Like 3.2 million Australians on Sunday night, I sat down and watched the NRL Grand Final between the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs. Having grown up in Perth my code is Australian Rules and my team the West Coast Eagles. In terms of rugby league other than one State of Origin game, this was to be the only other game I was to watch this year.
As a very casual observer of Rugby League, there were three observations which struck me from the Grand Final.
Firstly the Penrith Panthers were really a team from Penrith. One-third of the squad were from Penrith and surrounding suburbs in Western Sydney. In an era of professional sport and player drafts where junior players can easily start their careers at the across town or interstate club, the Panthers team were truly a representative side from Penrith and Western Sydney. I found this very attractive particularly coming from the AFL where teams (which were originally named after their suburbs of abode) are now just brand names. How many players from the Fremantle Dockers or the Western Bulldogs are actually from Fremantle or Footscray?
The Panther’s success on the national stage is also a success for Mt Druitt and St Mary’s. Their boys have gone to conquer the national competition and achieved the ultimate success in the NRL. Too often these areas are looked down upon by the media or the chardonnay set from the North Shore and Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.
The second was the successful marriage proposal of Panthers player Brian To’o. Where many young men now are shirking marriage for casual relationships etc, this was a great demonstration of maturity and responsibility.
The final and perhaps the most striking observation was the circle of players who all knelt down and offered a thanksgiving of sorts to God. I’ve seen something like this before in American sports, but not in Australia. It was totally unexpected. However, as I began to connect these observations together it was then this gesture made more sense to me.
Faith is important to people in Western Sydney and when practised well it’s something that isn’t separated from private and public life. Faith is more than attending church on Sunday. It’s about how you go about ordinary life. It’s about how you treat others, about how you work, about how you make decisions. And in the case of the Penrith players, how you celebrate.
The Panther’s win was more than a story of a successful 2021 season. It is the story of Western Sydney. The values that represent the cream of the working class: Rugby League, Faith and Family.
They are the working-class values that the Labor Party should be seeking to represent. If the Labor Party is sincere in representing this constituency and interested in winning office in Canberra and Macquarie Street, it has to do better in sharing the values of Western Sydney. What is the Labor Party if it isn’t Western Sydney? They are the bread-and-butter of an orthodox Labor Government. It’s time to move with where the people are at, the backyard isn’t in Surry Hills or Balmain anymore, it’s in East Hills and Riverstone.
With the recent endorsement by the Liberal Party caucus of Dominic Perrottet as premier of New South Wales, the Labor Party will need to be careful to avoid politicising his faith. Reminding voters of his views on abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage will only seek to reaffirm that the values of Western Sydney align better with the Perrottet led Liberal Party rather than the Labor Party at the booth.
NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns has done an excellent job since taking the job in June to start neutralising the perception Labor cares less about those of faith than the Liberal Party. He was the first leader to stand against the privatisation of the cemetery board away from Churches. And within days there was a there was an announcement of a backdown from the Government (though Churches are claiming the deal has since been reneged on). Minns has also announced that he is opposed to the Alex Greenwich euthanasia bill. This is a serious demonstration that NSW Labor has leaders and members that stand with Western Sydney on key social issues.
While NSW Labor finally now has the best person in caucus to lead them there is still a mountain of work and many many people to win back to regain Government again. A Labor Party which focuses on the never-ending rise and rise of the cost of living (against a backdrop of stagnant wages), on poor service delivery in roads and health, and stands with its voter base, as opposed to its membership base, will do much to regain the people who have been lost to the Liberal Party for over a decade. If the Labor Party does that, then places in Panther’s heartland like Penrith and Mulgoa can be won back.
Michael Quinn is the convener of the Johno Johnson Forum, a group for those of faith and also interested in the Labor ideal.
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