The Joy of Six: politics and sport

When Australian sport originated in the mid-19th century it was dominated by the wealthier classes who enjoyed what American economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, termed in 1899 ‘conspicuous leisure’ time – that is the capacity to expend time in pursuits with no material gain as a type of public display of their elevated social status. To spend a whole day playing cricket on Saturday while a proletarian punched out boot soles was as demonstrable a symbol of social class as wearing a top-hat.

Despite these origins, sport was able like no other institution to endorse the idea of cohesion across classes, albeit under the watchful eye of Australia’s pre-eminent citizens. The European revolutions of 1848, the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, and the importation of Chartism into Australia worried some respectable quarters of the Australian establishment and sport was seen as part of the panacea, a social salve.

However, once it became a mass participatory phenomenon in Australia from the late 19th century as shorter working-hours were won, issues of class and politics would conflict, often spectacularly, on the sporting arena. We’ll run through in no particular order some of the events and political identities, both weighty and hilarious, which have impacted the Australian sporting landscape.

1. Sport and conscription

The battle over conscription was one of the bitterest chapters of Australian history, with every element of Australian life sucked into its vortex, including sport.

Australian rules football was under almost constant siege from jingoists for being a distraction to enlistment as was rugby league, as a recruitment poster from the period suggests. Under this pressure, many sporting codes and clubs wound up their competitions or participation for short periods, but not all.

Following the defeat of the 1916 conscription referendum, the VFL demurred to military authorities in 1917, allowing them access to grounds in order to boost recruitment. The move was not welcomed however by crowds at Brunswick Street Oval who forced Lieutenant Maskell to vacate the ground. At Victoria Park, Sergeant Durand had to abandon his speech amidst a hostile audience, while at South Melbourne Sergeant Kilpatrick was forced to leave the ground under threat.

In South Australia, Port Adelaide defied the SAFL who abandoned the competition in 1916 in order to boost recruitment. Port proffered instead to continue playing football under the provocatively named Patriotic Football League and continued to organise games between teams in industrial suburbs. During this period Port held their meetings at the Adelaide Trades Hall.

In Sydney, Frank “Chunky” Burge – a New South Wales rugby league representative on 18 occasions, 13 game test player for the Kangaroos and Glebe legend – lent his car to the anti-conscription cause in 1916 and again during the 1917 state election campaign.

2. Menzies frenzy and his Bentley

As a supporter of the Blues since his Melbourne University days, Robert Menzies learned the importance of sport. Under his prime ministership, he would not attempt to introduce conscription during the second world war (although he supported it for the 1914-18 conflict and reintroduced it for Vietnam) nor to scupper the VFL season.

The first blue-blood to become a number one ticket-holder at Carlton in the 1950s (but certainly not the last), Menzies sat amongst the hoi polloi in the 1945 “bloodbath” Grand Final between Carlton and South Melbourne. When Ken Hands was laid out with an uppercut, Menzies stamped his foot and shouted his multi-syllabic protest: “That was atrocious.” To which a nearby Blues fan noted: “For once I agree with you Bob. That was bloody murder.’

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The Bloodbath Grand Final of 1945 as witnessed by Robert Menzies.

During the state election campaign in 1947, Menzies spoke on behalf of a Liberal candidate at Collingwood Town Hall. According to Argus football writer, Hugh Buggy, Menzies’ pronouncement that the Liberals would win the election was greeted with guffaws. When he added the rider that Carlton would win the Premiership “a blast of hooting swept up the hall and crashed around the stage. This was over the odds – rank heresy, treason, disloyalty in the nest of the Magpies”.

But evidently mixing it with the proletariat took its toll and by the late 60s he opted to view games from his Bentley perched on a special ramp constructed for him at Carlton’s home of Princes Park.

