The separation of sport and politics was always nonsense. Sports rorts go to the heart of Australia as a sporting nation. Our identity, self-image and values are all wrapped up in sporting activities, achievement and dramas.
So too, increasingly, are our politics and economics. One of Scott Morrison's favourite and most effective public personas is the ordinary sports fan. He used this to great effect during last year's federal election campaign.
The sports rorts affair, which led to the resignation of former sport minister Bridget McKenzie, raised many real concerns about propriety, ministerial responsibility, political campaigning, government program delivery and the role of the public service in policymaking. The whole affair was an excellent tutorial on aspects of Australian politics, much of it problematic and degraded.
Sport and politics are joined at the hip in many ways. Sport creates celebrities, whose involvement in national debates focuses attention and sometimes shapes outcomes.
Think bushfire recovery for a start. But also think freedom of religion, disability, drug culture, mental health, gender equality, personal values and individual behaviour, racial politics and Indigenous advancement.
Individual sportspeople can embody these issues. Think Adam Goodes (Indigenous affairs), Margaret Court and Israel Folau (freedom of religion), Samantha Kerr and Ellyse Perry (gender equality), Dylan Alcott (disability), Nick Kyrgios, David Warner and Ashleigh Barty (personal behaviour). They all personify and represent different social dilemmas and causes.
But there are different faces to sport. One - along with the arts and recreation - is integral to the wellbeing of local communities. Many local community identities are deeply involved in sports. Most of these local sports, run by volunteers, are financially needy. This is where the power of state and federal sporting grants, dispensed through the parliamentary government process, comes in; both in a benign and discreditable way.
We can look in a mirror and admit what a mixed bag we are as a nation.
The other face is elite sport as a big business and a national obsession, culminating in the performance of our individual competitors and teams on the international stage. These events include various World Cups, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and events like the Australian Open tennis championship.
This face of sport is about national success and failure, massive broadcast deals, network television coverage, and governments building vast stadiums and financially supporting teams. All of it is tied together by professionalism at the elite level.
It is the world of national sports federations, like Tennis Australia, government departments and agencies, like Sport Australia, and thousands of sports administrators. This is a world of great responsibilities and rewards, damaging organisational cultures and enormous pressures. Much of this is imposed by wider societal demands and expectations.
The McKenzie affair linked these two faces of sport: the struggling local community clubs and the struggles between politicians, departments and national sports administrators. Senator McKenzie imposed herself for political purposes at the national level in order to ingratiate herself with local sports clubs for electoral advantage.
My television sporting summer was focused on tennis. Let's use the Australian Open, run by Tennis Australia, as an exemplar of the sort of sporting politics found across the Australian sporting world. It culminated last weekend with victories in the men's and women's singles to the Serbian champion Novak Djokovic and the young American Sofia Kenin.
The face of Australian tennis as big business was the relatively little-known Tennis Australia president, Jayne Hrdlicka. She is typical of the high-profile public leadership found in national sporting bodies. American-born and educated, the former chief executive of Jetstar and a2 Milk addressed an international television audience with carefully cultivated messages. Standing alongside her business sponsors, including the primary commercial sponsor Kia cars, she spruiked an attendance of more than 800,000 people, making it a successful commercial production.
She also responded to world concern about Australia's bushfires by talking up the $6 million raised during the event, much of it by players and spectators, to support the recovery and to spruik the bigger national tourism message that "Australia is open for business".
The most controversial social issue that Tennis Australia managed to navigate successfully was to celebrate the achievements of tennis great Margaret Court, who has a major arena within the Melbourne Park complex named after her, without endorsing her anti-homosexual and anti-same-sex-marriage public statements. TA brokered a fragile compromise by honouring her tennis achievements while openly rejecting what she stands for, because tennis aims to promote social inclusivity. The compromise survived, although it was rejected by outspoken American tennis stars Billie-Jean King and John McEnroe, who broke ranks with officialdom to criticise "Australia's crazy aunt" while unofficially unfurling a banner proclaiming "Evonne Goolagong arena", after the great Indigenous star of Australian women's tennis.
Big sport like the Australian Open is a complex mixture of an aggressive nationalism, which hinders as much as helps our representatives because it piles such enormous pressure on them to succeed, and a projection of national aspirations for a better Australia. The latter project was largely successful.
Ash Barty, the Young Australian of the Year, following many other sportspeople who have won such awards, exemplified quiet and admirable determination as the women's world No. 1. Dylan Alcott, the brash and effusive commentator and wheelchair tennis player who won his sixth Australian Open and tenth major, was an effective role model. So too was the mercurial Nick Kyrgios, who played a leading role in bushfire recovery generosity while thrilling fans and playing hard to the best of his ability.
Sport and rorts both reflect our national character. We can look in a mirror and admit what a mixed bag we are as a nation.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.