Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The left’s problem with rugby

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Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

While a euphoric mood has swept large parts of the country since the RWC final win, not everyone has been celebrating – especially parts of the political left. Was the World Cup, as some on the left claim, a “bread and circuses” distraction for the masses or could it be a lost opportunity for progressives?

Conservative political columnist Liam Hehir has written an interesting account of the capacity for rugby to unite New Zealanders, transcending the usual dividing lines and offering a social cohesion that is not readily found in our society – see: New Zealand united by our national religion. Hehir believes that with South Africa’s apartheid days behind us, we may now enjoy rugby “free of political baggage”.

He argues we can celebrate and enjoy sporting prowess, putting aside worries about problems in New Zealand: “These days All Blacks tests can – and should be – something to be enjoyed in blissful ignorance of outside contentions. And so those who find themselves disappointed with the social, political and economic state of the nation can take heart. We are rugby world champions once more.”

Joe Bennett vividly expresses a similar sentiment about the religious nature of rugby in New Zealand: “Like most of the country I set the alarm for five in the morning. I wanted to attend the quadrennial service of national coming together. The congregation might be scattered, but it would worship at a million conjoined electronic altars” – see: Victory elevates All Blacks to national aristocracy

Leftwing opposition to rugby

In contrast to the political right’s easy embrace of rugby, the left has long had a problem with the national sport – mostly as a reaction against the dominance of sport over more urgent political issues. This is expressed best in Donna Miles-Mojab’s Suffocating dominance of sports in NZ is serious threat to Kiwi culture. She says that the obsession with the All Blacks “is distracting us from paying enough attention to the important social, economic and environmental threats that face New Zealand.”

Similarly, Martyn Bradbury’s complaint is perfectly captured in the title of his blog post – see: Great – the All Blacks win RWC – can we get back to far more important issues now. He writes: “Yay! We’re best at a game barely anyone else plays! If only we could put in the effort for 305 000 kids in poverty that we do for rugby. We can ‘feed the backs’ but we can’t ‘feed the kids’.” 

For a veritable roll call of all that the left finds difficult about rugby culture, see Steven Cowan’s blogpost, One nation under Richie, and that other guy. He cites the All Blacks intensely corporate front, “media generated Rugby World Cup hysteria”, increased threat of domestic violence following a major loss, and the co-opting of All Black achievements by politicians.

 

Unlike Hehir, Cowan believes we are being sold a myth about national unity and, instead, a “fake and fundamentally reactionary nationalism (is there any other kind?) has been foisted on us by the corporates and its media allies” intent on papering over important social divisions in pursuit of the dollar.

A “wet blanket” approach from the left?

Gordon Campbell argues that the RWC victory shouldn’t be taken so seriously when few other countries take an interest in the sport – see On Rugby mania. He says “While New Zealand treat rugby as a national religion no one else – apart from (maybe) South Africa, Wales and a few small Pacific nations – have ever taken to the game with anything like the same enthusiasm. In sum, we excel at something no other country cares as much about. While we may be the world champions, we’re shouting down an empty well.”

In fact, according to one academic study, a ‘Silent majority’ of Kiwis are not into rugby. Rodney Hide responded to this with Silent majority? Yeah right. He suggests that the academic survey research was based on less than robust methodology – ie what appears to be the opinions of the researcher’s friends and contacts. 

Others thought that the academic concerned – and, perhaps, the wider anti-rugby milieu – was being a “wet blanket” – see Steve Braunias’ parody, Secret Diary of The Rugby World Cup final

The biggest parliamentary challenge over the RWC was over pub opening hours, with many on the left opposing the liberalisation of drinking regulations. In the end the worries and predictions of bad behaviour turned out to be largely misplaced – see the TV3 report, Seymour: Kiwis responsible, not infantile and David Farrar’s NZers were responsible

Public relations consultant Mark Blackham argues that the controversy over pub opening hours revealed a disturbing picture of how some in politics view the public: “In the world of our misanthropic elite, ordinary people are automatons, nudged like a Savea shoulder charge into open bars to get drunk and beat each other up” – see: RWC doom merchants are misanthropes.

