Australians’ passion for sport is as intense as their eagerness to express opinions on politicians — often at sporting events. These occasions are a handy barometer of the national mood.
The way crowds react to political figures, whether with cheers or jeers, surpasses any focus group in offering a direct insight into the nation’s stance on current government policies and leadership. Consider the 1974 rugby league grand final. Then-prime minister Gough Whitlam’s reception by the crowd at Brisbane’s Lang Park alongside Labor senator Rod McAuliffe — jeers flung, and beer cans hurled — was not just an isolated incident of sports fans expressing displeasure. Whitlam shot at McAuliffe: “don’t you ever again invite me to a place where you’re so unpopular”. This scene was a precursor to the turbulent political events that led to his government’s dismissal the following year in November 1975.
The sporting encounters of former prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard further underscore the deep-seated link between sports and politics in Australia. Hawke’s memorable comment after Australia II‘s America’s Cup victory in 1983, that “any boss who sacks anyone for not showing up today is a bum” is etched in our national memory.
Howard’s 2000 Sydney Olympics moment, being lifted in jubilation by Australian athletes, also struck a chord with the public.
These moments of connection with the sporting public preceded their electoral successes in 1984 and 2001 respectively.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s recent mixed reception, including being booed, at the Australian Open (12 months earlier he was cheered) is testament to the volatile nature of public sentiment.
This fluctuating public opinion, as noted by Howard in his memoir Lazarus Rising, is a vital aspect of Australian politics: “It’s something of a tradition for some Australians to boo a PM when he walks onto the field to present a trophy or the like. The extent of it can be a wider sign. I had copped it from a section of the crowd at several NRL Grand Finals in the late 1990s. At the 2001 Grand Final, on the eve of the election, I was struck by the absence of hostility. It proved to be a good omen.”
This interplay between politics and sports in Australia, where public sentiment in sporting arenas echoes national political trends, underscores the need for leaders to have political resilience and a deep connection with the public’s mood.
Success in this realm varies and is often a reflection of how well leaders align with the public’s aspirations.
The coming Dunkley by-election in outer Melbourne, mirroring the 2001 Aston by-election of the Howard era, presents similar challenges for the Albanese government.
Leading up to the Aston by-election, the Howard government faced numerous policy hurdles, with the government responding with reforms to fuel indexation and business activity reporting. The leak of the now-infamous ‘mean and tricky’ memo, penned by then-party president Shane Stone, stirred significant controversy and media scrutiny, presenting Labor with a golden opportunity. However, Labor’s own missteps during the campaign shifted focus away from the Liberals’ internal issues.
Liberal candidate Chris Pearce’s effective campaign, coupled with strategic errors by Labor leader Kim Beazley, including his comment about Australians not being overtaxed, resulted in a limiting 3.5 per cent swing against the government.
Howard’s remark the following morning on ABC’s The Insiders — that the Liberal Party was “back in the game” — encapsulated the political turnaround. After five years in office there was still respect among the electorate for the Howard government.
In the current climate, Albanese faces his own challenges. His recent tax package announcement evoking comparisons to a leader jumping at shadows (or internal polling).
While Albanese is focusing his campaign on his modifications to the Morrison government’s ‘Stage 3’ tax cuts, Opposition leader Peter Dutton is concentrating his efforts on Albanese’s failure to fulfil an election promise.
The verdict from a crucial segment of the Australian electorate on the performance to date of the Albanese government will be revealed on March 2, which notably marks 28 years since the election of the first Howard government in 1996.
At this critical juncture in the electoral cycle, akin to the ‘premiership quarter’ in AFL, Albanese’s need for decisive action and strong leadership is more crucial than ever. Similarly, this period resembles ‘moving day’ in golf, where contenders make strategic plays to advance, while others fall behind. In this high-stakes scenario, it is essential for Albanese to elevate his game.
With Parliament set to reconvene and the Dunkley by-election approaching, time for campaigning is tight. This scenario ramps up the pressure on Albanese and his team to resonate with the broader electorate’s aspirations. Game on.
Andrew Blyth is the John Howard Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Tembela Bohle.