Why NRL Matters In The Fight For The Election Premiership

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Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison are going head to head this Saturday and a key beat of the election campaign has been character.

Both candidates are fighting for our vote at the polling booth and posing the question: who do we like more?

Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison’s personalities have morphed over the years as they’ve geared up for the top job but interestingly Morrison wasn’t always the ScoMo we know him as today: the NRL, curry loving bloke from the Sutherland Shire. In fact this persona aligns much more with Albo’s origin story.

“He was born with three faiths, the Catholic church, the Australian Labor Party and the South Sydney Rugby League Football Club,” Lech Blaine tells me as we discuss the core pillars of Anthony Albanese’s persona.

“He was the son of a single mother who was raised in council housing in Marrickville by his Mum who was on the disability support pension.”

Lech Blaine penned the Quarterly Essay Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power that looks at the myth of the larrikin as well as the importance of NRL as a class fault line in federal politics.

Anthony Albanese has loved rugby league since he was a child and that love stuck with him when he entered politics in 1996. A few years later South Sydney were kicked out of the league at the end of the 1999 season and Albanese became a major part of the campaign to get Souths back into the competition.

In fact Albanese was vocal in the parliament fighting against Rupert Murdoch who was rationalising the NRL at the time.

“It sounds a little bit trivial to anyone who doesn’t have a particular interest in sport or rugby league, but it was pretty out there for a politician at that point to really buck against News Corp in any public way,” Blaine said.

This outspoken bloke fighting for NRL was Albanese’s bread and butter.

Rugby is a class fault line across Australia as generally more traditional working class families support NRL and upper-middle class families support rugby union, and this can be traced back to the origins of the code.

NRL has roots dating back to 1895 when clubs in the North of England broke away from the Rugby Football Union because players wanted to be paid for their time away from work on rugby tours or when injured.

The Rugby Football Union said that “if men couldn’t afford to play, then they shouldn’t play at all” and this was the beginning of a class shift between the codes.

Rugby union is the arena where Morrison came of age.

Morrison grew up in Sydney’s affluent East Suburb of Bronte. His dad was a police officer who then later became a local mayor and he played rugby union. Morrison had jobs within the real estate industry and then ended up working for the Liberal party.

“So for all intent and purposes he was very different from Albanese in a lot of ways,” says Blaine.

“He was a rugby union fan and he didn’t have any stated affinity for rugby league at all. He had a resume which listed his sporting interests and that was the Waratahs in NSW, which is a rugby union team, Randwick locally, which is another rugby union team, and then the Western Bulldogs in the AFL.”

It wasn’t until Morrison was pre-selected for the seat of Cook which encompasses the Sutherland Shire, the heartland of the Cronulla Sharks, that he started to publicly support the Sharks and rugby league at large.

When the Cronulla Sharks won the premiership in 2016 he became their number one fan and started to fully emerge as the beer drinking, rugby league loving bloke that he’s modelled his prime ministership on. This was a conscious attempt to tap into the disillusionment within outer-suburban and regional areas where rugby league rules the roost.

Regional populations in NRL heartlands are quite a lot larger than others states, while Victoria has a reasonably large regional population, states like Queensland and New South Wales are much larger, and importantly the main religion in those regional populations is rugby league. So having a candidate that has an interest in the sport is important for many of these voters as we head to the polls.

The marginal seats both parties need to win in the upcoming election are generally rugby league seats and Morrsion, a union fan from the Eastern Suburbs, recognises this.

“I think through the use of this persona after becoming prime minister, Morrison really pitched himself towards a group of people who felt a bit neglected or that the media class or political class were disinterested in them.”

This ScoMo person has been focus grouped and it was a conscious attempt by Morrison to tap into tropes of Australian manhood and our greater obsession with sport.

Funnily, the crafted ScoMo personality has crossovers with Anthony Albanese’s real life story and Albo has almost veered out completely of the Aussie bloke persona as he’s geared up for the election.

If Albanese leaned heavily into his Albo persona Blaine thinks it would’ve seemed like he was copying ScoMo and perhaps it would have been Albo that would be accused of identity theft.

The game between the fibros and the silvertails has roots far greater than the turf its played on, and as d-day looms closer for both leaders it’s important to note how NRL is woven into the political game for the fight for the election premiership.