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Gordon Campbell on Malcolm Turnbull, and rugby mania

Gordon Campbell on Malcolm Turnbull, and rugby mania

When Malcolm Turnbull took over as PM across the Tasman, much was made of him citing the populist touch of Prime Minister John Key – who, Turnbull noted, had managed to keep the electorate onside while making significant changes. It says a lot about the two countries that one of Key’s “populist” touches was to bring back knights and dames, while Turnbull’s first populist move has been to scrap them entirely as a colonial anachronism.

In fact, Key has had a bob each way on this traditional kind of stuff. Having brought back one of the fusty relics of British colonialism, he has since tried to play the modern, nationalist card via the flag referendum. This looks like being an epic fail – not because New Zealanders are all monarchists, but because we resent being treated like suckers in what looks like a costly and shabby bit of political theatre. Notably, neither Turnbull nor Key seem willing to go beyond the empty gestures, and do the hard work needed in becoming a republic. That’s unfortunate. Because the real anachronism is not that we call each other “Sir” and “Dame” or wave a flag with a Union Jack on it. It is that we treat a hereditary ruler living on the other side of the world as our head of state – and in this role she retains significant residual powers to interfere with and even dismiss elected governments. Change that wretched situation, and having our own flag and honours system would mean something. But evidently, that’s unlikely even across the Tasman:

Mr Turnbull has recently said he remains a republican but says he does not regard the issue as a priority for his government.

The State of the Union

Gosh, it seems like an eternity since the Rugby World Cup began back on September 19, but the long and arduous campaign of trying to avoid the saturation news coverage devoted to the tournament may finally be coming to an end. Well, apart from tomorrow’s and Thursday’s and Friday’s victory parades for our conquering lads. On the horizon there is also the prospect of the Richie McCaw (born December 31, 1980) knighthood. Gird yourself for the nation’s birthday present to its favourite son in the New Year’s Honours List. Bizarrely, both Labour and the Greens have declared themselves to be in favour of giving McCaw a knighthood, while still claiming to disapprove of knighthoods, on principle.

Still, between next week, Christmas shopping and New Year there will be a small window of opportunity for some actual news. Like say, the sharp rise in the numbers of people with serious mental problems on our streets, or the obscene levels of super profit – to the tune of over $4 billion annually – being enjoyed by the Aussie banks pillaging this country.

No doubt, the RWC is a big sports story. But was it a news story? Obviously not. No other country’s news organisations have treated the RWC as anything other than a sports story and that should tell us something. Yes, the All Blacks are the world champions again, but in how many countries can rugby claim to be the major sport? It is a very short list: New Zealand, South Africa (although cricket runs it close) Wales, the Pacific island nations, and (maybe) Georgia. In 2011, 97 % of the global audience for the RWC final reportedly came from Australasia, Britain, South Africa and France.

True, the limited outreach of the RWC is not quite as bad as baseball’s “World Series”, which is comprised entirely of US teams and one team from Toronto. Even so, there are similarities. As with rugby here, baseball and its rituals have become part of American culture and identity without the game ever becoming a global sport. (Japan is probably the only other country that has taken to baseball, and that was only an by-product of the post-WWII American occupation.) Sentiment aside, gridiron football has been a far more popular sport in the US than baseball for the past 30 years - and if anything, gridiron’s appeal is even more insular.

Back in New Zealand… rugby is our favourite spectator sport, but it is not our favourite leisure activity. (Walking is.) Increasingly, rugby is a couch experience. While our TV audience for Super Rugby is far in excess of Australia – 10 million to 6 million on 2014 figures – the crowd attendance at rugby matches has fallen by 30 per cent over the eight years to 2014.

The danger with building a TV audience only is that they are dipping their toe in. Their level of engagement with the sport is questionable - one flick of a button and they don't have any relationship with the game.

For now, success at the RWC will have locked in the couch audience in this country. It remains an isolated obsession. While New Zealand treat rugby as a national religion no one else – apart from (maybe) South Africa, Wales and a few small Pacific nations – have ever taken to the game with anything like the same enthusiasm. In sum, we excel at something no other country cares as much about. While we may be the world champions, we’re shouting down an empty well.

Will this ever change? Next year, sevens rugby will be showcased at the Rio Olympics, and this is being touted as a golden chance to put rugby on the world map. Rio will be a marketing opportunity, but the world has had many previous chances to embrace rugby, and has chosen to pass on it. The first rugby union test match was held in 1871 – six years before the first football international, and 24 years before the first field hockey test match. For some reason, rugby has never caught on globally to anything like the same degree as football.

I know, I know… many people in New Zealand do love rugby, and we’re really good at it. Fine. Its cultural significance explains why Prime Minister John Key is so keen to paste himself to Richie McCaw in public at every possible opportunity. For anyone immune to the rugby virus, watching the nation’s elected leader turn himself into a real life version of Tim - the pathetic rugby superfan from the Mastercard TV commercials - has been a doubly alienating experience.

It figures, though. Rugby is not only a professional game but has now become – literally – a political football. And the overt politicisation of rugby that began with the naming of the team at Parliament will almost certainly culminate in a knighthood for the team captain.

Drake, and the Artist

For decades, James Turrell has been a trail-blazing artist who specialises in the manipulation of light. Suddenly, he’s everywhere. On the video for his latest single “Hotline Bling” the Canadian rap artist Drake clearly drew on Turrell’s work. It has been a long time coming. Famously and hilariously, Drake paid tribute to Turrell in a Rolling Stone interview a couple of years ago in these memorable terms:

The septuagenarian Turrell is a masterful manipulator of optical phenomena: He'll remove chunks of wall from a room to frame the sky in startling ways, or create illusionistic space using projections. "I fuck with Turrell," Drake says. "He was a big influence on the visuals for my last tour."

Right. This, in turn, caused Turrell last week to issue this laconic statement:

“While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake fucks with me, I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the Hotline Bling video.”

You can see Drake’s video for “Hotline Bling” here:

By sheer accident a fortnight ago, I came across this excellent 45 minute documentary on James Turrell, made by the Deutsche Welle network. It is well worth your time.

One of the features of what Turrell does – and something that clearly attracted Drake to him – is the psychological impact when visual fields are comprised of only one colour. (Whiteouts are an example. They’re disorienting, and can cause hallucinations. ) This trick of the brain is called the Ganzfeld effect, and is explained here.

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