3. Chooks and Springboks

When the South African rugby union team toured Australia in 1971, they were met with opposition from anti-apartheid protesters and union bans across Australia. TAA and Ansett workers refused to carry them, South African planes were refused maintenance, bans were placed on South African mail, the players were banned from clubs and hotels in Adelaide, while in Melbourne wharfies went on strike for a week over the tour.

In Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen called a month long state of emergency in support of the tour, which in turn prompted a 24-hour strike by 40 trade unions. “The chook feeder” premier would describe the furore surrounding the tour as “great fun, a game of chess in the political arena” and a political crisis which put him “on the map”.

But while it may have put Bjelke-Petersen on the map, it was also the last South African rugby tour until 1994.

4. The Silver Bodgie

Bob Hawke’s ability to throw down a yard glass in record time earned him enormous political capital and a Guinness Book record, but the man given the moniker of the Silver Haired Bodgie for his voluminous and well-groomed shock of hair was also a keen follower of sport.

When everyone got on the bandwagon of a sport we’d never heard of but had a chance of winning in 1983, Hawke got on nice and early. By the time we’d won the America’s Cup the Bodgie’s mood – buttressed by amber fluids – was avuncular and levelling. Like his frank confession that he had been a womaniser, Hawke’s proclamation that any boss who sacked a worker for not turning up post the America’s Cup victory was “a bum”, went down the electorates gullet nice and smoothly.

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5. The Bankstown Mahler

Paul Keating may have come from humble stock but his tastes were positively patrician. Antique clocks, Gustav Mahler and busts of Marat were mixed with a brawling, Bankstown bravado in parliament.

Keating’s many talents, however, didn’t extend to sport. Keating hopped on the Collingwood train in 1989, member 101, in order to advance his leadership credentials before plunging the knife into bodgie. Max Gillies suggested Keating chose the Pies because he thought Peter Daicos could teach him to kick heads from impossible angles.

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The political dalliance wasn’t popular with a smattering of Collingwood members and then Collingwood President, Allan McAlister, felt obliged to even the ledger by inviting Andrew Peacock to dedicate the new president’s room. When John Howard – not the actor who played Geoff Haywood in David Williamson’s The Club but aspiring PM – was invited as a special guest of the Collingwood Football Club in the lead up to the 1996 federal election, Don Watson noted it hurt Keating who was still a member.

6. The Man of Steel

Australia’s second longest serving prime minister delivered some quality exertions over his tenure, none more impressive than his 2003 Rugby World Cup presentation to the victorious England team. With a face like a slapped arse, Howard reluctantly handed over medals like a first born. The BBC described it as a “churlish display”, presumably in order to sour the world on the greatest nation on earth.

In 2005, the self-confessed and anointed cricket tragic” merged his favourite pastimes; his mastery of geo-politics and his love of cricket when he visited Pakistan, the dark hinterland of the Eurasian landmass. In a geo-political tour de force, Howard bolstered the frontline subjects, with a vanguard display of cricketing prowess.

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During the following year’s soccer World Cup, after years of chiding by Paul Keating, John Howard finally engaged in the world game from the comfort of what looked to be The Lodge commode, alongside some salty looking Australian PR wonks and advisers.

Postscript

Tony Abbott seems like he’s been preparing his whole adult life to show off the pugilistic skills he learnt in the mean, sandstone alleys of Oxford University, where grizzled professors and down on their luck Baronets lurked around every apse and dropped unexpectedly from double vaulted ceilings.

It was perhaps the penultimate training in preparation for a G20 test of strength with Vladimir Putin, considered by Abbott as soft and over-ripe owing to his rearing in a nanny-state, wet nursery.

Sadly for the world, the showdown never happened but Abbott’s penchant for trimming fat has never abated, except when claiming travel expenses for participating in sporting events – $1,444 for the Lorne Pier to Pub race, $1,002 for the Coffs Harbour cycle challenge and $515 for the Lake to Lagoon fun run. Pettifoggers have made a big deal about the outlays but minders have stated that this is some of the best value financial investment in Australian infrastructure ever seen.

*Originally appeared in The Guardian