There’s a saying: “Politics is a blood sport.”
New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, could be forgiven for thinking it’s true after weathering a ministerial resignation and sacking another minister in a matter of days. It makes his decision to challenge the stadium upgrade aspirations of the Australian rugby league commission chair, Peter V’landys, to courageous play.
On declining to set a timeframe with the commission for up to $350m in slated stadium investments, the premier advised taxpayer funds would instead be prioritized for people “devastated by the major floods across NSW”.
V’landys in turn accused the government of using “human tragedy” to back out of what he described as a “deal” to refurbish suburban stadiums, among them Cronulla, Leichhardt and Brookvale.
Details of the proposed deployment of repurposed stadium funds have not been released. In justifying his decision, however, the premier cited his receipt of his government’s Floods Inquiry Report noting at least 1,366 people remain homeless because of the floods.
Despite early moves by the premier to visit affected areas and meet with residents and business owners, he has granted the immediate emergency response was “unacceptable”. The timing of the government’s subsequent response has also attracted criticism.
The promised Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, with an initial budget of $300m, was not established until July, more than four months after the initial floods. Staffing and advisory positions are reportedly yet to be finalized. Meanwhile, displaced residents are contending with winter conditions and the prospect of further rains, with one local Lismore feeling he is “stuck in limbo”.
Flood recovery sits against the backdrop of the recent preview of the Perrottet government’s newly reconstructed Sydney Football Stadium.
This $824m facility foregrounds an additional $250-$300m for the planned upgrade of the rugby league stadium at Penrith. This outer western Sydney project, in the electorate of recently resigned deputy NSW Liberal leader, Stuart Ayres, is set to proceed, despite the halting of other proposed suburban ground renovations, and the abandonment of the promised $810m Sydney Olympic Park stadium refurbishment.
New facilities aside, the national rugby league competition has had its own challenges. Most recently, it was contending with the fallout from a seven-player boycott, for religious reasons, of a pride jersey the Manly club worn to promote LGTBQ+ awareness during the league’s women’s round. The move attracted accusations of hypocrisy over the willingness of the boycotting players to compete in a stadium named after an alcohol sponsor, and in jerseys branded with a gambling sponsor.
Questioned on the issue, V’landys observed his code is “the greatest game of all”, adding that “it’s inclusive” while being respectful of “people’s religious and cultural beliefs”. The social dimension of sport might prove challenging terrain to navigate for a sporting code that generates an estimated $115ma season in broadcast rights alone, with plans to explore access to US sports betting, which V’landys believes “could be one of the big revenue earners” for the NRL.
The NRL’s expansionist verve may also present a contrast with the ambitions of a premier seeking to emphasize the social and ethical values of a 12-year-old government facing an election in March 2023. This is a contest the premier seeks to frame as people- focused. It is a campaign in which he will look to rebalance built or “hard” and social infrastructure priorities.
Not so long ago, the NSW government seemed to have heard the lessons from the election loss inflicted on its federal election colleagues. The June budget provided the clearest indication of that shift, when Perrottet’s treasurer, Matt Kean, emphasized the limits of hard infrastructure projects. “We must invest in more than just bricks and steel,” he said in pitching the pre-election economic blueprint. “We must,” he added, “choose to invest in our greatest asset – our people.”
There looks to be little room for a stadium push in that narrative.
In a none-too-subtle nod to the values that swept the teal independents into power across blue-ribbon federal Liberal seats, the Perrottet-Kean budget made big commitments on the environment and clean energy. Less so on integrity.
An investment of $16.5bn in programs for women was a budget centrepiece. Contrast this with the NRL’s trajectory, which – despite the strong emergence of, and investment, in a female competition – remains comparatively male-dominated in terms of revenue generation, sports-betting profile, and broadcast coverage. In this light, a clash of values, certainly priorities, was perhaps inevitable. It seems an appeal is being made to two very different audiences.
He has threatened he will be forced within “two or three” days to make a call on whether to hold the NRL grand final in NSW or take it interstate.
V’landys has in the past been lauded for his “strong leadership” of the NRL, even dubbed “Saint Peter” by one commentator, for ensuring his code was “the first major sport in Australia to emerge from the  Covid-19 shutdowns”. Just last month, in his capacity as Racing NSW chief executive, he lunched with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle in recognition of his “contribution to racing”.
The demonstrable influence of V’Landys stands in contrast to a relatively new premier striving to maintain his authority over a government hobbled by an integrity crisis, contending with a record budget deficit, and staring down a looming election against a highly competitive Labor opposition.
Underestimating political resolve, even in these circumstances, would be a mistake.
Having featured heavily during the 2019 state election campaign, the issue of stadiums is again shaping as a spectator sport in NSW politics. Two men are locked in a contest unlikely to produce a clear victor.
Meanwhile, the voices of flood victims might continue to remain lost in the crowd.