Their body politics

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2015, Malcolm Turnbull made his first sporting appearance as Prime Minister at the Dally M Awards, the black-tie night for the working-class game. It should have been home turf. Turnbull is a long-time supporter of the Sydney Roosters – the closest to a silvertail club in the code, but really just the local rugby league team in the Eastern Suburbs where he grew up. But something went wrong for the Prime Minister; and News Ltd, Fairfax and SBS all settled on the word ‘awkward’ to describe his performance at the event.

There was modest but perhaps surprised applause as host Tony Squires called Turnbull to the stage. Squires thanked the Prime Minister for coming, and Turnbull – with seemingly genuine bonhomie – responded ‘that it is great to be here’. There was silence, so Squires asked a chatty question about the Roosters. Fatally, the Prime Minister turned pundit. ‘The Roosters had very bad luck,’ he said of their defeat to the Brisbane Broncos in the first preliminary final. ‘I thought that was a very good pass, Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s pass, it just went to the wrong person. There’s a lot of luck in rugby league, and there’s a lot of luck in politics. Ah, I mean Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s long pass was intercepted by Darius Boyd, and then Ben Hunt did a similarly – well not quite so long a pass, more of a Harbour Bridge pass – and of course set up a try. So it’s the result that counts, Tony, that’s all that matters.’

Turnbull proceeded valiantly, but he tried too hard and had already lost the crowd. The television coverage caught the bemusement on the faces of Johnathan Thurston and others. Then eyes glazed over, and eventually Turnbull retreated to his table to negligible applause.

Since his ascendency, the currently trim and muscular-looking Malcolm Turnbull has – for an Australian Prime Minister – had unusually little to say about sport. They are not a fit. In only one speech has Turnbull employed a sporting metaphor, when in October 2015 he likened leadership in the sciences to the ‘sailor [who] adjusts his or her course in a sailing race [by] constantly trimming the sails’. There has been none of John Howard’s misty-eyed invocation of sport to talk about the ‘essence’ of Australia. Turnbull, when he lets himself loose, prefers Sydney-centric narratives of a self-made nation. And unlike Tony Abbott, the intimate proportions of Turnbull’s own body, its real or potential athleticism, are absent from his self-presentation. There has been no Lycra, no boxing gloves and no budgie-smugglers.

Turnbull is not unfriendly to sport. He attended the NRL and the AFL grand finals, and as per tradition he’s hosted the Prime Minister’s XI cricket match, but unlike Abbott, Howard and Hawke – unlike even Gillard and Rudd, the one-time number-one ticket holders for the Western Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos respectively – Turnbull has only tentatively drawn upon the prestige and public popularity of sport. And in turn the sporting community looks likely, from forward estimates anyway, to be getting comparatively little from the Turnbull government. Direct federal funding – as distinct from state government spending on stadiums and school sports and council maintenance of grounds – will fall from $349 million in 2015–16 to $341 million in 2016–17. It will fall even further in 2017–18, to $298 million, as several capital expenditures end. And noticeably, Turnbull (and Scott Morrison) chose defence spending on submarines in Adelaide over responding to persistent calls to fund a new football stadium in Townsville.

he exercises, he kayaks, he body surfs. His appearances in the fourth-grade rugby team at Sydney University more than thirty years ago (Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were both second-grade regulars) were enough for him in 1978 to meet the criterion that a Rhodes scholar show ‘energy to use one’s talents to the fullest, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports’. But if we accept for the moment that the Australian prime ministership is still a ‘masculine’ office – and unfortunately the disrespectful treatment of Julia Gillard seems to have underlined this rather than disproved it – Turnbull is an interesting instance, like Keating, where sport is decentred from the Australian political narrative and from the self-fashioning of a ‘man of reason’, that is, a man suitable for high office.

