A brief history of Australian Rules’ political scarf wearers and presidents

As the results of last week’s Morgan poll regarding preferred Labor leader showed, Julia Gillard is right on Kevin Rudd’s hammer.

When asked by some wag if she would be seeking the captaincy, Gillard postulated the chances of that happening were as likely as her playing out of the goal square for the Doggies. But as Rocket Eade has already suggested, if Barry Hall was moved to half forward…!  Young Gillard certainly reads the play well and knows what to do with the slipper — just ask Christopher Pyne.

In times gone by, Labor leaders have understood the relationship between political signals and football alignment. Paul Keating, who would much rather have been watching a Wagnerian opera than a football match, claimed to be a keen Collingwood fan, although his remark that he hoped Collingwood might score a try or two somewhat diminished his football credibility.

Mark Latham, squeezed out of the same political mould and state as Keating, made cameo television appearances in 2004, replete with his luminous Collingwood scarf, declaring his allegiance to the Pies. The Victorian Premier John Brumby is a genuine devotee of the Woodsmen, while former Labor leader Simon Crean was the former No.1 ticket-holder for the Shin-Boners.  Health Minister Nicola Roxon and Gillard, both Bulldogs fans, have designated themselves fully fledged daughters of the West.

But in this age of political triangulation, where Labor has assumed proletarian support to be locked snugly in the back pocket and where policy overtures are made toward “middle Australia”, Labor is encroaching on enemy terrain.

The No. 1 ticket holders at Essendon have included former Liberal leader Andrew Peacock and more recently long time Howard Treasurer Peter Costello. However in September 2009, Minister for Finance and Deregulation Lindsay Tanner knocked Costello off the perch — Bennelong style — to assume the mantle of top banana of Windy Hill.  But with Greens rookie, Adam Bandt, sniffing for selection in Melbourne, Tanner might need to consolidate the defensive aspects of his game.

The practice of political involvement with football clubs reaches back to the 19th century, and none will be surprised to learn of Carlton’s potted patrician pedigree.

The Carlton Football Club was established in 1864 by the Carlton Cricket Club, the members of which enjoyed bucolic sojourns to Victoria’s provincial centres where they enjoyed concerts, balls and shooting. Carlton’s first President was Chief Justice, Redmond Barry, whose other claim to notoriety was being the presiding Judge in the Ned Kelly trial.  More modern conservative figures associated with Carlton include Robert Menzies who had a special ramp constructed at Princess Park so that he could view Carlton games from the vantage point of his Bentleigh, and of course John “pig’s arse” Elliot whose mittens were never far from wads of cash.

Melbourne and the briefly existing University Football Club enjoyed similar demographics.  Run by the archly-conservative Melbourne Cricket Club, Melbourne in its early days refused to select “working men” in its teams, while University’s teams were largely populated by university students and followed by “the type of bloke” according to a South Melbourne fan “what cleaned their teeth and wore pyjamas.”

By way of contrast, Collingwood’s first President was W.D. Beazley, a former saddler and member of Melbourne’s Trades Hall Council (THC).  Also present at the meeting to establish the Collingwood Football Club on the 12th February 1892, was John Hancock.  Hancock had organised the boot-workers in 1891 and won the local seat to the legislative assembly that same year.  One of the early champions of an independent Labor Party, Hancock made common cause with other labour leaders like George Prendergast, who was described by the conservative Punch as a violent demagogue.  Prendegast was an ex-THC President, Labor member and also President of North Melbourne from 1902 to 1911.

Ricmond’s proletarian complexion was reflected in the football Presidency of Frank Tudor — another ex-THC president, supporter of Irish home rule and future federal Labor leader – between 1908 and 1918.  It was this close association between politics and sport in Struggletown which led Jack Dyer to assert that if you were born in Richmond there were two things you must do — vote Labor and barrack for the Tigers.

As in politics, so too in culture — Kevin Rudd plays a mean game of semiotics. Queensland might not be the vanguard state for progressive politics in Australia but luckily Kevy understands the value of attending football matches, and that pulling out a Brisbane scarf — albeit one Elna pressed to perfection with Nappi-San iridescence — is part of shoring up his parochial credentials, or at least blunting his uber nerd profile.

Will the fortunes of Labor this election year follow Collingwood’s red-hot form and augur a victory for the true believers, or will there be a Richmond like sweeping of the Augean Stables?

*Originally appeared in Crikey