Karl Marx famously claimed that religion was the opiate of the people, however, many insightful sociologists have noted that things are different in Australia. For the Australian masses it is not religion but sport that truly reflects the sigh of oppressed creatures, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions and the fount of illusory happiness. Sport provides us with a sense of identity. It plays to our instinctive tribalism and gives us colours, songs, chants, ritual, rules, history, heroes and, most importantly of all, war. We march into battle every week and live vicariously through our players as they fight the opposing tribe. We willingly surrender our objectivity as we mercilessly harangue the referee. Every clear foul our side commits is outrageous hubris. Every dubious decision that goes our way is belated justice. These are the rites and rituals of Australian sport but what a crippling impact on democracy when this mentality is applied to politics.
Footy fan politics emerge when policy and debate give way to instinct and emotion. It is the domain of the unique species carelessly described as ‘rusted on’ voters but this tired moniker does not do the group justice. Political footy fans are not quiet, passive but committed supporters. They are the loud-mouthed, flag waving, chant singing, fight picking fanatics who feel every tackle, celebrate every goal, and wrestle daily with the agonising decision whether to wear their home or away jersey. Every time the other team heckle loudly in the House of Representative, the political footy fan jumps out of his seat, “Send him off Mr Speaker! He’s been doing it all day!” Whenever the home team is shining in question time with stinging retorts and pithy quips the political footy fan rejoices, “Oh year baby, that’s what I call a question without notice!”
The greatest occasion of all for political footy fans is, of course, the federal election. Like the Olympics or World Cup, it is the ultimate stage. After years of training, it all comes down to one final game. Beer in hand, the political footy fan is glued to the screen. We’re off to a good start! Oh no, they’re coming back. We’re doing well up the top of the park. Look at our forwards in Bowman! Our backs need to tighten up. Who is defending in Eden-Monaro? It’s wide open? As the clock counts down it is either despair or joy as the result becomes clear. Defeated but defiant, one side retreats with words of consolation. Victorious and jubilant, fans of the winning team party into the night.
It can be argued whether the footy fan mentality is a good thing when applied to sport. On the one hand, the passion and enthusiasm does create a wonderful atmosphere and a sports team can unite strangers and communities. On the other hand, there is a certain irrationality about the whole thing and it often leads to needless aggression, violence and hooliganism. When applied to politics, however, it is simply painful. Have you ever tried to have an intelligent, rational discussion with a political footy fan? You casually muse, “Well, I do think they are performing well on environmental issues but they are struggling to create a genuine alternative with economic policy.” You realise immediately you are dealing with a fan as the heated retort is angrily submitted, “What!?! Are you serious? No real alternative? Mate our mob are in another league. The other guys are hopeless on every issue. Our environment spokesman is our MVP but the whole team is strong. We’ll smash ‘em at the next election, you wait.”
The terminal problem with political footy fans is that political parties are inherently reactionary. Politicians must be reminded daily that they serve us, we do not serve them. They must feel compelled to prove their worth, to argue their case and to set out costed, considered policies. As soon as an electorate declares itself blue or red, politicians have clearance to ignore it. That electorate becomes the home ground, full of supporters, and the focus turns to winning away fans. The national interest gets lost without swing seats and swing voters. Political footy fans encourage parties to aim for 51% victories. Take the home crowd for granted and focus all your energy on strategically chosen swing seats.
The other reason political footy fans hurt democracy is because they lack, well, reason. They refuse to accept criticism of their team and hold an inherent mistrust of other supporters. Terms like ‘right-wing nut job’ and ‘tree-hugging lefty’ are used to immediately discredit opposing views before they have a chance to be heard or tested. Debate, discussion, open mindedness and the ability to be swayed by a superior argument are all hallmarks of free thinking people. These are the kind of people who make democracy great. Political footy fans are the opposite. Devoid of reason, they trade their political power for petty tribalism. They give up their democratic right to petition the government in exchange for illusionary happiness.
The Australian media is perhaps partly to blame for the rise of political footy fans. Shameless sensationalism and the twenty-four hour news cycle encourage the public to be Team Julia or Team Tony rather than independent critical thinkers. The cult of personality and party has encroached on the space once occupied by astute, non-aligned political observers. Perhaps the time has come to actively celebrate the swinging voter. Perhaps it is time to reject brand loyalty and to reclaim our position as the political masters, coolly reserving judgement, waiting for the best performers.
Are you a political footy fan? Have you only ever voted for one party? Here are a few quick exercises to keep your vote fresh and your mind open. First, why don’t you find one member of the opposing team (or a minor team) who you respect? See if you can do it. There must be someone outside your tribe doing a decent job. Secondly, find one policy by the other team that you agree with. Lastly, have a long think about what the other team could do to win your vote. Allow yourself to be seduced. Don’t think in terms of party and team. Consider what is important to you as a voter and determine that whoever performs best on issues that matter will win your support. If you can do all three, then congratulation, you are not a political footy fan.
With a few notable exceptions, we are currently watching perhaps the most timid, reactionary generation of politicians to ever serve this country. In a democracy, you truly get the government you deserve and it is time to demand better. The onus, however, is not on the politicians but on the electorate. We are the ones who need to lift our game. We will see big visions and policies that truly serve the national interest only when we demand them. Real leadership will come when our politicians look to the public and see they are not political footy fans but the referee.