Hawke, Howard and Abbott all incorporated sport into their prime ministerial personas – they self-fashioned as sportsmen (especially Hawke), as fans or sporting administrators (especially Howard), or as athletes (especially Abbott). Some of the most famous images of these men involve sport, or at least exercise: Hawke’s spectacles exploding into his face when struck by a cricket ball while batting; John Howard’s brisk morning walk; Tony Abbott, with his puddle-duck gait, coming out of the surf in his red Speedos. Yet Turnbull, in manifesting an equally convincing persona of hegemonic masculinity, draws upon an alternative repertoire of symbols, narratives and gestures.

Personas are best when they have an authenticity to them, a history or a logic. Turnbull’s resumé – head boy at Sydney Grammar, a pugilist at the Bar, corporate consiliari to Kerry Packer, high financier (including director of Goldman Sachs) – can be promulgated or can be read as the inhabitation of a form of masculinity associated with social and economic domination. This is a narrative of propinquity to power, and the eventual claim of it through the prime ministerial office; it is a representation best developed by journalist Annabel Crabb in ‘Stop at Nothing’, a 2009 Quarterly Essay that she’s recently updated and published as a book through Black Inc.

For the public, it is a representation of Turnbull that sanctions him for some functions of office but undermines him for others. How can welfare or social policy be left to a man sometimes criticised by his opponents as being nothing more than the power-hungry, born-to-rule child of privilege? The emotional deprivations of Turnbull’s mother leaving him and of his father sending him off to boarding school at the age of twelve are never quite integrated into this account of his privilege.

Instead, the narrative of Turnbull as plutocrat is more usually leavened by a parallel narrative of him as a rationalist innovator at the helm of a contemporary meritocratic technocracy. This narrative emphasises Turnbull as the founder of OzEmail. Tony Abbott went so far as to say Turnbull ‘virtually invented the internet in this country’. This idea gets taken up again in Turnbull as the refashioner of the National Broadband Network, as the Prime Minister who emphasised innovation in the moment he claimed the office, and as the centrist who commands a fifth column of climate-science believers inside the Coalition government.

Where is sport in this? In some sense, the other aspects of Turnbull’s life are so rich and useful in the construction of an identity suitable to political life that they make the sporting Malcolm irrelevant. Turnbull is the first Prime Minister since Hawke to be able to fashion a narrative external to his political career. But to note sport’s irrelevancy to Turnbull is to see how widely other Australian prime ministers have used sport. Sports fandom has been offered as a form of authentication as a ‘proper’ Australian (an egalitarian impulse). Personal athleticism has been offered as the embodiment of an exemplary masculinity appropriate to high office (as a way of elevating oneself). And, finally, the selection of particular sporting narratives has been used as a proxy politics to arbitrate questions of Australian cultural history and identity.

IF THE FOOTAGE of Bob Hawke nearly losing at eye at the annual Parliament versus Press Gallery cricket match in 1984 is too painful to laugh at, the twenty-one seconds of vision from 2005 of John Howard bowling a sticky ball to a local boy in a pick-up match in Dhanni, Pakistan, is a joy to behold. It is impossible not to give into schadenfreude as Australia’s greatest cricket tragic and, in a sense, our greatest cricket propagandist fails three times to bowl a tennis ball covered with sticky tape. Instead, Howard can barely get it out of his hand and onto the pitch. Later he faces up to two balls to little effect before retiring hurt, limping away. These moments, like Barack Obama’s ceremonial pitch in ‘mom jeans’ at the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game, underline significant risks for the politician when seeking to perform as an athlete or sportsman. Ridicule, like that heaped on Boris Johnson after he knocked down a ten-year-old boy in a touch rugby match in Japan last year, is always just a fumble a way.

