Essendon's lesson for Tony and Kevin

The Essendon Football Club story that has gripped Victoria is full of drama, emotion and character – exactly what Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott’s contest is lacking.

For millions of Victorians, this election campaign may as well have been waged on Mars. Indeed, it’s possible that on Mars the media coverage of the campaign may have been more extensive than it has been in Victoria.

At the mid-point of the campaign there probably has not been a day when news from the campaign has made the front pages of the Victorian newspapers or led the radio and television news bulletins – not just on commercial television, but on the ABC as well.

Yes, of course the junkies can always turn to Sky News or ABC News 24, but really you’d have to be desperate and incredibly time-rich to sit through hours of ramblings from talking heads – who are these people? – who seem to be there to decorate the sets of the Sky and ABC studios. Sort of like living wallpaper.

It may be asked why the Victorian media in particular has been singled out here for virtually ignoring this most important political battle which, in less than three weeks’ time, is likely to culminate in a change of government – a rare event in Australian political history.

But the fact is that this campaign does not have about it a sense that we are approaching an historic moment. This is not a very exciting campaign. The main players are two flawed and battle scarred prime ministerial candidates who have made this campaign about them and nothing much more, each of them banging on about how the other is unworthy of being prime minister.

On Wednesday night, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott went and did something labeled a people’s forum debate at a Rugby League club in Brisbane – or Brissie as Rudd likes to call it – and in actual fact, the whole thing was quite lively and the questions were mildly interesting and Abbott even showed a bit of his old submerged self when he told Rudd to shut-up.

It was interesting to see these two together and to feel, overwhelmingly, that they deserve each other, though Australians may not deserve either of them.

But it was broadcast on Sky News which means that nationally, it had an audience that wouldn’t fill the MCG. In Victoria there was virtually nothing about this people’s forum anywhere in the media –except for Abbott’s shut-up moment and something about Rudd being rude to a make-up woman.

In Victoria, the story of the day – which has been the story of the day every day for virtually months now – was the battle between the Essendon Football Club and the AFL, football’s governing body, over Essendon’s supplements program.

That story reached a sort of climax on the very day of the people’s forum with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, when the AFL released a 34-page dossier of the charges against Essendon and four Essendon officials, including coach James Hird, alleging the club and these officials had brought the game of football into disrepute.

This story has dominated the news in Victoria ever since Essendon announced in February that it had asked ASADA and the AFL to launch an investigation into the club’s supplements program because the club couldn’t be sure what supplements had been given its players in 2012.

This is not the place to examine the ins and outs of this saga – my Business Spectator colleague Bob Gottliebsen has done that pretty well over the past few months (ASADA's botch job has come to a headAugust 14) – except to say that it has sucked all the media oxygen out of the election campaign.

Whether you’re interested in football or not, whether you think that there’s something peculiar about those Victorians for whom football is more than a game, the fact is that the Essendon story is riveting and multi-faceted.

It is full of human drama. Among other things, it is about how an organisation’s culture can be compromised and how a club like Essendon, with its 150-year proud history, can be put at risk. And it is about how powerful men – for these are all men in this story – can and do use journalists to both defend themselves and attack each other.

Above all, this story has at the heart of it what feels like a classical Greek tragedy, in which a young man – an icon of the game that he played so brilliantly and so courageously – a young man loved not just by Essendon supporters but by many other fans, a young man of whom it was once said that he played football as if he were trained in classical ballet, has been brought undone by a flaw in his character that was always one of his great strengths.

James Hird was always a fierce competitor and it was that fierceness, that drivenness that was a major factor in his greatness. That will to succeed, even after suffering horrific injuries, was part of what was so admirable about Hird. That and his talent.

But it was that fierceness and drivenness, that will to succeed, not just for himself but for the club he clearly loved and in which his grandfather and father had been major players, that led Hird to push for a ‘cutting-edge’ supplements program for his players that he thought would bring the club the sort of success he – and the club – deserved.

This is not just – or even mainly – a football story, but a story about human relationships and about how organisations operate, and about how ambition, let loose and unrestrained, can bring down a person who was once admired and loved – worshipped by some people – for his will power and his drive to succeed. For his ambition.

In journalistic terms, this is simply a great story.

It is little wonder then that in Victoria the election campaign, with its phony, stage-managed ‘events’ and its two mediocre, risk-averse contestants – for that’s what this election is about: a choice between Abbott and Rudd – has hardly had a look-in as far as the media is concerned, and is unlikely to get much better coverage in the last weeks of the campaign given that the Essendon and AFL conflict is a long way from resolution.

The Essendon story is raw and real and full of consequences for the people involved and for those who feel connected to them. That’s why in Victoria, the election campaign has more or less disappeared without a trace.

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