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NRL back the Voice

This article is by Josh Butler and Mike Hytner for The Guardian, Tues 9 May 2023.

Picture: Wests Tigers and South Sydney Rabbitohs players take part in a smoking ceremony during the NRL’s Indigenous round launch in 2022. The organisation says it will back the Indigenous voice to parliament. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

NRL joins growing number of sporting codes backing Indigenous voice to parliament

Major Australian sporting organisations expected to play a significant role in the yes campaign, with AFL and Cricket Australia yet to announce a stance.

The National Rugby League is the latest major sporting code to back the Indigenous voice to parliament, joining a growing list of elite athletic organisations campaigning for a yes vote in this year’s referendum.

As the two major football codes hold their Indigenous rounds in coming weeks, a long-mooted campaign of support from sporting groups is expected to intensify toward a referendum likely to be held in October – shortly after the AFL and NRL grand finals.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, the NRL said it had been a proud supporter of the Uluru statement from the heart since 2017 and that it was “committed to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.

“True change comes through listening, learning and taking action – and we encourage everyone in the rugby league community to get informed by the facts, and use their voice, so that we can move forward together,” a spokesperson for the NRL said.

The NRL noted it had its own “independent voice” since the founding of the Australian Rugby League Commission, in the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council (ARLIC). The statement said the ARLIC played “an integral role in making representations to the ARLC with ideas and views on behalf of Indigenous peoples across the game”.

The ARL commissioner, Prof Megan Davis, is one of the architects of the Indigenous voice and the Uluru statement from the heart.

“First Nations communities have deep bonds with rugby league and are part of our fabric at all levels, from grassroots participants and fans to the Indigenous stars who light up the NRL and NRLW,” the NRL’s statement read.

The Yes 23 campaign welcomed the move and said it reflected widespread support for the voice across the community.

“In its statement today the league encourages people to get informed so that we can move forward together – something we fully endorse,” the yes alliance campaign director, Dean Parkin, said.

The major Australian sporting organisations are expected to play a significant role in the campaign for the Indigenous voice, as part of a large civil society push for the change that will include charities, trade unions, church groups and business leaders.

Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, the organising and fundraising body behind the Yes 23 campaign, includes on its board former Liberal adviser Tony Nutt, Wesfarmers chair Michael Chaney, strategist Mark Textor, former Labor adviser Lachlan Harris, and Tanya Hosch, the AFL’s head of diversity and inclusion.

The AFL last week reportedly sent a memo to its member clubs asking them for their position as it considers its own stance. Several AFL clubs including Collingwood and West Coast Eagles have already pledged support to the referendum.

“The AFL continues to undertake a consultation process with stakeholders from across the industry led by Tanya Hosch and the AFL’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council,” an AFL spokesperson said on Tuesday. “A final position will be made by the AFL Commission.”

The NRL will hold its Indigenous round next week, while the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls round will feature the annual Dreamtime at the G match. Guardian Australia understands both football codes will feature referendum material in their Indigenous rounds.

The Australian Olympic Committee has already lent its backing to the yes campaign, while Tennis Australia and Football Australia have both expressed their support for the Uluru Statement From the Heart and its implementation, which includes a voice to parliament.

Rugby Australia, Cricket Australia and Netball Australia are yet to formalise a public stance, but are continuing discussions within their respective organisations.

A spokesperson for Rugby Australia said it was “committed to the reconciliation process” and that it was “discussing the matter internally and remain[s] in the process of engaging with our stakeholders, including our First Nations Committee”.

Cricket Australia is conducting an education process around the referendum, “to ensure all staff, players and others across the organisation are appropriately informed about this important issue”.

Netball Australia is also offering educational sessions.

“As part of netball’s declaration of commitment, Netball Australia made a public commitment to listen, learn and change with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and this important work continues,” a spokesperson said.

The referendum is expected to be held in October. The AFL grand final will be held on 30 September, while the NRL grand final will be on 1 October.

Government sources expect the codes to feature referendum material in their finals series, including during pre-match entertainment and cultural performances.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said last month: “I know from speaking to a number of the NRL and AFL players, both past and present, that they will be active in putting their views in support of constitutional recognition.”

Advertisements from the Yes 23 campaign are already being broadcast during football games.

The Nationals senator and shadow Indigenous minister, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, leader of the Fair Australia campaign against the voice, last week criticised sporting groups planning to join the referendum.

“It’s not for them to promote something in this capacity. To me it’s like a huge virtue signalling exercise,” she told 2GB. “Sports should stay the hell out of politics.”