Luckily for John Howard, he seemed genuinely delighted to mostly just sit back and cheer Australia on. His green-and-gold tracksuits became iconic: not least for the photograph of him celebrating Australia’s first goal against Croatia in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. He is up out of his chair, arms aloft, surrendering unselfconsciously to the joy of the moment. Recently, I have seen similarly unselfconscious celebrations of England’s progress at the Rugby World Cup by the princes William and Harry, but John Howard seemed happy to turn up anywhere Australians were playing in almost any sport: cricket, rugby union, rugby league, tennis and, of course, the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

Howard took on the role of fan-in-chief as though it was a given role for the leader of the government – rather than one more suitable for the Queen or the Governor-General as heads of state. The slippage here between John Howard as the private citizen, as leader of the government, as avatar of the Australian state (as a structural polity), or as avatar of the Australian nation as a people becomes acute. Mostly, these slippages are unproblematic, but occasionally underlying politics come into view. This could be seen on a grand scale at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Several scholars have written on what the government sought in the way of nation-building and political favour through the staging of a global sporting event – particularly through the narrativisation and projection of Australian identity in the opening ceremony. As Catriona Elder explicates in Being Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2007), in the ceremony Nikki Webster, representing ‘young Australia’, re-dreams the nation, conjuring up its story for the world: the making of the waters; the coming of Indigenous Australians; the fires of the land; the arrival of the British; the welcoming of postwar migrants; the transformation of the continent; and the rise of our distinctive life in the suburbs and by the surf. Yet more than anything it is the stockman that is at the centre of ‘her’ story. The visually seductive telling of the legend of the bush displaces the telling of our more difficult history of Indigenous dispossession. Despite a very large Indigenous participation in the ceremony, the colonial account focuses on white experiences.

John Howard’s celebration of Bradman as his greatest Australian – I presume just pipping Menzies, about whom Howard published a book in 2014, The Menzies Era (HarperCollins) – has a similar effect as the Olympic opening ceremony in foregrounding a masculinist version of white middle Australia. Don Bradman was an extraordinary batsman. Some commentators claim that he was not only the greatest cricketer of all time, but by virtue of having a test batting average almost double that of any batsman before or since, that he is an outlier in all sports – effectively, the greatest sportsperson of all time. This is a question for the pub. More interesting here is the way the iconisation of Bradman, in some sense his political use, leads us back to a particular version of Australia, Australian values and the Australian story.

Howard’s, and in some sense the nation’s, veneration of Bradman reached its peak in 2000 with the prime minister’s delivery of the inaugural Bradman Oration. Established by Cricket Australia just a year before Bradman’s death as a way of marking the significance of cricket in shaping Australian life, the oration allowed Howard to imply that to speak of Bradman is to speak of the nation. For Howard, Bradman is ‘a man representing many of the values, much of the character of his countryman…talent determination, commitment, fair play, honour’.

In Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Brett Hutchins explores the political effects of this elevation – but concurrent narrowing – of Bradman into an icon. Howard’s Bradman erases the cricketer’s sectarianism (he was a Mason who had cool dealings with his Catholic teammates), his inflexibilities as a cricket administrator who resisted professionalisation of the game despite his own outsized profiting, and perhaps even his capacity for unfair play as seen in the scandal over a catch in the 1946 Brisbane test match. Instead, Howard loses himself in a narrow nostalgia that constructs both Bradman and the nation in exemplary terms.

The social and cultural potential of looking back to 1949, to when Howard, a ten-year-old boy, saw Bradman bat (just as the great man was retiring from the game and just as Menzies was coming to power for the second time) might have been used later, when prime minister, in order to decentre rather than reinforce the white consensus of Australian history. Rather than giving into a misty-eyed and triumphal version of the Australia of his childhood, Howard could have used his and our interest in Bradman (and Menzies) to recast the story of the nation. Instead, Howard’s exclusion of the mixed news about Bradman – and it is not terrible news by any means – echoes Howard’s resistance to what elsewhere he reductively termed the ‘black-armband’ accounts of Australian history. Where one might applaud historians or cricket biographers for adding to the diversity of stories of the nation and of its peoples, Howard senses treachery. For Howard, sport – whether it be his experience as a ten-year-old in 1949 watching Bradman at the SCG, or his leap into the air in 2006 as sixty-seven-year-old prime minister in a green-and-gold track suit – often seems to be employed in the recuperation of an idealised world of his childhood.

