IPA Today

Thorburn’s Cancelling Shows Politics Is Now Football’s Main Game

Written by
6 October 2022
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

The AFL prides itself on being a cultural and workplace leader – and unfortunately it is. What the AFL does today is what the government and society will do tomorrow.

If sport is life, then life in Australia is not in a good way.

The country and public life in the country has changed and has changed quickly. A decade of “diversity” and “tolerance” policies and slogans has made Australia less diverse and less tolerant. The country is close to becoming less recognisable by the day.

In the same week former NAB CEO Andrew Thorburn was forced to quit as the head of the Essendon football club in Melbourne because of his Christian beliefs, it was announced Haneen Zreika, a Muslim woman playing for Greater Western Sydney in the AFL, wouldn’t participate in an upcoming game because she would have been required to wear a jumper representing a perspective conflicting with her religious beliefs.

Certainly there are nuances to both episodes. Some Australians will look around and see places where Christians can’t work and Muslims can’t play a football. While it’s true that both instances involve the AFL, what’s happened is not very different to the discrimination meted out to people of faith by the NRL or Rugby Australia.

And in any case, the AFL is special. As hard as it is to believe given what it has become, Australian Rules Football was one of the great unifying forces of Australian society. It was where politics and religion were put aside for a game. Now the game seems to be secondary to the political message the AFL propagates to spectators before, during and after nearly every match.

What the AFL once was has helped make it the most powerful cultural institution in the country. More powerful than political parties, big business, trade unions or any civic or service association – and definitely more powerful than organised religion. During Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 when the Andrews government closed churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, the MCG remained open for the AFL to continue to play its games and satisfy the requirements of its sponsors and broadcasters.

The AFL prides itself on being a cultural and workplace leader – and unfortunately it is. What the AFL does today is what the government and society will do tomorrow.

What’s happened to Thorburn and Zreika reveals how public life in Australia is now hyper-politicised. The personal has truly become the political. Personal faith is no longer personal or private. What’s expected of people like Thorburn and Zreika is a public profession of adherence to the prevailing cultural and political orthodoxy. Neutrality is not enough. In Thorburn’s case not even his public support and championing of diversity initiatives when at NAB, irrespective of his personal beliefs, is enough for those who regard themselves as the arbiters of our cultural norms.

Thorburn is the volunteer chairman of City on a Hill, a network of Anglican churches. Its position on abortion and homosexuality sits firmly within the mainstream of orthodox Christianity – “human life begins at conception, marriage is between a man and a woman and sex should be confined to marriage”.

According to the Essendon president, those positions are “in direct contradiction to our values as a Club … I also want to stress that this is not about vilifying anyone for their personal religious beliefs, but about a clear conflict of interest with an organisation whose views do not align at all with our values as a safe, inclusive, diverse and welcoming club”.

It’s understandable a church would have a view on abortion. Why a football club should have one is less clear. The decline of religion hasn’t meant moral viewpoints are enforced any less vigorously than they once were. On the contrary, morality is now enforced everywhere, all the time.

The precedent has been set. To be the chief executive of an AFL club requires successful candidates to hold and espouse a view (and the correct view) on abortion and marriage.

In exactly the same way these days the CEO of an Australian public company must have and affirm the correct view on matters such as climate change and an Indigenous voice to parliament.

No doubt some people will welcome the developments in the AFL over the last few days as evidence of how diverse and tolerant Australia is becoming. Others will take a different view.

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John Roskam

John Roskam is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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