In case you’ve been living under a rock, Tony Abbott got booed by the crowd at the NRL grand final on Sunday night.
And it wasn’t just an ordinary boo. This was a hearty, guttural, glorious boo by more than 83,000 fans. Had there been a roof on Homebush stadium, the crowd would have lifted it.
Abbott’s critics are this week celebrating the very public showing of disdain, but the story, as with all things Abbott, is a little more complicated.
Statistically speaking, at least half the people present at the footy final likely voted for him (or at least voted for one of his representatives). It’s one of the enduring ironies of the Australian political system – at least half our country votes a leader in, but when things go sour, you can never seem to find anyone who admits they voted for them.
Even worse, if you believe the polls, only a very small percentage of that number now think Abbott was a bad idea.
The most recent polls have Abbott trailing by about four points, with 48 percent for the Liberals on a two-party preferred vote.
So while it’s encouraging for some that 83,000 footy fans find Abbott detestable, he’s not so detestable that many of them wouldn’t vote for him again.
We should also remember that there’s a very long, very egalitarian tradition of booing Australian Prime Ministers at sporting fixtures.
John Howard got booed at virtually every sporting event he ever turned out to, with the exception of the 2000 Olympics, when he was cheered. Much to his surprise.
We should also remember that 23 million Australians didn’t go to the grand final and boo Tony Abbott. Granted, 83,000 is a pretty good representative sample, and many more Australians would have booed if given the opportunity. But the majority of Australians in fact stayed home, ate pizza and gave two figs about Abbott, his budget, our pending attack on militants in Iraq, Aboriginal life expectancy, climate change, refugees and the recent assault on Muslim Australians.
And when I say ‘majority’, most Australians, I suspect, are sick of Abbott’s gutter politics. But a significant number are not, such as these folks who embraced this meme on Facebook shortly after the grand final.
You’ll note from the picture, it attracted more than 17,000 likes in the space of less than 24 hours, and 3,500 shares.
And therein lies the key to understanding Abbott’s simple politics.
Abbott got booed because of his performance as Prime Minister. But an overtly bigoted meme got 17,000 likes for exactly the same reason.
Abbott has spent the better part of a month whipping sections of the Australian community into an Islamophobic frenzy. It’s been an assault designed to distract from his growing unpopularity, and his inability to sell a budget that will shift more of the load from the comparatively rich to the poor.
Abbott’s appearance at the grand final, as if to admire his handiwork, was obviously ill-advised. It clearly backfired. But the broader strategy is working.
It’s also worth considering why a Souths vs Bulldogs grand final might have attracted such public disdain for Abbott. The two teams have, by some margin, the largest ‘multicultural’ fan base in the game.
The Bulldogs have a very strong Muslim fan base, in part because of the location of the Bulldogs (which takes in Lakemba, for example), but also because Hazem El Masri – a devout Muslim – was one of the team’s (and game’s) greatest ever players, and goal-kickers.
As for Souths, they have a very working class fan base. You wouldn’t find too many Rabbitohs supporters in Tony Abbott’s blue ribbon northern suburbs seat of Warringah.
Even more notable is the core of Souths’ fan base. It ‘always was, always will be’ Aboriginal Australians. That’s in no small part due to Redfern being the spiritual home of the political blackfella.
And that explains this meme, also doing the rounds this week.
So while it is encouraging for some to see Abbott booed at the footy, Abbott knows – as does his party – that his politics of race and division are working.
The downside for Abbott is obviously that such a public display of derision is highly embarrassing. But the upside is that, like his mentor, John Howard, Abbott has made many Australians feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ about embracing their inner xenophobe.
His strategy of divide and conquer has given him the lift he was looking for in the polls, and relatively few are still talking about the budget.
So, notwithstanding the humiliation of being booed by so many people, expect Abbott to ratchet things up a notch or two in the coming months. When you’re onto a good thing, why quit?
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