OF AUSTRALIAN PRIME ministers, probably only Julia Gillard’s body has been as remarked upon as Tony Abbott’s. For Gillard, the problem seemed to be that she had a body at all. Even feminist allies were happy to deride it; Germaine Greer thought Gillard’s ‘big arse’ was a problem she needed to manage. But if Gillard’s best political tactic was to hide her physicality and foreground her administrative skills, Tony Abbott is remarkable for his embrace of the obverse. Abbott was forever placing his body at centre of our gaze.

While Hawke sometimes offered himself for public eroticisation in a tiny pair of Speedos, and while Harold Holt was ominously snapped in a wetsuit, there are hundreds of photographs of Abbott in swimming briefs – or togs, as I call them. Mostly, he is associated with the red budgie-smugglers of the Queenscliff Surf Club, but as BuzzFeed established in an Abbott listicle, the former prime minister has been snapped in many different pairs: red, blue, black and striped. Tony Abbott has a fine body, particularly for a man his age; it is muscled, tapered and trim. But one can go further. Should you let your eyes linger upon Abbott in swimmers or in bike pants, you can make out the outline of his genitals. These seem unremarkable – about the usual size – and their components seem to clump together in a familiar way. These are normativised and normativising genitals, but they draw symbolically upon the ‘youthful’ body to which they belong. Unlike Donald Trump, who felt compelled to provide verbal assurance that his penis is of a suitable scale for the Oval Office, Abbott’s openness about his body leaves no need for further utterance about his capacity to lead and serve.

In many ways, Abbott’s display seems nothing more than the expression of a casual, sport and surf-orientated Australian way of life – less mockable than Keating’s presumption of Italian-cut cloth. But the situation of Abbott’s body is available for other readings. In Masculinities (Allen & Unwin, 1995) RW Connell suggests that the exemplary male body, particularly when deployed in institutionalised sport, embeds ‘definite social relations: competition and hierarchy among men, exclusion or domination of women’. For Connell, ‘bodily performance’ settles ‘gender relations’ – ‘thus men’s greater sporting prowess has become a theme of backlash against feminism’. I must confess to, at times, buying into the competitive ordering of male power that seems present in both Abbott’s and Turnbull’s physical self-presentation. Abbott’s body, Turnbull’s voice, Abbott and Joe Hockey’s pursuit of the rough-house sports of rugby and boxing, the well-cut suits of all three men, sometimes draw me into competitive social relations where for a moment I stop to think how I measure up, whether I could take them in a fight, whether my voice could, like Turnbull’s apparently does, mesmerise Annabel Crabb. Effectively, when not alert to its social construction, I am hostage to their performance of particular postures of dominant masculinity.

But then, when one stops for even a moment to think, you can see the downside to these forms of self-presentation. Like Vladimir Putin’s staged mastery of judo, ice hockey, arm wrestling, indoor climbing, motor racing, scuba diving and bobsledding, Abbott’s masculinity always seems ready to steeple over into self-parody, into an unconscious camp. This, of course, happened when Tony Abbott threatened to ‘shirt-front’ the Russian leader over the downing of Flight MH17. Later, when the two men met at the G20, Abbott had to walk his threat back. For Tony Abbott, it seems that being a man takes commitment to, or is an expression of, a set of tightly binarised roles and social relations that reduce certain actions to either men’s business or not. Abbott was rightly angry, but he seemed to believe that to appear strong in dealing with Putin he needed to threaten violent vengeance.

That said, one of the paradoxes of Abbott’s performance of a hyper-masculine athletic self is the way it is accompanied by a messiness around the role of women in his life. His body is unusually available for the female gaze, although, according to a survey of my close family, his body is rejected, sometimes with revulsion, by many women – even conservative voters. He has been accused of misogyny by Julia Gillard, of physically threatening a woman when he was a student, of condemning women to do the ironing. Yet he has also been accused by journalist Niki Savva in The Road to Ruin (Scribe, 2016) of ultimately being dependent on, and emasculated by, his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, when prime minister. The cumulative effect of all these splits in his identity and splits in our perception of Abbott is to see his athleticism as a polar representation – to see it as an unintegrated performance of masculinity that can only be understood by also considering what it leaves out. It reminds us that while powerful, sport and athleticism in Australia are only partial metaphors for what it is to be a man.