Rethinking the left’s orientation to rugby

The left’s relationship with rugby in recent decades has been immensely fraught and conflicted. Much of this stems from the way rugby was used in the past to drive a wedge and divide society for political gain – most notably in 1981.

The Springbok tour was an enormously hard time for people on the left to support rugby and it has cast an extraordinarily long shadow over rugby in this country. To this day it is hard for many on the left to countenance any love of the sport.

Must this always be the case? A must-read post on the leftwing blog The Standard begins with the observation “1981 marks the point where – for good reason at the time – the left ceded the idea of sport to National”. The post goes on to question the left’s attitude and asks: Is it time for progressives to love rugby?

The post does an excellent job of expressing the antipathy much of the left has for the sport: “We hate it because it’s full of mean-old competition, winning and losing, and injuries. We hate it for its pervy sexism, male media dominance, and macho muscle over mind. We hate it for its self-glorification, commercialisation, and wealth focus. We hate it for its patriotism, corruption, and taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies. We hate its regulated violence, alcohol dominance, and sheer meaninglessness.”

Yet the writer suggests that a “glass half-full” approach might be better for the left: “We could love it for the proud communities that sustain the clubs…We could find who among the athletic elite are also Progressively inclined… Recognize that actually sport is as good as education for class mobility… Actually, sport can be a unifying community force for good.”

The post concludes with the reminder that “Sport is where the common people are, as well as the elite. Until the left learn how to love sport as well as the right, we will continue to cede massive territorial ground before the game has started.”

In addition, see my blog post, Some thoughts on the politics of rugby in 2015. I argue many of the reasons given for taking an oppositional stance to rugby are either no longer relevant or rapidly being eliminated from the game, and against the implication that being a rugby fan renders you unable to critically evaluate the world around you in a way that other hobbies – eg attending jazz and film festivals, renovating an old villa or walking the Heaphy track – do not. 

Similarly, writing in the Herald today,Paul Thomas argues, “Those who continue to portray rugby as the arrowhead of a thuggish, misogynistic, pakeha culture are oblivious to the game’s thriving multiculturalism and willingness to engage with all sectors of society” – see: Stand up and be proud NZ – we’re doing great

For a very thoughtful take on the evolving (positive) character of the All Blacks, see Russell Brown’s The good guys

Someone else with a view on the All Blacks who is always worth a listen is John Campbell. He appeared this week on the BBC’s Today Programme – listen to his interview from the 1h:44 mark, in which he declares if he was prime minister of New Zealand he would ban football and make rugby compulsory for boys and girls. See also, Campbell’s column, Richie has already rewritten the history books.

On the The Crowd Goes Wild last week, Hayley Holt surveyed Jacinda Ardern, Laila Harre, Carmel Sepuloni, James Shaw, Phil Twyford, Kris Faafoi and Grant Robertson in an endeavour to prove to Mark Richardson that “the centre left love rugby more than anyone”  – see: The Politics Crowd Goes Wild (for rugby). Co-host Mark Richardson remained unconvinced, but did express a sudden desire to vote for Jacinda Ardern, in a nod to another sport-meets-politics controversy. 

Loving the All Blacks too much

Of course, admiration for the All Blacks can be taken too far. Matthew Hooton pleaded recently for the PM to Leave Richie McCaw alone (paywalled): “No doubt the captain understands that test-match dressing room visits from Helen Clark and now Mr Key are inevitable and is suitably detached from the fawning of politicians not to be embarrassed about it. But the politicians should be. Don’t they see how cringe-inducing their behaviour is?  How ridiculous it makes them look? How potentially damaging it is to the All Blacks as a unifying symbol?  And how demeaning it is to the status of the important political roles they hold?” 

Naturally Key did no such thing. In Rugby mania, Gordon Campbell says it was like watching the PM become a real life “Tim the superfan” from the Mastercard TV commercials, but more disturbing.

The PM’s omnipresence, particularly in the dressing room, has raised more than a few eyebrows, and led Danyl Mclauchlan to wonder “if any other ‘iconic’ New Zealanders have ever been co-opted for a political party’s propaganda to the degree that Richie McCaw has?” – see: Adventures in political iconography.

