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Political football

  • Written byBrian Leadbeatter
  • DateThu, 02 Jul 2020

There are connections between footy and federal parliament stretching back over 100 years.

Both sports have claims to be the premier choice of our politicians.

But AFL or NRL?

The Member to unwittingly initiate perhaps the greatest ruckus on this subject in the House of Representatives was Dame Enid Lyons, in 1948. In her book Among the Carrion Crows she recalls asking what seemed to be a rather innocuous question at the time. It was in relation to a promotional film about Melbourne produced by the Department of Information for distribution and viewing overseas. Dame Enid asked '…if, in future productions of the kind, the Australian national game could be presented in shots showing some of the spectacular high marking which was its principal feature, instead of the feeble fumbling for the ball which had been shown in this film'.

New South Welshman, former Rugby Union player and keen follower of that game, Prime Minister Ben Chifley, rose to answer the question with, according to Dame Enid, only the shadow of a smile. Chifley said '...The Honourable Member is on dangerous ground describing Australian Rules as the national game. At least half the House would be prepared to debate that point with her.' This brought loud cheering from New South Wales and Queensland Members from both sides of the Chamber, and an answering barrage of objections from Victorians, Tasmanians, West Australians and South Australians.

The history of both football codes stretches back over more than 100 years.

In Melbourne in 1908, a ten-day carnival was staged to celebrate the jubilee of Australasian football, and incumbent Prime Minister Alfred Deakin shared memories of his youth, playing Australian football, firmly aligning our nation’s leader with the southern code.

Meanwhile, in Sydney in 1908, Rugby League kicked off in Australia, and from the outset a number of Federal and State Labor Party identities moved quickly to align themselves with the new game for the working man. The first club to form was Glebe and their patron was the local Federal member and future Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Across town former Prime Minister Chris Watson became foundation patron of the club that shared the name of his electorate – South Sydney.

There have been a number of PMs since who have adopted sporting teams in an attempt to boost their popularity. Perhaps the least convincing of these ‘supporters’ was the Italian suit wearing, antique French clock collector Paul Keating. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2009, Phillip Coorey declared '...Paul Keating's brief flirtation with Collingwood when he needed to broaden support for his leadership push was a disaster. So was Keating's attempt to congratulate the retiring league great Steve "Blocker" Roach, by noting how he had "kicked a lot of tries for Balmain".'

There have been many genuine footy fans amongst our Prime Ministers, too.

AFL supporters to occupy the Lodge over the years include long term No 1 ticket holders for the Carlton Blues, Sir Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser, and more recently Julia Gillard, who enjoyed number one ticket holder status of her beloved Western Bulldogs. Sir Robert did not even pretend to be a fan of Rugby League, let alone understand it. He told this anecdote after seeing his first Rugby League Test, Australia v Britain, in Sydney, 1962.

I told my hosts 'I read the rules of this strange game last night but there are some points I don’t understand.' They immediately offered to make me the referee!

So, AFL?

Not so fast. There have been plenty of rugby league supporters, too, notably St George tragic John Howard, and perhaps surprisingly Bob Hawke, who adopted the Canberra Raiders as his team during a golden period for both the club and himself in the 1980s and early 1990s. Malcolm Turnbull was cock-a-hoop about his beloved Sydney Roosters, while Manly-Warringah had the whole-hearted support of Tony Abbott and rewarded him by making him their No. 1 Ticket holder.

So, NRL?

Well, in 2020, the momentum seems to be in its favour with Prime Minister Scott Morrison a rusted on supporter of the Cronulla Sutherland Sharks. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Mr Morrison was a familiar figure in the crowd for their home games at Shark Park. On the other side of the chamber, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is equally passionate about the South Sydney Rabbitohs, and was one of the many thousands who marched in support of the club in November 2000 after it had been expelled from the competition.

But then there are the ‘vice-captains’, both AFL tragics; Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, is another in the long line of high profile politicians with a love of the Carlton Blues, while Deputy Leader of the Opposition Richard Marles is an avid fan of the Geelong Cats.

So AFL or NRL? The bounce of the ball turns things around very quickly, and despite the argument going on over many long years, there is still no clear-cut winner.


Brian Leadbeatter is the former Volunteer and  Museum Experience Coordinator at MoAD.