Will Sport Be A Major Player In This Year's Election?

14/04/2016 3:44 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Fairfax Media

You know it's election season when our well-heeled, stuffy politicians start heading to sporting fields and professing their love, knowledge, or lack thereof, of Australia's favourite sporting codes. Australia is a sporting, sports-loving, sports-mad country, and politicians often see connecting to the sports as a way of connecting to the voters.

Often, it doesn't go quite the way they hope.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, most often described as sophisticated and upper-class, is a rugby union man through-and-through, having played for Sydney University in his schooldays; but he has recently been out and about professing his love and admiration for our other main footballing codes, rugby league and Aussie Rules.

"Sport is a metaphor for life," Turnbull declared on a visit to the Penrith Panthers NRL facility last month, the venue he chose to announce his controversial and short-lived plan for the states to collect income tax.

"It creates the values and the ethos upon which communities thrive: hard work, perseverance, teamwork, innovation, agility."


Turnbull later described rugby league as "an inspiration to generations of young Australians ...It provides a shared identity, it is a great community game, a great grassroots game".

Australia's sporting landscape is cut-throat, with bitter lines drawn between codes and their supporters; you're an AFL person or a rugby league follower, a soccer fan or a rugby nut, but you can't often be more than one at a time. Having hitched his wagon to the 13-a-side game in such prominent fashion, Turnbull needed to spread the love. He did so on Thursday, travelling all the way to China -- CHINA -- to profess his love for the aerial ping-pong game we know as AFL, and to announce that the Port Adelaide club would play a game in China in 2017.

"I think as we all know, and I say this as a former mediocre rugby player, AFL is the most exciting football code," Turnbull gushed, later calling the code "our national football game".

The most exciting game? Our national game? Huge call, especially with numerous swing seats in league-mad NSW and QLD.

"An enormous field, extraordinary athleticism, it is the leaping, jumping flying game, where the big men fly, as they say, and where possession is everything, possession is everything. It is a game that moves faster than any other, so exciting," Turnbull continued.

After union, league and AFL, we're now eagerly anticipating an announcement about how soccer is the embodiment of innovation, excitement and limitless potential.

But both sides of the political spectrum are looking to the sporting world to help them connect with the common voter, and we'll be seeing more of it in the coming weeks and months as we build toward a federal election. With a number of swing seats around the country in working-class areas, the leaders will be working until the final whistle to claw those voters to their side, and connecting through sport may be the key.

Just last month, Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten addressed a Parliamentary Friends of Rugby League meeting in Canberra. These 'parliamentary friends of...' groups are usually filled with backbenchers and those who have a little more time to spend on non-political matters, but the leaders of both parties turned up for this one to make speeches.

Such is the power of sport in this country.


Shorten with Melbourne Storm star, Billy Slater

"There's not too many people born and raised in [Sydney's] eastern suburbs who have the guts to stand up to their [rugby] union mates, break out and barrack for the Roosters," Shorten ribbed Turnbull, referencing his support for the silver-tail Sydney Roosters side.

Shorten spoke fondly of his support for the Melbourne Storm, revealing he had just become a member of the club. The Labor leader admitted Labor is often more associated with AFL than NRL, and trying to bridge that gap to connect with rugby league fans will no doubt be on the agenda for his election campaign.

Turnbull hasn't exactly had a lot of luck trying to click with the rugby league crowd, judging from his appearance at the 2015 NRL Dally M awards, variously described as "cringeworthy" and "awkward".

But Turnbull and Shorten are far from the first leaders to use sport as a way of connecting to everyday Aussies, or the first to get a less-than-favourable reaction from the fans. Australia's Prime Ministers have a proud history of attempting to show their sporting prowess, knowledge or love, and most have fallen on their faces in some immortal political moments.

Who can forget John Howard having a go at cricket?

His successor, Kevin Rudd, had some more skill with the bat and ball, staging an impromptu game of cricket in a Parliament House courtyard, for some reason:

Howard gave rugby league a crack back in the 90s, sinking a XXXX tinnie with Broncos captain Kevin Walters in the dressing sheds after the 1998 NRL grand final:


Remember Tony Abbott being booed at the NRL grand final in 2014?

Moving on to AFL, Kevin Rudd tried to convince us he was a Brisbane Lions man:

While his successor, Julia Gillard, was a well-known Western Bulldogs fan, even getting an AFL footy into the White House and having a pass with Barack Obama:



And those are just the recent ones. We won't bore you, but have just a few more all-time classics. First, the best reaction GIF of all time, with John Howard reacting after a Socceroos win:

And Bob Hawke just demolishing this beer at the cricket:

We'll see more of this through the election season. Get ready for kickoff.

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