had been repeatedly trying to get the then Vice President and later President (Mike Cohn) to give me a hearing as access to Australia's Member Protection Policy (which applies to all sports with government support.) But purely by his silence and lack of action, I was denied this protection. Members in dispute have a right to be heard under the MPP, and not the old disciplinary Tribunal provisions of the VCA Constitution. This was an error in the drafting of the Constitution; the VCA cannot be bound by two conflicting policies, one from the ACA and one from the Victoria Croquet Association, and the Member Protection Policy has been adopted by the VCA more recently than the constitution."
You can see what's coming. As Simon says, "The Tribunal found me guilty and had me rubbed out for three months, so I had been lynched by the Brown mob in December 2009, cut down and brought back to life and then lynched again, this time by a lawfully formed gang. I was not allowed legal representation. The hearing was chaired by a barrister in her chambers, very intimidating, I was not permitted to question my accuser."
"During my playing ban," Simon continues, "I assisted at the Presidents event at Cairnlea as a hoop setter, during which time Bill Keddie, an examining referee for Victoria, Selector and Director of VCA, commented to a few croquet players that I had deliberately thrown an Interstate Cup Match in 2010 to get back at the VCA. One of the people to whom he made this comment told me about it. But when I asked Keddie about it, he said he was only repeating what someone else had told him. I asked who and he replied that he had forgotten. I asked him to apologise. He refused."
The VCA has learned to manage some embarrassing difficulties merely through inaction. A Tribunal requires 28 days notice, and although Simon requested his Member Protection in a disciplinary Tribunal in December 2010, as of early September 2011 it had not been scheduled for a date suitable to all parties. (According to Simon, the VCA was aware of his intention as early as May 2011 to leave Australia and begin his new life in Cambodia on September 9.) So he'll likely be given a chance to air his grievances as mandated by the VCA constitution.....but probably not until he's living far away in Cambodia!
Simon explains, "The VCA wants the affair to go away, and by letting time tick it achieves that." The satisfaction Simon might achieve through his tribunal would include exposure of various alleged errors or policy breaches by Cohn, Brown, and Keddie. In many if not most cases, the facts, the logic, the constitution and the laws appear to be on Watkins' side in his squabbles with the Victorian bigwigs, but that doesn't always count in the upside-down "bizarro world" of Australian croquet, and especially not in Victoria.
Most of the trouble started with the windfall sale of the old Victoria headquarters facility in a "high-rent" district of Melbourne. The initial expectation, in response to Latham's vigorous promotion to the Association, was to get $5 million or more for the Warleigh headquarters property, spend half on a new headquarters, and then put the other half into investments drawing interest to support croquet overall in Victoria.
When the actual selling price was more than seven million (at the top of the market) all the other numbers increased in tandem: Now with the extra cash, three million of the seven could be spent on the Victorian Centre (including a large part of that in trust for its support and development) and the balance of four million could go "for the benefit of croquet in Victoria" - a phrase that can be interpreted in many ways; it could even mean that covering an annual shortfall of more than $100,000 at the Victoria Centre would be in fact "for the benefit of croquet in Victoria." But Simon and many other don't see it that way, and never have. They think ALL the money could have been put to better use to directly benefit to the sport, spread throughout the state of Victoria. In Simon's view, the windfall only led to "a continuous orgy of spending from their private piggy-bank."
As Watkins puts it, "At no time in the planning phase was there ever any mention of using the residual to keep the Cairnlea building operational." Somewhere along the line, George Latham's vision was changed to something else entirely, something very different from the idealized world-class Victoria headquarters facility envisioned early on, which Latham and others declared would "pay its own way" within just a few years. According to Simon, "Somewhere there has been a gradual alteration of the intent of the initial resolution, and now the state council will not turn the money into trust, because then there would be a trust deed and trustees that need to be approached and convinced as to the appropriate use of the money. That would remove the piggy bank that the mis-managers can continually dive into to fund their disaster. No longer could one person control the purse strings in accordance with that one person's agenda."
With language like this, it's easy to understand how a normally kind and generous man like Simon Watkins has acquired the reputation of a troublemaker.
