Reflections on the Role and Objectives of the Australian Sports Commission

By Ron Harvey CVO AM

Recently I have reflected on three issues related to the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) – the role of statutory authorities particularly the ASC, its role in sport and the importance of grassroots sport and athlete pathways.

My reflections come from being former ASC CEO, AIS Director and Consul-General to the United States.

Statutory Authorities

The recent ‘sports rorts’ affair has brought into question the role of statutory authorities.

The role of the ASC can mean many things to many people – the coach, the athlete, the official, the parent or the volunteer. If you really wanted to find out about the politician’s intentions you would need to research the speeches associated with the legislation establishing the ASC and its additional activities.  (1)

The ASC is a statutory authority and to begin it is wise to understand how statutory authorities slip into the public administration process. Statutory authorities are established by legislation to assist departments in the specific functions that it undertakes. They are established to avoid political interference and actions such as gerrymandering and pork barrelling. The Minister has direct control of the Department but the Minister’s control over a statutory authority can be somewhat grey in areas. Any formal direction from the Minister to a statutory authority is expected to be in writing and tabled in Parliament for debate. Statutory authority’s Board is responsible to Parliament for annual reports and appearances at Senate Estimates and Parliamentary Committees. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a statutory authority is responsible to the Board of that authority not to the Minister.

In the case of the ASC, the control of the ASC is in the hands of a Board appointed by Government and these appointments are Cabinet appointments. The CEO is a Cabinet appointment. The ASC must be cognisant of government policy and prepared to discuss their actions with the Minister or with the Departmental Head.

A statutory authority should also be aware of the policies of state and territory governments in the federal system. Any action taken by statutory authority should be in conjunction with the state authorities in the same area. The other factor that ASC needs to consider are national sports organisations (NSOs) policies. It should not be forgotten in the Australian system that NSOs have ultimate control over their sport. It is not for the government to dictate policies to NSOs but to assist them NSO to achieve their objectives. The use of financial assistance as a lever to achieve government objectives is not desirable.

To me, Australian Government and NSOs need to work more closely to develop policies with a common goal rather than have them dictated by government.

Let us now consider the role of the ASC. In my mind, it is to assist Australians to participate in the sport of their choosing and the level to which they aspire. To understand this role, we must settle on a definition of sport.  To me sport is physical activity in an organised competitive environment. That excludes mental pursuits and recreational non-competitive activities.  In recent years, the ASC has moved away from sport into the broad physical activity space. To me this has moved away from its current legislation which is restricted to sport – organised competitive physical activity.

Grassroots Sport

Community sport participation can be important to all people – from the elderly person learning to play lawn bowls, to wheelchair bound adult playing wheelchair basketball to the primary school student learning how to swim. Community sport is where people get introduced to coaches, officials (umpires/referees) and administrators – generally volunteers from the local club. Volunteers are the foundation of sport of the Australian sport system.

I believe it is important to have a strong association between the local club and the local school. Primary and high school students should receive the benefit of the local sporting club in the sport of their choosing. I think that sport in regional and remote areas is an example of where this interaction works well. More often than not in these areas, the local teacher may have a role in local sporting club as a coach, administrator or official – so the link very strong.

ASC’s Sporting Schools program endeavours to provide this linkage between clubs and sports organisations. This program commenced in 2015 and has assisted 8,000 schools. The 2021/22 Federal Budget s program provided $40.8 million to continue the program until the end of 2022. This program should have a longer-term commitment from the Australian Government and additional resources provided to local sporting clubs to ensure that that they have the resources to effectively engage in this worthwhile program. Many local sporting clubs that help to deliver the program are currently hard pressed in terms of volunteers, finances and facilities.  

The ASC should devote the necessary assistance so that all Australians can benefit from improved coaching techniques, officiating and well-run clubs. This is the beginning of the journey in sport.

Athlete Pathways

After Australians start their journey in sport, there is the need for well- resourced NSO pathways to assist those aspiring to the top levels of their sport. The ASC should assist NSOs to ensure that they have sufficient resources in pathway development. This could be through additional ASC funding or by the ASC requiring a percentage of their NSO funding to athlete pathways.

Strong and well-resourced athlete pathways will be essential if Australian athletes and teams are to be successful at the 2032 Brisbane and South East Queensland Olympics and Paralympics. Athletes likely to be successful at these Games may be between eight to sixteenyears at the moment.

My thoughts  on the role of the AIS in high performance sport, were outlined in my recent article.

In summary, I believe the ASC has three objectives – strong community sport participation led by NSOs with improved links to the school system, efficient and effective NSO’s athlete pathways and the AIS strongly assisting NSOs in high performance sport whether through supporting or operating programs.


The strength of Australian sport is in the community – local clubs linked to state and national sports organisations. There should be a better linkage between clubs and school system. It is where local, state and federal governments should provide more support and assist with this linkage.

To me, organised sport is very important as it is generally about community and its volunteers as opposed to unstructured physical activity.  Australia’s future international champions will come from a strong grassroots sport foundation with well-resourced athlete pathways.

In the federal system, it is important that ASC cooperate with state and local governments to achieve their objectives. Currently, the division of responsibility is very blurred between federal, state and local governments. Disappointingly many government decisions are based on political grounds instead what is necessary in the community and sport. Community sport facilities is a classic case at the moment of this division.

Sport has a unique place in the Australian psyche. In times of trouble, it is the wind beneath our wings. It is our introduction to the world. Our heroes and role models are endless from Don Bradman to Ash Barty. But without sport we would be a country without a challenge. Sport is one of the ingredients that makes us proud to be Australian.

My two previous articles –

Australian Institute of Sport – a national ‘living’ icon – 23 January 2021

Further reflections on the Australian Institute of Sport – a national ‘living’ icon. – 1 March 2021

(1) Legislation and parliamentary debates on Australian Sports Commission ACT 1985 was published by the ASC and is available through Clearinghouse for Sport website.

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