Friday 23 Oct 2020 | 12:53 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Oct 2020 | 12:53 | SYDNEY

Political football, the Australian way


Graeme Dobell

6 October 2011 17:42

To express the zeitgeist and schadenfreude of Oceania this week leads to only one topic – football.

Australia didn't really engage with the tax summit in Canberra because its attentions and emotions had been spent on the two grand finals at the weekend. Concurrently, the rugby fest thunders along across the Tasman, an event which produced Rodger Shanahan's excellent rumination on the geopolitics of the World Cup.

This column is also wending its way to a moment of foreign-affairs-meets-football magic: a true classic of Kevinism, when K Rudd carried the Foreign Minister's burden into the wilds of Papua New Guinea. Context is all, however, and there is a fair bit to wade through before we come to an inspired moment of oratory and crowd participation in a far-off village.

Australia is blessed by four codes of football. So it is possible to offer a judgment about the central forces at the heart of each code. For all the athleticism and skills of the players, the central purpose of Australian Rules is to be found in the crowd and what the game means to its supporters and viewers (that is why they tinker with the rules so much).

For long periods, soccer is a creature subject to the command and control of the coach/manager (over to you, Sir Alex). The discipline and pain of Rugby League – with its rare moments of exhilaration – mark it as a game often turned inward, run for the players. And for all its world-girdling ambitions, Rugby Union has been captured by the referees. Following Rodger's thoughts about the role of the minnows in Union, perhaps small nations get a better go in a rules-based environment dominated by an independent ump (IR theorists, please discuss).

The dominance of the man with the whistle is an old complaint in rugby but the pain doesn't ease. Consider the latest column in the Oz Spectator by Mark Latham:

Rugby Union used to be known as the game they play in heaven. On the evidence displayed at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, it is now best described as the game the play in nursing homes: inert, boring and disconcertingly close to death...In Rugby Union, the rules are structured for the benefit of referees.

Cop that tackle.

The two grand finals in Oz in Sydney and Melbourne at the weekend show that the old sectarian (Catholic-Protestant) divide may have faded but the differences over Rules and League still beat with religious passion in the far corners of the wide brown land. One of the many things separating Kevin Rudd from Julia Gillard is that they come from different sides of the divide. Gillard is passionate about Rules; Kevin is from Queensland so League was stamped on his birth certificate.

League was one common understanding between Rudd (QLD) and Howard (NSW). When Rudd shadowed Howard so effectively to snatch the prime ministership, he played the League game to State-of-Origin level: constant discipline, make every tackle, never drop the ball, occupy the minutes and the ground, then grind and grind. 

Gillard's political problem may be that she can't adopt her Oz Rules sensibilities to the structures she inherited from Howard and Rudd. She is not playing her natural game. This is a woman who took an Aussie Rules football to the White House and showed Obama how to handball. She just hasn't managed too many of those moments on home soil.

The usual understanding of the religious divide is that Rugby League holds sway in only two of the six states: Queensland and NSW. In fact, if a strange Cabinet debate in Canberra in the 1960s about Papua New Guinea becoming the seventh state had taken a dramatically different course, there'd be another rabidly League entity inside the Commonwealth.

So it was many moons ago that an Australian political leader of note, Andrew Peacock, was once mightily upstaged by a mere Oz journalist when flying around visiting the PNG provinces. 

Peacock flew into the Highlands and emerged to receive polite applause from the large crowd gathered to greet the Big Man from Canberra. Moments later, one of the accompanying journalists, the ABC's Sean Dorney, appeared at the door of the plane. At the cry of 'There's Sean!' the whole crowd erupted into ecstatic cheers and shouts of joy echoed across the tarmac.

Sean Dorney is a great correspondent, but he attained another status altogether in PNG because he played as the captain of the PNG Rugby League national team, the Kumuls. As Andrew Peacock later observed: never fly anywhere in PNG with Sean Dorney. It's one thing to be tormented by journos, but you don't want to be trumped by them!

Acknowledging the League-Rules divide in Australia and the place of League in PNG sets the scene for Kevin Rudd's football moment in Moreguina village in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea last Saturday. Here is a transcript of The Kevin addressing the village, with the added benefit of the call-and-response description of the crowd responses: 

Now my friends, which of you enjoys Rugby League? Everybody? Which of you has been watching the NRL back home? The great national tragedy in Australia is that my team, the Broncos, are not in the final. Do we have Broncos fans here? (Crowd yells yes). This is a very good village. So we’re going to have an NRL final with no Broncos – that is a bad thing. But given that we’ve got Manly and given we’ve got the [New Zealand] Warriors in the grand final, we’d better back Manly. Are any of you supporting the AFL? There’s a big game on in Australia as well. Who’s supporting Geelong? (Silence) Who’s supporting Collingwood? (Silence) I’m glad to see it’s a Rugby League village! 

While Kevin Rudd was at Moreguina, Julia Gillard was at the MCG in Melbourne cheering for Geelong. No wonder journalists keep writing about differences between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.

Photo courtesy of the White House.