AFL as a Diplomatic Tool?

Last weekend I was on the Isle of Skye in Scotland watching on the net as the Lions were trounced by the Crows. The wind was howling at 50 -60 kilometres per hour and the rain was blowing horizontally, and I thought to myself how great it was to be able to get my weekly AFL fix so easily via the internet. Could not see any AFL posts on the local fields in Skye, so assume footy has not yet reached the outer islands of Scotland.


The name ‘Skye’ is probably from the Norse words Ski (cloud) and Ey (island) and if footy was to be pIayed there I would imagine the conditions would be similar to some of the glue pots we slogged on in Melbourne in the 70s, when we Queenslanders ventured south for Intervarsity titles.


As I reflected on yet another massive loss by the Lions, I pondered the number of countries in which I had watched the AFL on the net over the past few years. Having lived and worked in Malaysia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia in the past ten years and travelled extensively on business and for pleasure, I’ve come up with a grand total of twenty-two countries, having added a new one, the Czech Republic this week, as we are here for a few days, before we finally return to the Sunshine Coast next week.


This article is not to highlight how a Rusty Red Lion gets his kicks offshore (sorry about that – pun intended) but some thoughts on how this uniquely Australian game could possibly be viewed from a different perspective.


World Footy News has identified footy being played on every continent bar Antarctica, and judging by its website, has given up trying to quantify the actual number of clubs and leagues in existence. I wonder have successive Australian Governments missed the boat in using AFL as a diplomatic tool? I noted with interest recently the way that PM Turnbull handled the issue of Port Adelaide seeking to play a game for points in China during 2017. It was awkward to say the least. Some of our leading political figures including former PM Julia Gillard and current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who is the Eagles No ticket holder, have provided some international exposure to our great game. Who could forget Gillard’s Sherrin handball to Obama in the Oval Office Washington during her visit in 2011.


Unfortunately, these well publicised photo opportunities are not a reflection on how our diplomats handle AFL at grass roots level. Having had the privilege to carry a diplomatic passport I feel qualified to make some comments on the subject.


Probably the best example of a diplomat using AFL to assist his diplomatic efforts was the late Graeme Wilson, former South Melbourne ruckman, who during his term as Special Co-ordinator of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands from 2009 to 2011, championed AFL, in particular Auskick. Graeme sadly passed away whilst on post as the Australian High Commissioner to South Africa in 2014.


There are a number of individual diplomats working overseas who have involved themselves in the local expat AFL communities. I am aware of personal involvement at varying levels including playing and administration, in countries as varied as USA, Thailand, Vietnam, Solomon Islands, Fiji, PNG, India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Philippines, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and I am sure there are a number of other countries of which I am not aware. Indeed, I have fond memories of umpiring an Old Boys Match in Port Moresby in 2011, and awarding an in the back free kick against the then High Commissioner early in the game which he considered unwarranted. Made for a tense Tuesday morning Executive meeting at the High Commission.


A number of AFL Clubs in Asian Countries have promoted Auskick or similarly named activities. At the 2015 Jakarta Bintangs Grand Final event, the Jakarta based Fairfax journalist, Jewel Topsfield, expressed a wish to consider an article on Auskick in Indonesia. The Australian Embassy and the Jakarta Bintangs assisted, and the article was subsequently published in the Sydney Morning Herald in November 2015.


There was an immediate increase in interest from schools and orphanages who wanted Auskick offered locally, and the Bintangs were successful in obtaining   some funding  from the Embassy to train local school teachers to deliver Auskick under supervision from expats and the local Garuda players. Hopefully this will lead to up to 75 Indonesian schools having an Auskick program.


These are two excellent examples of AFL being used in a soft diplomatic way


All Australian diplomatic posts overseas are required to engage with a range of local stakeholders at a wide range of levels, including Government, business, and the in-country Australian community to mention a few. It seems to me that engagement with the local AFL community, which is invariably run by expat Australians in conjunction with local enthusiasts, should be a given KPI.


I am not suggesting that the local Ambassador, High Commissioner Trade Commissioner or even the Third Secretary in charge of moving chairs, needs to be a card carry member of the local AFL Club or League, but rather the Australian Government, via DFAT task all our Diplomatic Post to consider some active participation, whether it is presenting a trophy or a couple of footballs at the Annual AGM, through to active assistance with events such as Auskick with particular emphasis on participation by local kids.


AFL is unique to Australia and could be an excellent diplomatic tool.


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About Kevan Dacey

Former Trade Commissioner currently heading into retiring on the Sunshine Coast. Tragic Lions supporter who remembers fondly the heady days of 2001 to 2003. Played most of my footy at Uni of Qld FC (the original Red Lions in Qld).


  1. Paul Spinks says

    Thanks, RRL:

    I went to the Isle of Skye during my first overseas trip. Spectacular country – as was Scotland generally (especially in May). Brings back good memories.

    I used to get my AFL overseas fix via the Australia Channel till the Abbott gov axed it. Australia Plus is it’s replacement, but it is far less available. AC was a good way to promote Australia generally, and could’ve been improved on, but the axing was short sighted IMO. I presume your net viewing of the AFL is by subscription?

    Off the top of my head, I imagine one of the obstacles to the political promoting of the game is the rugby/Aussie Rules divide. Not all pollies represent states or cities where the AFL reigns and, hence, are less enthusiastic about pushing it.

    Paul Keating – not really a sports fan – anointed Aussie Rules as our national game. Tony Abbott – a rugby man – was more equivocal.

    I agree, more could be done, though.

  2. David Lloyd says

    The AFL is missing a big opportunity in PNG. The main TV station, EMTV, lost the rights to the Australian Rugby League competition, which have gone to pay TV. Get the footy on EMTV! They do have the occasional broadcast when EMTV streams the Australian channel, but is should at least get the Friday night games on.
    There is a good standard of footy up here, the players move a lot like our indigenous players, but in contrast to them, they really love the rough stuff. Anyone who would like to have a look, the PNG games are on in Kimbe, East New Britain, in November this year. There will be a AFL competition between the provinces that play AFL, as well as cricket, boxing, bowls, darts etc etc. A real grass roots games.
    You can combine it with a diving holiday on Lissenung Island Resort, which I can thoroughly recommend

  3. Paul Spinks says

    Good point, David – if I recall correctly I read or heard that PNG was once more Aussie Rules territory until channel 9 received exclusive television rights, or something, which then gave rugby more exposure.

    I’ve been critical of past AFL pushes overseas for playing promotional games in London and the US, for instance, but ignoring places closer to home. Shore up your own region first. On a subconscious level at least, it probably saw areas like PNG as not important enough.

    Based on that, I doubt it will take your advice, but it should and it’s worth a try.

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