MY OWN PREFERENCE for a narrative of Malcolm Turnbull is one where sport has little part – its metaphoric role negligible. To me, instead of being a sports fan (drawn to transcendent excellence) or an athlete (who embodies masculine strength and capacity), Turnbull seems like a throwback to the Australian premiers of the colonial period: a time when politicians were from the rentier class and engaged in the simultaneous direct domination of politics and capital. Then, the metaphors and symbolism of sport were less important. While Empire was still a master metaphor, the political class exercised and experienced power through direct material control.

Engagement in sport was a pedagogical mode left behind on the playing fields of secondary school.

Turnbull is not so powerful that he is entirely free from the burden of self-fashioning for public life. Since his elevation he has forsaken his remarked-upon leather jackets, which gave him a metropolitan touch, has switched to lighter-coloured spectacle frames and seems to have settled upon orange as the preferred colour for the prime ministerial tie – perhaps a more ecumenical choice than Abbott’s fifty shades of blue. And sport is still a small part of his performative repertoire. In March this year, Roy Masters, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, surveyed the authenticity of both Malcolm Turnbull’s and Bill Shorten’s commitments to various football clubs and the competing codes. Seemingly this matters: Turnbull’s announcement in Shanghai in April that Port Adelaide would play an AFL premiership league game in China in 2017 was lambasted for his clumsy partisanship in declaring ‘AFL is the most exciting football code’.

If we snigger at Abbott’s camp performance of an exemplary masculinity located in his tireless athleticism, it needs to be noted how difficult it is for Australian politicians to get sport and politics ‘right’. Often at sporting events, the biggest boos and raspberries are not for opposing teams but for politicians who, even when attending as avatars for the nation, are perceived as present for their own political benefit. The public mostly supports government funding of sport. Likewise, they are happy for the nation to draw on sport for aspects of its identity. And they are also happy for sport to draw on the prestige of the political class. But where politicians are seen to seek the prestige of sport only for themselves, the public are ruthless. Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Abbott have all been booed.

It takes poise for politicians to get these occasions right. At the 2014 NRL grand final, Abbott took a chorus of boos from the 83,000-strong crowd particularly well. For a moment, as the boos rolled around the ground, his action-man stance broke down. He looked around, grinned and blushed. Eventually he gave the crowd a resolute wave of acknowledgement. But perhaps the best of these interactions – beyond Hawke’s quip after Australia’s America’s Cup win in 1983 that ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum’ – was John Howard’s after being kissed by a triumphant Kristian Sarkies following the A-League grand final in 2007. Howard is initially greeted with boos from the crowd, but this gives way to mirth when Melbourne Victory’s Sarkies’ rises onto his tiptoes to plant a kiss on Howard’s bald pate. They are caught mid-embrace by the photographers. Howard, in the dying days of his prime ministership, was as amused as anyone.

For Turnbull, the resistance of the sports community to his charm offensive began a bare two weeks into his term, at that Dally M medal event. At the top of the evening Matthew Johns, who for some reason has been resuscitated for public life despite his part in the 2002 Cronulla Sharks sex scandal, cracks wise as he acknowledges the new Prime Minister’s presence: ‘Distinguished guests and, of course, Prime Minister Tony Abbott,’ Johns opens. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, of course. It’s just so hard to keep up with you blokes,’ he continues. ‘And they reckon coaching’s cut-throat!’

It is, of course, partly a joke about the revolving door of high office in Australian politics over the past five years, but also partly, even in the mouth of a clod like Johns, a reminder that in Australia prime ministers come and go but sport – and sporting heroes – are forever.

25 May 2016

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review