George Latham's considerable task of formulating a bold vision and translating it into action necessarily required enlisting a broad consensus of approval if not enthusiasm; inevitably, some people did not sign on to that concensus, and felt they had been steam-rollered.
When the projections included in "selling" the vision to a majority of voting croquet players in Victoric did not all materialize, the resulting backlash of stinging criticism was almost inevitable. Simon Watkins was probably the most vocal of these critics. The presentation of his criticisms has been anything but moderate, tending to confirm resistance on both sides of the conflict. It's possible that his leaving the scene will be part of a "shift in the wind" in Victorian croquet politics; moving to Cambodia could be part of a happy solution for both Simon AND the Victoria Croquet Association, in the best of possible worlds.
Matching the vision to real-world economics
The fully constructed Victoria Centre at the site selected wound up costing five million instead of the three million figure originally quoted, but the investment portfolio was managed competently, so according to Simon, the bigwigs in Victoria took the point of view that they were rich, and entitled to live on the interest at the Victorian Centre forever. There was no need for the Centre ever to take in enough revenue to equal the pay-out of expenses. The annual accrued interest on the investment would take care of that, with a lot left over besides, to be used for....what? Watkins points out that the Victoria Croquet Association continues to spend more than The Victorian Centre earns from the activities there - $130,000 more in the last fiscal year than the revenue, and projected to be in the same range in the current year's budget.
According to Simon and other Victorian croquet players, a better avenue for expenditure of windfall cash would be the marketing of the sport on a broader basis - not just at Cairnlea. In fact, Tricia Devlin, a Director of the VCA, requested from the Council an allocation of money to market the sport throughout the state, but the Council rejected this proposal. As Watkins puts it, "They can see no further than the building, the sport is the venue, the venue sells itself, no need to promote!"
A few months ago, Watkins announced that he was fed up, and was retiring from the play of croquet and moving to another country. In fact, he had made extensive preparations, including an engagement to a native of his newly adopted country, Cambodia. Simon owns a subsistence farm in a village about sixty kilometres from the capital, Phnom Penh, where he built a house last May in which now reside his wife-to-be and other members of his newly adopted family.
Watkins makes it sound like a near-total retreat from the modern world: "Internet access is non existent, no running water, no sewerage, no gas, no telephone. I will check emails from Phnom Penh every five or six days or maybe there might be a bit of 3G mobile capability close by and I can check on the phone." Watkins' new home is in the small village of Roka Pok, in Kampong Speu Province, 58.6 kilometres south of Phnom Penh on National Highway Three. "At Roka Pok, you turn west for three kilometres along a dirt goat track (it takes 20 minutes in a Tuk Tuk from the Highway to home), then head north for 800 metres and you are at my front door. I do not intend to work for a salary in Cambodia. I will, however, manage others working on my farm, trading my cash for their sweat, and sharing the fruits of their labor.
"I'd like to improve the lot of the Cambodians in my village. I'll improve the sanitation and the integrity of the water supply. The health of the village people is important, too. My brother is a pediatrician/neo natal intensivist, and I will be asking him to visit regularly and attend to the medical welfare of the village children. At the moment I'm picking up a smattering of the language. When I move there fulltime my language skills will improve.
"With a working farm complete with a house, cattle, and crops supported by all the necessary infrastructure, my fit in to Cambodian society will be thoroughly complete when I get married on December 26 in the village of Roka Pok to the sister of my ex-neighbour from Melbourne."
Life without croquet and absent entanglement with the trials and travails of the Victoria Croquet Association will be a radical change. Simon insists it's a positive change. Due to his industry, technical expertise, and cash investment, he wants to make life a little better for a lot of people in his new country. Though he will miss his many Australian friends and playing the sport he loves, he's confident of having created a peaceful and satisfying future for himself, his new wife and his adopted family in Cambodia. As a parting word, Simon offers this: "The politics, ethics and morality of the Khmer far outweigh those of the VCA. I cannot yet understand the Khmer language, but I do appreciate their drive, integrity and desire to improve their lot and that of their fellow villagers - unlike too many of the directors of the VCA."
Coming soon is a balanced and objective update on croquet's two most celebrated 12-court headquarters facilities: the Victorian Centre in a Melbourne suburb and the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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