By JESSE GRAHAM
FOR Jason Ball, a move into politics was a natural progression.
In recent years, the 27-year-old has been a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and for LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) inclusion in sport, the latter through his work with the Yarra Glen Football Netball Club.
The Pride Cup, a match to celebrate and encourage inclusion in football, was a brainchild of coaches at the football club, and Mr Ball, the first openly gay footballer at any level, took up the cause and helped the event to flourish.
Over the weekend, Mr Ball announced he would stand as the Greens-endorsed candidate for the inner-city seat of Higgins in next year’s Federal Election.
The seat is currently held by Kelly O’Dwyer, a Coalition front-bencher who won the seat with nearly 60 per cent of the vote in 2013.
The Greens received 16.8 per cent of the vote, while Labor got 24.1 per cent of the vote before preferences.
But Mr Ball told the Mail he felt the Greens had been gaining ground in inner-city seats, and that public opinion was moving against Tony Abbott and the Coalition.
“We won the (State) seat of Prahran, which was the first time the Greens won a seat off of the Libs, so it’s not unprecedented,” he said.
“For me, it’s only a matter of time before those inner-city seats continue to turn Green, as the current demographic changes and more young people move into the area.”
He said his connection with the party started in 2004 when he was faced with the prospect of voting for the first time.
“That’s when John Howard voted to ban gay marriage, and was supported by Labor in doing that – I felt absolutely rejected by Labor and the Liberals,” Mr Ball said.
“Eleven years on, both parties aren’t quite there on the issues – Labor is allowing MPs to vote against marriage equality, Tony Abbott and the Liberals are not allowing a free vote.
“The Greens have supported marriage equality before it was cool.”
But he said that his platform was wider than marriage equality and LGBTI inclusion, and that he had been passionate about climate change, mental health and compassion towards asylum seekers for years, which inspired him to sign up with the Greens in 2010.
“The biggest issue, for me, is mental health,” Mr Ball said.
“I’ve worked in the sector for the last three years, and I’ve seen that sector crumble under the uncertainty that the current government has given it – they don’t have any funding certainty beyond 30 June next year.
“That’s something I feel I can speak with authority on.”
He said that growing up around Christmas Hills and Yarra Glen had also given him a passion for the environment, and a want to protect the bushland areas where he has his roots.
Mr Ball has lived in the Higgins electorate for years, but said he still plays with Yarra Glen on weekends, though he had been working behind the scenes in recent weeks while he recovered from an injury.
“The football club … has shown so much support to me through my journey – they stood with me every step of the way,” he said.
“Living in the city and working in the city, I had lots of other choices of places I could play football, but Yarra Glen was my home and I didn’t want to play anywhere else.”
That support could be measured in community support, such as with the Pride Cup, which this year drew triple the crowd of a regular match and was heralded by Yarra Glen businesses, many of which put out wooden versions of the rainbow pride flag.
But a more intangible measure of the support came from inside the club, with his team-mates banding together to support the player when he came out as gay.
“I had all of these fears as to how my team would respond, to hear I am gay – in the end, those fears weren’t realised,” Mr Ball said.
“A country football club is the last place you’d expect to do that kind of work (in the Pride Cup), and so I think that’s especially powerful, that they’ve become leaders in the local community.”
Mr Ball said that some of his team-mates were not surprised to hear about his move into politics, seeing it as a natural progression of the advocacy he showed in his community and in his work.
“Politics provides me with an even bigger platform to try and be a role model for young people, that I didn’t have when I was a young kid,” he said.
“Growing up as a gay kid in a regional town, such as Yarra Glen – especially in football – I felt very alone.
“I didn’t have anyone to look up to.
“I didn’t know I could live a happy life, and I want to be that role model for other people and to continue to advocate for our community, along with other marginalised groups in society.”
So far, Mr Ball said the reaction to the announcement of his candidacy had been “overwhelmingly positive”, but that he would gauge more of the local reaction when he comes back to the valley this weekend.