Surfers: The new clubbies
Compared to other countries, surfing occupies a peculiar position in Australian public life. As much as we’d like to think of surfers as a band of fringe dwellers, our history tells another story.
In 1974 Nat Young sat next to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at an Opera House election rally, in 1984 Prime Minister Bob Hawke attended the award ceremony of the OP Oz at Bondi, while later that year Tom Carroll sought counsel from Bob when he decided to boycott South Africa. We’ve since had a Prime Minister who surfs - albeit badly - a state Premier who surfs - only slightly better - plus we can also count numerous ministers, State and Federal, kook and competent, as surfers.
Surfing, at least the public perception of it, is conservative. It offends no-one. It’s used to sell everything from soft drinks to life insurance. It appears on billboards and internet ads.
All that considered, there’s a subtle shift happening right now that will alter the public perception yet again.
Six months ago the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull triggered the Wentworth by-election, the Sydney coastal electorate that takes in Bondi, Tamarama, and Bronte. In the hustings that preceded the election, Liberal candidate Dave Sharma promised $2 million to upgrade Bronte SLSC clubhouse while North Bondi SLSC received $500,000 to build a new gear shed.
Such promises aren’t new and nor are they a surprise. The beach occupies an important position in Australian life and lifesavers protect those who visit our beaches. Surf lifesaving clubs provide a community service and any politician supporting them is seen as doing the same. Surfing - meaning surfboard riding - has just never had the same cachet.
Popular? No doubt.
Beneficial? That’s questionable.
Yet earlier this week came the news that, first the NSW Liberals were using Kelly Slater’s attendance at the Sydney Pro as political capital in this weekend’s state election, and also that the Labor party has promised $4 million to Surfing WA if it wins the upcoming Federal election. The money would be used to build an administration and training facility at Trigg Beach, Perth.
If at first the appearance of Kelly Slater shaking hands with a politician seems like no more than a photo opportunity, then it’s important to realise who is underwriting the Sydney Pro surf contest. Of the main supporters only one, Vissla, is a private company, while Destination NSW, the Northern Beaches Council, and Surfing NSW all rely on public funding. Similarly, all three Championship Tour events are supported by government agencies.
Kelly and James Griffin, MP for Manly, relax at the Sydney Pro
When Nat sat with Gough in the 70s and TC with Hawkey in the 80s, pro surfing paid its own way, bankrolled by surf companies or non-endemics that wanted a slice of the youth market. That’s no longer the case, and the appearance of politicians is more than mere photo op, a way of relating to the youth. Now they’re showing us what government can do for the community. They signed the cheques and now they’re cashing the political advantage.
Over in the west, the new Surfing WA HQ will, according to the press release, “feature an expanded operational area for surfing lessons, water safety programs, training of judges and officials...as well as more workspace for staff”.
Except for the point about surfing lessons, those functions are almost identical to the promises Dave Sharma made to surf clubs in the Wentworth electorate. And $4 million is a significant amount, twice what Bronte, one of the oldest surf clubs in Australia, received.
Of course, Surfing WA’s parent organisation, Surfing Australia, receives government funding each year. However, the recent events elevate surfing to a new standing in Australia, one that’s not just respectable, but presented as beneficial to the community. If you’ve been paying attention you may have noticed the creep.
Last September for instance, Surfing NSW and the Surf Life Saving NSW, reached an agreement to develop “pathways for athletes and share industry knowledge” and the agreement includes “lifesaving assets provided to increase safety at Surfing NSW competitions.”
September 2018, and Surfing NSW and Surf Life Saving NSW sign a deal to align their operations
Although Surfing WA has yet to sign an agreement with WA lifesavers, you’ll note that part of the proposed HQ includes space for “water safety programs”, which was once the sole domain of surf life savers. Similarly, NSW Minister for Emergency Services Troy Grant last year awarded $134,000 to Surfing NSW to support the ‘Surfers Rescue 24/7’ course. A course that no surfer I know has heard of. The Victorian government awarded $800,000 for the same course. This is the role that surfers are now beginning to fill.
And by filling that role, surfing has elevated its standing and put itself in a bargaining position. Surfing can extract money from various levels of government under the guise of community service.
When the surf companies could no longer support pro surfing, surfing didn’t wither on the vine. It didn’t become less popular, because the vast majority of surfers don’t compete. However, the government is yet to realise that by bankrolling competition surfing or the state branches of Surfing Australia they’re only reaching a small number of surfers - around 17,000 out of the estimated 1,000,000 surfers in Australia. In other words, just 0.17% of the surfing population.
By comparison, when funds go to life saving clubs they benefit all members of the club and indirectly benefit all people who use that beach. There’s no equivalence between funds for the life saving movement and funds for organised surfing.
One of the only times recreational surfers have been supported by government funding was also in the west, when the McGowan government established a rebate scheme for electronic shark deterrents. It was limited to 1,000 devices.
Surfers may be the new clubbies, but unfortunately for the 983,000 surfers who don’t compete there’s no way to get a slice of the largesse. You may have genuine need, such as environmental concerns or artificial reef propositions but without formal organisation you’re invisible.
Meanwhile, you’re inadvertently part of a head count used to argue for a greater share of the public purse of which you’ll likely never see.