Grand final no banner day for Voice as AFL rules out referendum boost

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The AFL has ruled out promoting the Voice on grand final day after the powerful league commission warned against using its finals series to spruik the referendum, dashing hopes the marquee event would draw attention to the Yes case a fortnight from voting day.

Top government figures had said privately earlier this year they expected the AFL and NRL, who both declared support for the referendum in May, to capture the millions watching their grand final events to bring home the Yes message.

The AFL grand final won’t feature Voice promotion, despite the hopes of the government officials.Credit: Eddie Jim

But six AFL and Yes campaign sources, who declined to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the country’s biggest sporting body did not intend to put on Voice-themed displays on grand final day, two weeks before the October 14 referendum.

Late on Wednesday, an AFL spokesman confirmed grand final day would not feature Voice promotion.

The directive from the Richard Goyder-led commission was that the AFL would not be actively campaigning for Yes during the September finals series. However, clubs and individual players were free to do so, according to high-level sources familiar with the commission’s decree.

Former AFL chief Gillon McLachlan and Anthony Albanese at a match between Fremantle and West Coast in Perth in April, a month before the league backed the Voice. Credit: Getty

Yes campaign sources stressed that a grand final day push would risk a community backlash from people who don’t want sport and politics to mix. A second source linked to the Yes campaign said the AFL had decided grand final day was sacrosanct.

“People just want to watch the footy,” one of the sources said.

On August 5 at the Indigenous Garma Festival, new AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon declined to confirm any AFL plans to boost the Voice during the finals series.

However, he explained the league’s support for the Voice by saying it was important for the AFL to demonstrate to players, fans and AFL staff what the league “stood for”.

“It is very important from an AFL point of view, with the number of First Nations players, the number of First Nations men and women working at the AFL, and more importantly the number of First Nations people that follow our great game,” he said.

NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo and ARLC chair Peter Vlandys.Credit: Dean Sewell

Asked about rugby league’s plans that would be seen by swaths of voters in NSW and Queensland, an NRL spokesman did not commit to any major Voice-related events in the coming weeks, instead saying: “We haven’t yet finalised our grand final production plans”.

A source familiar with the NRL’s plans said it was working on plans to support the Yes campaign with an event or events leading up to referendum day on October 14 and questioned the AFL’s commitment.

“The AFL is better at the optics, no question, but they’re currently making excuses to not get on board,” the source said.

The government’s decision to hold the referendum in October, just after the two grand finals in late September, was at least partly driven by a desire to use the football finals period to create a sense of momentum around the referendum campaign, according to Labor sources.

Several options have been discussed inside both the AFL and the government in recent months.

The prospect of Thomas Mayo reciting the Uluṟu Statement From The Heart on the MCG on grand final day was raised in unofficial conversations earlier this year but was never put to the AFL commission or raised at executive level.

Another idea discussed in senior government circles was to plaster sections of the boundary line advertising boards with Yes material.

On March 23, this masthead first reported October 14 as the likely election date, citing senior government sources who said the prime minister’s preferred referendum date was October 14, after the grand finals of the AFL and NRL, which were both expected to campaign for the Voice.

In May, when polling still showed majority support for the Voice before a steady decline, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton pushed back against sporting codes becoming involved in the referendum.

“Most of their fans are really scratching their head as to why the elites within sport, particularly the elites involved in the administration of the game, are taking a position into the Voice,” he said.

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