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And Suddenly We’re Voiceless

Spare us the crap about spiritual connection. Surfers have built a culture on selfishness.

Australian surfing utterly abandoned the campaign for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. Thirty-nine percent of Australia voted in support of the Voice. Where was that 39% represented in the surfing community? Not a single state surfing association endorsed it. Nor did Surfing Australia. Oh that’s easy, you say. That’s because they don’t want to risk their government funding. Well, have a look at the number of sporting associations who chose to take that risk.

Back in May, twenty of Australia’s biggest sporting codes, including the AFL, NRL and Cricket Australia, issued a joint statement in support of the Voice. Surfing Australia, despite its adoption of Sport Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan, was not among them.

Individual athletes? Not a cracker. Again, the argument – they can’t afford to risk the financial support of the brands behind them. Okay, seems reasonable – at least for those who aren’t already safely affluent through surfing. Reasonable, that is, until you recall that plenty of them were happy to risk their endorsements and speak out against the Covid health measures that were limiting their access to waves.

But let’s follow the money and look at the brands behind the athletes. Rip Curl, who loudly launched their Reconciliation Action Plan in March this year, and who like to daub their surfers in ochre? Quiksilver? Billabong, who’ve made a name for themselves running Indigenous surf events? Nothing between the lot of ‘em. And if you think being a listed company offers the excuse of protecting a share price, tell that to the major banks, to Wesfarmers, Woolworths and Coles, who all managed it.

All those millions and millions of dollars. All those eyeballs.

The commonest response to all of this is, bugger off mate, sport should ride above politics. But there’s two problems with that line: firstly, sport is inherently political already, everywhere, all the time. Privilege is invisible when you’re up to your neck in it. And secondly, surfing is much more than a sport. It’s a way of life, a culture, a significant community within the nation.

The Gold Coast voted around 70% no. How might that figure have changed if, say, a handful of globally famous retired pros who live there had decided to take a stand?

It’s easier, isn’t it, to deck yourself out in the latest Indigenous art-themed boardies. Easier to virtue-signal your knowledge of the First Nations name for your favourite beach. Harder to read and learn, to form an educated position about voting in a referendum which is overtly, starkly, about race.

It’s harder still to have difficult conversations about your attitudes – with friends and loved ones, and in the public sphere. It’s not that we’re shy about the public sphere – quite the opposite. We’re just leery about being principled when we’re there. It’s more gratifying to post photos of yourself getting barrelled, or shoulder-claiming because, a little bit like social issues, it’s easier to sit on the shoulder and get your arms in the photo than it is to get under the lip and commit.

There are honourable exceptions, and in naming the ones I’ve seen I’m doing a disservice to those I haven’t. But there’s Ted Grambeau (trolled on Insta for his troubles, which, knowing Ted, won’t bother him one bit), Patagonia, Surfers for Climate, and a lengthy and civil exchange on Swellnet.

Could it be that, like a great many other social issues, surfers fear losing an emerald or two from their precious treasure? Generations of us have grown up learning not to share, to be covetous and secretive. Mistrustful, willing to protect our patch by force if necessary. The relationship between any given surf photo and its caption – on social media, even more so than in print - tells you this: I want you to admire me as hero, but I don’t want you to know where I am. I want publicity and not-publicity.

When all of those things are your shared cultural values, the misinformation about how a Voice might affect you becomes the paramount consideration. And the truth is, it wouldn’t have affected you. Not one zac. The waves would still break the same. Your board would still cost the same. You’d still have access to your SUV and your ski and your freeway.

But had things gone the other way, First Nations people might have had access to decisions about their health. About their incarceration. About the defilement of their sacred lands by resource companies (most of whom shared surfing’s stony silence, with a few no votes thrown in). About education, housing, race-hate laws, artistic copyright. About living fulfilled lives in a shared nation.

In writing this, my mind turns to the inevitable trolls I’m poking. To the indifferent, the cynical, the actively racist. To those who think this is political posturing, or fodder for a hilarious round of post-modernist shit-canning. And I hesitate. Because I’m trying to sell something too – my writing. And that’s how we all get suckered, how we all get intimidated out of speaking.

But here’s where the problem really bursts into flames. You might disagree with me about the Voice. You might have genuine, well-considered arguments why you feel it wasn’t the way to go.

But what about the next issue? This was a test of us, of our willingness to collectivise. What does it mean for the massive, undeniable, existential threats to our seas, and to our climate? Surfers are among the communities best positioned to speak out about climate – about the imminent threat of oil and gas exploration along our coasts, for example. This is so because we observe and interact with the coast every day. We understand weather and currents and coastal forms better than almost anybody. We should be leading the discussions, banding together.

But we don’t, because of our culture of selfishness. Because we worship at the altar of individualism.

We’ve condemned ourselves with our deafening silence. In saying nothing, we’ve said everything.

Jock Serong, 2023

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