January 26, the date in Australia that rips off the public’s ‘loveable larrikin’ mask and shows how deeply divided the nation remains when it comes to choosing a day to celebrate.
Year after year there is an incendiary incident that spirals out of control to serve as a metaphor for how fractured Australia’s public conversation becomes at this time of year.
This year’s focal point: politics and sport.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made the bold statement that politics should be kept out of sport, essentially chastising Cricket Australia for having the audacity to suggest Australia has even a glimmer of a sinister past.
“I think a bit more focus on cricket, and a bit less focus on politics would be my message to Cricket Australia,” the Prime Minister said on 4RO radio station in response to CA choosing to drop reference to ‘Australia Day’ in their Big Bash League promotional material.
Toeing the party line, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt also labelled the move “disappointing”.
It seems ScoMo has conveniently forgotten all the instances he has mixed sport and politics or used sport for political gain.
The 2019 Prime Minister’s XI cricket match against Sri Lanka saw the Prime Minister pretend to be a water boy for the home side, likely in a move to bolster his ‘everyman’ image and appeal to his Liberal voter base.
Another cricket-related instance was at the height of last summer’s catastrophic bushfires, when Morrison’s popularity was at an all-time low.
Unsurprisingly met with considerable backlash, Morrison tweeted before Australia’s Test match against Pakistan that the team would give firefighters and fire-impacted communities “something to cheer for”.
An absolutely tone-deaf move, but a political move embedded in sport nonetheless.
Going to be a great summer of cricket, and for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer for.@GabbaBrisbane @CricketAus #AUSvPAK pic.twitter.com/iHF1mGPrAH
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) November 20, 2019
On a broader scale, sport and politics have always operated hand in hand.
Some of the best known and most politically charged moments in history have happened on the sporting stage.
At the height of the Vietnam War, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be conscripted into the United States Armed Forces. He was later stripped of his heavyweight title and boxing licence.
In 1963, Lloyd McDermott, the second Indigenous player to represent Australia in rugby union, refused to tour Apartheid South Africa as an ‘honorary white’ and withdrew from the team.
Eight years later, an all-white, racially selected South African rugby team toured Australia, causing widespread protests in every major city the team toured. The Springboks never toured Australia again until the end of Apartheid and were excluded from the first two Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991.
The 1968 Mexico City Olympics saw the capture of one of the world’s most iconic photos: two African American athletes holding a single, black-gloved fist in the air during The Star-Spangled Banner to highlight ongoing racial division in the United States.
The third person in the photo? Australian silver-medallist Peter Norman, who was wearing a matching human rights pin in solidarity with his fellow sportsmen.
More recently, we have seen Colin Kaepernick and several other NFL players take a knee in silent protest to the United States’ national anthem. Kaepernick kicked off the move in 2016 to show support for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour and raise awareness of police brutality in the States.
While sport has been used to make politically charged commentary on our pitfalls as humans, it has also been used to make positive political statements and show its ability to unite.
Think Nicky Winmar hitting back at racist spectators in 1993 with a simple shirt lift pointing to the colour of his skin.
In Western Australia, a bronze replica of Winmar’s famous stance now resides out the front of Perth’s Optus Stadium, cementing that sport holds no place for racism.
Think Cathy Freeman sporting both the Aboriginal and Australian flags after winning gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Freeman’s win has become such a staple of Australian history that we still celebrate it today – just last year Australia celebrated 20 years since Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike united behind the Kuku Yalanji woman.
These moments in history are imprinted into the public psyche because of their political nature, not despite it.
Regardless of their popularity or notoriety, sport and politics always were and always will be inextricably linked.
For Prime Minister Morrison and Minister Wyatt to think otherwise is not only lacking in leadership, but embarrassingly ignorant and short-sighted.
Whether we like it or not, sport is part of the fundamental fabric of Australian politics.
By Hannah Cross
Hannah Cross is Editor of the National Indigenous Times.