Who governs NSW – Premier Gladys Berejiklian or NRL boss Peter V’landys? One is elected, the other isn’t. One is a blue-stockinged Tory from Sydney’s North Shore, the other is a Labor supporter from working-class Wollongong. Who will prevail?
Premier Berejiklian and the NRL’s V’landys are the strong-willed children of refugee parents who arrived as migrants – the Berejiklians from Armenia and the V’landys from the Greek island of Kythira.
They are locked in a battle that will have implications for the cultural life of NSW for years to come. Ms Berejiklian is flatly opposed to NSW becoming a Rugby League and gambling State. She believes it is a misogynistic, anachronistic and backward-looking prospect. The recent catalogue of NRL drug, alcohol, domestic violence and street brawling scandals has given her argument great legitimacy.
V’landys takes an opposing view. He wants NSW to have the same passion about Rugby League that Victorians have about Aussie Rules. In other words, he wants to turn the NRL into the State’s most popular religion, just as AFL supporters in Victoria follow their teams with the fervour which used to be associated with Christianity centuries ago.
At 49, Premier Berejiklian has taken three years to put her stamp on the premiership. Despite her current electoral unpopularity, Ms Berejikilian has a reputation for hard work, incorruptibility (no brown paper bags on her watch), and the most enduring message of the children of migrants – “I want to put something back in gratitude for the opportunities I have been given”.
In her first speech to Parliament on 6 May 2003, she raised the migrant story, saying: “From a very young age I was imbued with a great appreciation of all the opportunities I had and how fortunate I was to be born and raised in a country like Australia. This experience taught me to be proud of my cultural background but, more significantly, to value the importance of being a good Australian.”
The NRL website says: “Peter’s passion for Rugby League stems back to his childhood. As a child of immigrant parents, playing Rugby League enabled his acceptance in the community. Peter is determined to pay back the debt to the game for the life opportunity it provided him.”
V’landys, aka “Mr NRL”, has named May 28 for the return of Rugby League – with a feature game at Brisbane’s Lang Park last (Thursday) night – while Premier Berejiklian believes the 2020 season should be cancelled for the sake of players and spectators.
Ms Berejiklian chose to enter Parliament as a Liberal MP to “make a difference” while Mr V’landys chose to create a network of influence, accompanied by blagging and a mobile. His supporters felt that the Table of Knowledge was preferable to the Tree of Knowledge.
Ms Berejiklian’s parliamentary career has been stunningly successful. She succeeded former Liberal leader Peter Collins in the seat of Willoughby at the age of 33, and walked into the shadow ministry. When the Coalition was elected in a landslide in 2011, she held a succession of top portfolios – Minister for Industrial Relations, Minister for Transport, Minister for the Hunter, Treasurer, and then 45th Premier of NSW in January 2017 after the resignation of her friend and fellow merchant banker, Mike Baird.
V’landys’ rise to fame and fortune has been no less unstoppable. Educated at Keira Boys High School he graduated from Wollongong University in 1984 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in accountancy. In 1988 he was appointed CEO of NSW Harness Racing Club and acted as adviser to the NSW Government’s privatisation of the TAB. In 2004 he was appointed CEO of Racing NSW, the all-purpose body which runs thoroughbred racing all over metropolitan, regional and rural NSW. At the same time, he took board positions in the wagering industry.
His biggest success was promoting the Vatican’s World Youth Day in 2008 which centred on the Pope’s visit to Randwick Racecourse. He negotiated a $40 million compensation package for the racing industry because of the “disruption” to the racing calendar.
His first bruising brush with public controversy came in 2018 when the sails of the Opera House were used as an advertising hoarding for The Everest, a horse race which he invented. The entry fee was a cool $600,000 with prize money a record $13 million.
Prompted by then Arts Minister Don Harwin and urgers from Events NSW, V’landys was given space in The Sydney Morning Herald to argue his case: “Racing has been part of Australia’s social fabric since colonisation. It was first conducted to lift the morale of Australia’s first work force. Like it or not, it’s in our DNA.”
This is historical gibberish. The idea that Randwick races in the early 19th century are comparable to the luxurious “Sport of Kings” at Randwick in 2020 is not credible.
Isn’t it time to phase out the cruelty of horse-racing and the heart-breaking social damage of gambling and turn Randwick into a botanic garden and playground for parents and children? That’s in our DNA.
Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maarsarwe can be ordered here.