26 January 2023
Michael Mansell, an Aboriginal Elder from the Aboriginal Land council Tasmania and secretary of the independence movement The Aboriginal Provisional Government, has called for a ban on the playing of all sport on Australia Day:
‘Sporting bodies have a responsibility to take the lead. They shouldn’t be playing on January 26, any sport, they should get rid of the day.’
If we suspend the fact that this statement is tautological and take Mansell’s call for the ban seriously, we find that the discussion surrounding Australia Day, and the larger debate on Indigenous issues in this country, has bizarrely come to resemble the puritanical push of the Elizabethan period that sought to both restrict recreation on Sundays and abolish traditional holy days.
Indeed, Mansell’s statement eerily echoes the pamphlets of Elizabethan clergymen Richard Greenham and Nicholas Bownd who led the puritan attack on sports being played on Sundays.
Sunday was ‘no fit time’ for sport and men ‘must not come to Church with their bows and arrows in their hands’.
It appears that as long as Australia Day exists, Mansell considers the playing of sport on January 26 what Elizabethan puritans would call a ‘filthy exercise’. So, what is the significance of this bizarre resemblance? And is it really that bizarre and surprising? I argue that it is not. Certain Indigenous activists have for some time now pushed iconoclastic positions that are akin to those of religious cults: their demands are illiberal, undemocratic, and increasingly censorious.
As Malcolm Turnbull asserted in 2018 Australia day is ‘is a day to come together and celebrate what unites us, what inspires us, what gives all of us reason to be proud that we are Australian’. Sport is the quintessential example of a practice that unites and inspires all Australians and is certainly something we are immensely proud of. Four in five Australians consider sport a significant part of Australian culture and we are more religious about sport than religion itself. We are not called the greatest sporting nation on Earth for no reason.
Even more crucially, sport on the whole in Australia does not discriminate along lines of race or sex – despite cries from the left that incidents like the Adam Goodes fiasco or sports commentator gaffes such as ABC’s David Morrow’s 2013 unsavoury joke about being unable to see black players at night prove that sport in Australia suffers from a ‘systemic’, ingrained, racism. (ABC rugby league caller David Morrow sorry for ‘racist’ remark. The Australian. May 9, 2013.)
On the contrary, not only have such outliers prompted important reforms such as the AFL’s Rule 30: A Rule to Combat Racial and Religious Vilification (which mirrors the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the Racial Hatred Act), sport at both the elite and grassroots level has proved to be one of the most successful pursuits Indigenous Australians participate in. One cannot think of the Sydney Olympic Games without thinking of Cathy Freeman, just as we cannot think of tennis without bringing to mind Evonne Goolagong Cawley and now Ash Barty.
Sport in Australia is, on the whole, the ultimate cross-cultural mixing pot. The last time we played Italy in the Soccer World Cup (2006) 6.7 million Australians got up at 1 am to watch what was once referred to as ‘wog ball’. Even prolific critic of Australia Day, Waleed Aly, who has called Australia Day ‘meaningless’ and advocates for a change of date, has echoed my sentiments when he wrote:
‘The benefit is that sport is largely a meritocracy. Where sport is the vehicle for culture anyone can jump on board. You do not need a genetic link to the nation’s past. Cultural life is not so much about a shared history as it is a shared present.’ (Aly W, ‘The Next Issue’ in The Age, 21 May 2006)
Why then, considering the overwhelming evidence that sport in Australia overcomes intolerance and exclusion and upholds Turnbull’s liberal, democratic, and egalitarian vision of what Australia Day represents, does Michael Mansell and his ilk want to ban all sport on January 26?
The answer lies in a novel, contemporary, Australian form of what the German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin identified as Gnosticism. Gnosticism is an ancient collection of ideas that in the West originated amongst Jewish and early Christian sects. Voegelin perceived a similarity between the ancient Gnostic impulse and the ideological threads that led to 20th century collectivist movements like communism.
However, his most important finding for us is that he identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as a perceived alienation from the rest of society. For Voegelin, this has two effects: the first is that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary knowledge (religious or secular). The second is the desire to implement or create a heaven on Earth.
Indigenous activists vocally espouse a belief that they are alienated from the rest of Australian society and that Australia Day is deeply symbolic of this. Then, crucially, they demand the abolishment of Australia Day with the view to create a utopian pre-colonial paradise made possible only by radical decolonisation. This is not just iconoclastic and divisive; it has a pseudo-religious or what I am terming ‘gnostic’ quality about it.
It is not so surprising that this sort of ideology often resemble religious sects and espouse fringe, illiberal, and censorious demands. This is the opposite of what Australia Day is: a celebration of what unites us. Sport, being perhaps the strongest pillar holding up the great melting pot that is this country is an obvious target for these radicals.
In the Elizabethan period, sportsmen had one very important ally: Queen Elizabeth I herself who danced in May celebrations and attended bear baitings. Her successor, James VI and I, understood that sport was ‘any such harmless recreation’ and that it was indeed of great use for his nation. He disliked Puritanism and licensed Sunday recreation outlined in what came to be known as James’s Book of Sports.
Let’s hope that Australia’s sporting bodies go the way of Elizabeth and James and pay no attention to the new puritanical Gnosticism that has crept its way into the debate about our national day. I, for one, will be proudly playing backyard cricket on Australia Day, thankful to live in such a great country.