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League finally learns to kick with right

Valuable politician: John Howard is revered at St George.

Valuable politician: John Howard is revered at St George. Photo: Jim Rice

RUGBY league, historically aligned to the Labor Party, is set to benefit from a pre-election strategy to embrace the Coalition, while the AFL, wedded to the ALP for more than a decade, will lose influence in Canberra.

The new ARL Commission-Liberal courtship has already paid off, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledging $12 million during the election campaign for a Panthers community and sports centre, $10 million for an upgrade of Brookvale Oval and $5 million for the Broncos to expand their training grounds.

Two weeks ago, the AFL staged a semi-final at Geelong's recently renovated boutique stadium, partly with the hope of attracting more funding from the incoming Abbott government. It was rebuffed.

Julia Gillard was honoured as the Western Bulldogs No.1 ticketholder.

Julia Gillard was honoured as the Western Bulldogs No.1 ticketholder. Photo: John Woudstra

But the AFL benefited from the taxpayer during six years of Labor rule, with generous grants, including stadium upgrades nationally.

Rugby league won some funding under the Gillard/Rudd governments but this was mainly as a result of the influence of former deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese, one of the few remaining Labor powerbrokers with loyalties to a code once called ''the working-class game''.

Albanese, a lifelong Souths supporter, lobbied to hand the Rabbitohs $16 million for a new training headquarters at Heffron Park and helped then minister Tony Burke to secure $4 million for the further redevelopment of Belmore Sports Ground, in Burke's electorate.

Anthony Albanese puts up another bomb.

Anthony Albanese puts up another bomb. Photo: Andrew Meares

ARLC chief executive David Smith sniffed the political wind months ago and invited then shadow treasurer Joe Hockey to speak at a July boardroom lunch attended by key business figures.

He also engaged lobbyists Crosby Textor Research Strategies Results to advise on research undertaken.

Lynton Crosby, the co-owner, works for British Prime Minister David Cameron and was recently in Australia during the visit of London mayor Boris Johnson, where he remarked on the close AFL-Labor alliance. The other half owner, Mark Textor, is the Liberal Party pollster.

While the ARLC has not yet asked Crosby Textor to lobby for federal government funding to match that which flowed, under diverse budgets, to the AFL, the relationship between the lobbyists, the political party and the sporting code is expected to grow.

Smith's predecessor David Gallop, who is now head of the FFA, points out his sport appointed Crosby Textor as a consultant well before the ARLC, an appointment probably promulgated by FFA chairman Frank Lowy, who can outmanoeuvre even the AFL when it comes to having taxpayers pay the bills.

However, Smith did initiate the formation of the Parliamentary Friends of Rugby League groups in Canberra and Brisbane, ironically with the assistance of Chris Brown, the son of Labor's former federal sports minister John Brown.

These associations of state and federal politicians of different parties with a common interest in rugby league died during the Super League war and have been reformed.

In fact, on the day of the second State of Origin match, the federal group played touch football on the lawns of Parliament House at 7.45am, attended the launch at 10am and the Labor members adjourned that evening for the ballot, which led to Kevin Rudd returning to The Lodge. Albanese and Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce played touch football and new Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Liberal MP John Alexander attended the launch.

Essentially, Australia's two biggest football codes have switched their historic political loyalties.

Rugby league was closely tied to the ALP since its inception, with its first full-time official, Ted Larkin, resigning in 1913 to become the member for Willoughby, the first seat won by Labor on the north side of the harbour. Two years later, he died at Gallipoli.

Prominent Labor figures H. V. Evatt and Sir William McKell were fierce advocates of the code.

The AFL, on the other hand, enjoyed the patronage of Sir Robert Menzies and a letter has recently surfaced where another Carlton-supporting prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, thanked the Blues 1979 captain-coach for keeping his government off the front pages of the Melbourne papers.

In recent years the AFL Commission has appointed Labor-leaning board members, such as former ACTU boss Bill Kelty and Sam Mostyn, once head of the Office of the Status of Women in the government of Paul Keating.

Former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello is prone to call the AFL ''the Kremlin'', although the commission includes Liberal-leaning directors, such as Rio Tinto's Chris Lynch.

While Andrew Demetriou insists his code is ''politically agnostic'', his close ties with Canberra, including his central position at the February ''blackest day in Australian sport'' national press conference, have produced a different perception.

