An Unwanted Corroboree: The Politics of the New South Wales Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout

Article excerpt

Abstract: The annual New South Wales Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout is so much more than a sporting event. Involving a high level of organisation, it is both a social and cultural coming together of diverse communities for a social and cultural experience considered 'bigger than Christmas'. As if the planning and logistics were not difficult enough, the rotating-venue Knockout has been beset, especially since the late 1980s and 1990s, by layers of opposition and open hostility based on 'race': from country town newspapers, local town and shire councils, local business houses and, inevitably, the local police. A few towns have welcomed the event, seeing economic advantage and community good will for all. Commonly, the Aboriginal 'influx' of visitors and players--people perceived as 'strangers', 'outsiders', 'non-taxpayers'--provoked public fear about crime waves, violence and physical safety, requiring heavy policing. Without exception, these racist expectations were shown to be totally unfounded.

Background

With a grant from AIATSIS, I researched the social, cultural and (to a lesser extent) economic aspects of the annual New South Wales Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout competition (Norman 2006). This involved interviews with participants, organisers and government officials, as well as examining local government records, print media reports and ephemera such as programs, handwritten results and information packages that have been kept by the event organisers over the years.

This research highlighted the significance of the event as a vehicle for continuing and adapting cultural and social practices. The instigators of the Knockout, affiliated with Koorie United at the time, wanted to create a space for the many Aboriginal people who, for cultural and community reasons, were migrating to the city; they also wanted to showcase the talented Aboriginal footballers who, because of racism and/or the absence of recruitment in the bush, were overlooked in graded rugby league ranks.

The carnival flowered in the context of a rapidly expanding urban community and was continuous with all-Aboriginal rugby league since at least the 1930s. (1) Importantly, it was developed to create a space for contemporary culture business: a modern and adapted medium for cultural performance and expression, for kinship-based modes of organisation merged with state-shaped communities, and for courtship and competition. My account highlighted the Knockout as a social and cultural celebration considered by many to be the social highlight of the year--bigger than Christmas--and where winning is recalled as a lifetime memory. That said, the Knockout is also a highly political event, and that is my focus here.

The politics of the Knockout can be considered in different ways. First, as 'personal politics', where the actors have had a longstanding affiliation and have wielded some level of community political power. Second, some Knockout instigators reflected a different wave of urban migration and differentiated their politics from the more radical elements in the Redfern All Blacks, organised by the Communist Party and the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs affiliate Ken Brindle. Knowingly or unknowingly, the Koorie United members and Knockout organisers articulated different, more progressive liberal ideas, similar to those of the Foundation.

Government and the Knockout

This article highlights the role of 'government' in the exercise of political power. Essential to an understanding of this event is that hosting the occasion, particularly in regional towns, has in most cases been opposed by the locals, and, in nearly all cases, significant caveats have been imposed on the organising committee, mostly by local government and the police, but at times by local businesses. This analysis is limited by the availability of material and also the scope of the research. Therefore the study focuses on available media coverage, supplemented by additional oral accounts of events and archives. …