Depending on your perspective, the PM’s devotion to McCaw is “really quite sweet” (Judith Collins) or completely over the top. Collins said to Paul Henry: “having had the odd selfie with Richie McCaw, and a bit of a cuddle, you can never get too much of that, frankly” – See: Prime Minister John Key ‘adores’ All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Henry replied: “Yes, but yours are odd selfies, whereas it appears John Key is living with Richie McCaw” – see the original video: Judith Collins, Annette King politics wrap.

The PM’s “bromance” with McCaw is satire gold. Scott Yorke features a guest post from Richie McCaw on A special relationship. McCaw writes: “He also loves to text, and when I wake up in the morning I will usually find about twenty or thirty of his messages on my phone. Reading all those texts over a plate of weetbix is a great way to start the day.” 

Arise Sir Richard 

A New Zealand Herald editorial claims that, in contrast to Australians, “New Zealanders can hardly wait to see titles bestowed on their homecoming All Black captain and coach” and that “the country missed the titles during the nine years after Helen Clark’s government abolished them in 2000” – see: Kiwis OK with knighthoods

But Herald columnist Brian Rudman couldn’t agree less, believing we are Trapped in a time warp with Queen’s honours. He writes: “With British royals about to process around the country, Labour and Green party leaders rallying behind Prime Minister John Key’s plan to award All Black skipper Richie McCaw a knighthood, and the referendum over a national flag pending, it’s like I’ve woken up in colonial New Zealand circa 1915.” 

Rudman says on becoming PM Key offered royal titles like “confetti to all those who’d missed out on the top title during the Clark years. It was like a Moonie mass wedding, with more than 70 knights and dames created overnight.” He hopes McCaw’s previous rejection of a knighthood is also a rejection of an antiquated honours system, but isn’t counting on it.

Just as well, it would seem, as Key is confident that McCaw is not philosophically opposed to the honour but simply waiting for retirement before accepting – see: Richie McCaw may accept knighthood when he retires says John Key

The same report indicates the offer may not be extended to McCaw’s team mates: “When asked if Dan Carter would be offered an honour, Mr Key said he was a great first-five and it was a shame he was leaving the country.”

Key will also be flattered to see himself compared to McCaw in Audrey Young’s naming of the All Black equivalents amongst our politicians – see: Here they are – All Blacks of NZ Parliament. She names Key at open-side flanker – “Not as popular as Richie McCaw but has the same level of commitment and competitiveness to the game, leading by example with no let-up from start to finish. High level of intelligence not always apparent behind common demeanour. Like McCaw, has the ability to engage in dirty play but clever enough not to get caught.” 

Not to be outdone, Labour was quick to honour the team, with Audrey Young reporting Trevor Mallard asks Steve Hansen to consider another Rugby World Cup run. Young reports “Mallard also said New Zealand was finding Hansen’s humour “very, very special.”

The Labour Party and the Greens have also been forced to defend their backing of a knighthood for McCaw, with both parties arguing that they are simply supporting an appropriate honour under the existing system. Labour says “its support for knighting All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw does not equate to a vote of support for the honours system” – see Isaac Davison’s Support of McCaw knighthood ‘not vote for honours’

That said, Labour clearly does not intend doing anything about the system. As Tracy Watkins points out “Labour deputy Annette King’s cool reception on Tuesday to suggestions Labour might revive that policy is all we need to know. Just like the flag, there doesn’t seem to be much of a groundswell of public support for scrapping them. Labour has sniffed the wind and knows this is one fight not worth buying. And certainly not if it means raining on Richie McCaw’s parade” – see: Scrap Knighthoods? Not while Richie’s around.

Finally, it’s worth reading some of the wonderful satire about the RWC, all of which has political angles – see David Slack’s Obituary of John Key, died April 1, 2016, Scott Yorke’s Right thinking: All Black’s gesture a terror ploy and, best of all, The Civilian’s Nation starting to realise that nothing happens after winning World Cup. And for visual satire, see my blog post, Cartoons and images of the Politics of the Rugby World Cup

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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