Australians take great pride in our sport. It is not only one of the most important aspects of our nation’s culture, but also one of the most unifying. From the cricket and tennis to the swimming pool and athletics track, sport brings us together. It’s not to be used to stir up divisive political battles or culture wars.
I have long been a die-hard South Sydney fan. I also support liberal-conservative philosophical causes. Almost nothing beats celebrating Souths victories — or even lamenting our defeats — at the game or pub with people from all walks of life, with whom I might normally disagree.
One of them is my mate Albo, another loyal Rabbitoh I’ve known since Souths were reinstated in the comp in 2002. Whatever our political differences, the mere sight of the Cardinal Red and Myrtle Green or the sound of our club anthem Glory, Glory! stirs our blood and focuses our attention on the desire for a Souths victory. We agree that while sport is a great meeting ground of people of different politics, religion, gender or race, sport should keep out of Australian politics: that is why we have politicians like him.
Why then politicise the footy code we love? The Prime Minister wants to recruit seven of the country’s most important sports codes, including the National Rugby League, to co-ordinate support for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the leadup to this year’s referendum. If he succeeds, Australian sport risks being poisoned, because the matter will force a collision between a great pastime and identity politics.
At first glance, the matter seems uncontroversial. After all, a majority of Australians allegedly support Indigenous constitutional recognition. According to the supporters of the Yes vote, including many corporates and wealthy foundations, the Voice would just be a formal body to advise Australia’s government and parliament on matters affecting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
However, a growing number of Australians — including former attorneys general, prime ministers and High Court justices as well as leading Indigenous political and academic figures who have worked for the think tank I head — fear the Voice would introduce a far-reaching body into the Australian constitution. To the extent this is correct, far from being a modest change, the Voice would set a precedent that could profoundly affect the efficiency of our nation’s governance.
Australia’s parliament and government would be obliged to consult the Voice on any matters that overwhelmingly affected the Indigenous people. But the critics say this would ultimately be window dressing, or a hugely expensive and divisive act of virtue-signalling by those who are seeking to bring this about.
As the Prime Minister himself told Garma last year, if the Voice said something should be done, only a “brave” government would defy it. If the critics are right, what’s to stop future governments from using the Voice as a wedge to drive into Australian society? Is that how constitutional representative government works?
Since Federation of 1901, the constitutional settlement has served Australia well: we are one of the world’s most prosperous and successful nations. So, the critics should be taken seriously when they say the Voice could be very disruptive to our nation’s future governance. It is especially scandalous to enlist something as central to the culture of all Australians as sport to try to force through this great social and political change.
Simply put, the question is highly contentious; while sport is not, and should not be. The moment politics seeps into sport it becomes not merely divisive, but toxic. The latest polls show just how divisive the campaign for the Voice will become. The proposal still enjoys majority support — 53 to 38 per cent — but about half of that support is soft, and if the federal Liberal Party come out in opposition, the majority is likely to shrink significantly before the referendum.
The sporting codes should bear all this in mind before they advocate for the Voice. What may seem like a decent and obvious proposal for recognition could turn out to be a bitterly divisive issue in coming months. Or put it this way: how would each of the individual sports codes function with a formal alternative board in their governance reflecting the views of Aboriginal people, without whose elaborate consultation they could not advance or develop their sports? Ponder that. It could end up with each sport having two governing bodies, possibly each in conflict with the other. But that is just what might happen to Australia’s parliament.
The rank stench of moral hypocrisy hangs over my favourite sport. If the NRL is genuinely sincere in tackling disadvantage in remote communities, such as Alice Springs and western NSW, why is the game beholden to the alcohol and gaming industries? And why does my team, South Sydney, still take sponsorship money from Crown Resorts?
Australian democracy was healthier when politics at the footy was limited to fans booing and jeering politicians, who mingled with players before or after the game. This was essentially a bipartisan obligation: the public does not want politics and sport to mix. Who can forget Gough Whitlam copping some old-fashioned mob hysteria at Brisbane’s Lang Park in 1974? The Labor PM and Labor Senator Ron McAuliffe, then Queensland Rugby League chairman, did the ceremonial coin toss before the league Test match. Whitlam, who pretended to have been shocked by the extent of the booing, turned to McAuliffe and said: “McAuliffe, if I had known how unpopular you were in your home state, I would never have agreed to come here.”
But now the administrators want to use their authority to give political lectures to other Australians. The intellectual and cultural elite want to make them moral spokesmen. And the Prime Minister wants to issue edicts to the sporting codes.
The losers are the many Australians who would rather support their teams as a respite from work and the other divisions of our normally polarising political and cultural life. As the late long-time US senator Orrin Hatch once argued: “Even in our most divided times, there have been places we could go to escape the partisan clamour — places where we could leave politics at the door and come together as one, including sports arenas.”
The constitutional issues surrounding Indigenous Australians are real and long overdue, and there is much to be said on both sides of the matter. This year’s referendum will be, and needs to be, fiercely argued.
However, the broader point is that in this era of political polarisation, sport should bring us together, and not be used to stir up heated political fights. Can’t fans just enjoy sport without political interference?
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, which will host a debate on the Voice on April 4. https://www.cis.org.au/event/does-australia-need-an-indigenous-voice-to-parliament/