Meanwhile, rugby league has drifted from its relatively recent past where it was identified with the right wing of the ALP.

Former Labor ministers and powerbrokers such as Graham Richardson, Laurie Brereton, Doug McClelland and son Robert, Stephen Loosley, Kerry Sibraa, Ben Humphreys and Brown, have all been passionate league supporters.

While rugby league has always maintained a connection with the Coalition - former prime minister John Howard is revered at St George - the code's new leaders felt alienated by Labor, particularly with the constant message Canberra viewed its administration as incompetent and inferior to the AFL.

Now, with a new government, rugby league is striving to change that perception, while the AFL may well paper Liberal headquarters with grand final tickets and invite deputy chief executive Gillon McLachlan - nephew of arch conservative powerbroker Ian - to take Demetriou's job.

8 comments so far

  • Just gives me another reason to dislike St George. Sadly, the League smarties might get a few greasy dollars but it will do little for the families and communities that are the heart of Rugby League. League's player will still come from the poorest communities in Australia that the Liberal Party largely despises and disregards. For example, the Liberal Party's elitist education policies that provide huge benefits to private education will do little for our public education which most League players and their families attend.

    Commenter
    Warren Ross
    Location
    Katoomba
    Date and time
    September 21, 2013, 7:21AM
    • Agree totally Warren, until league is played in private schools and brought back into all state schools this is just a marriage of convenience. League is the working class game and always will be! In QLD it is alarming the number of state schools playing AFL and this has been happening through both sets of governments over a long period of time.
      Roy I really don't understand your obsession with politics in league now, get back to what your good at and write about the game

      Commenter
      Whatwouldiknow
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 21, 2013, 9:17AM
  • And with a PM and federal treasurer who are both Sydney boys, may the trend continue. Perhaps Tony Abbott could prevail on the ARLC that if they want more federal largesse, they should allow preliminary finals games to be played again at suburban grounds?

    And isn't it about time that the man who has been promoted above his station, Mr Todd Greenberg, was sacked over the Barba cover-up?

    Commenter
    Craig
    Date and time
    September 21, 2013, 8:59AM
    • Didn't we leave the Tories with Rugby Union? It suits their fat, soft bodies.

      Commenter
      Yeah right
      Date and time
      September 21, 2013, 9:04AM
      • What a bunch of whinging tossers "warren, what..& yeah" are!

        Rugby League players and supporters come from all sections of the community rich and poor. and what's the definition of "working class" ? for me it's someone who works....I never worked harder than when I had my own business.

        Private education gets more/as much funding because it's enrolments are increasing while public schools are decreasing.

        And if you think the Labour politicians are really interested in the poor part of town have a look where your ex Prime Ministers are living. Paul Keating in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, Bob Hawke in Sydney's lower North Shore and according to the SMH Julia Gillard has recently bought a $1.5 million house in Adelaide. All of them now multi millionaires and I'm sure rarely seen in the poor parts of anywhere.

        Sports funding is like any form of funding...It's whatever suits the local candidate/member/party at the time.

        Commenter
        Steve D
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 21, 2013, 9:53AM
        • Always remember little Johnny Howard in his ARU tracksuit at night watching the Rugby or cricket then up in he morning doing his walk.Did he sleep in it? Never saw him in St George attire or at a game except for getting booed at grand finals.At least Julia went to some of her Bulldogs games

          Commenter
          Don
          Date and time
          September 21, 2013, 11:14AM
          • Roy, it has everything to do with which state the PM and senior officials represent. Fraser, Menzies and Gillard were Victorians and so AFL was favoured. Howard and Abbott are from Sydney and so favour the NRL. It's as simple as that.

            Commenter
            Stephen
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 21, 2013, 1:27PM
            • Two men and dog at the finals, a big club like Saints can't pay the rent, a bigger club like Parra a shambles, Balmain Magpies broke, State of Origin a one-sided bore, refs can't ref, pointless rule changes every 5 minutes, dumb bogan players with no personality or loyalty, repetitious 5 tackle kick, 5 tackle kick, 5 tackle kick with no contest for possession, token "scrums" , endless delays after every try for a video ref that still gets it wrong half the time, soulless franchise teams...the list goes on.

              Face it the game is slowly dying - and good riddance. Real Rugby League died years ago anyway..

              Commenter
              NRL = Not Rugby League
              Location
              Part of the Union now.
              Date and time
              September 21, 2013, 3:27PM

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