Up For The Fight: Commonwealth Government’s First Tentative Steps Toward the Development of a National, Co-ordinated Approach to Fitness, Recreation and Community Sport

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 1

By Greg Hartung AO

It was the threat of World War II which provided the stimulus for the Australian Government to take the first tentative steps toward the development of a national, co-ordinated approach to fitness, recreation and community sport.

The Second World War — and Australia’s perceived lack of physical preparedness among the ranks of potential military aged recruits — provided the urgency for such an intervention. Until 1939, the pursuit of physical fitness and recreation was left mainly to the community and to volunteers.  The First World War and the intervening depression years had taken a heavy toll on a young Australia.  As war clouds threatened again in Europe, questions were beginning to be asked whether Australia was fit enough if it came to a fight.  The impetus for a change in approach came from the then recently established National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) which called for formal action to address declining levels of physical fitness and health. This gave encouragement to government to get the process moving. 

The NHMRC successfully campaigned for the creation of a National Council for Physical Fitness (NCCPF) which later would become known as the Commonwealth Council for National Fitness.  The February 1937 NCCPF Minutes record that the Council would have as its main objective “…a standard of physical fitness such as this country, with its racial heritages, natural environment and economic opportunities should show.”  The strongest voice for action within the forum of the NHMRC was the Chair and the first Director-General of Health, Dr J.H.L. Cumpston, who proclaimed that the necessity to implement a fitness program nationwide, had the support of the public and the State governments.

As valuable as the efforts of the NHMRC undoubtedly were, it was the depth and effectiveness of political leadership which provided the solid foundation for the future success of the National Fitness Council and its network. The concept was a genuine and ambitious national model with leadership and funding support, albeit limited, provided through the Commonwealth. The national government provided the leadership; the States greatly enhanced project development and delivery in an early example of Australian co-operative federalism in recreation and sport policy. It was a significant initiative for a young country which in 1940 had a population of about seven million and which had only formed itself into a Federation 39 years earlier.

National Co-ordinating Council for Physical Fitness

As a precursor to the establishment of the formal Council, the Federal Government convened two meetings of the National Co-ordinating Council for Physical Fitness (NCCPF) in Melbourne on 5-6 January 1939 and again on 2 May 1939. Both meetings were chaired by the Commonwealth  Minister for Health, Senator H.S. Foll.

From the outset it was planned that the State governments would establish similar Councils and would work with Local Government and undertake their own programs with the assistance of modest funding from the Commonwealth.

It was probably the first and – as history would show – successful effort by the Federal Government to bring together the three levels of government in a co-operative effort to improve national fitness levels albeit with the initial primary motivation to improve the fitness of military recruits and industry personnel. It later became broader in its scope and covered health and fitness initiatives across the population, both city and country. Facilities such as gymnasia and playing fields were to be made available to the general public for community recreational purposes. The wide range of activities – from public education, health and hygiene standards through to recreation, fitness and physical education training and sport — also provided opportunities for the private sector and general community to be engaged in partnership with government in developing and delivering fitness and recreational programs. 

There was no suggestion, in this formative period, that the Council should interfere in the affairs of sporting organisations or provide them with any direct funding support. However, many of the initiatives undertaken or encouraged by the Council in the ensuing years would have a direct and positive impact on sport. Although the focus of the Council, especially in the early years, was clearly on the delivery of fitness and health outcomes, organised sport was identified as one of the areas of activity which could achieve those beneficial outcomes. Fitness and health were the objective and community sport became a means to that end. Sport, Recreation, Health and Fitness came eventually to form part of the same continuum. 

A National Network

The January 1939 meeting of the Co-ordinating Council was held just eight months before Australia entered the Second World War.  The Co-ordinating Council records show that the NHMRC, in its advocacy for such a Council, had envisaged a national network with shared goals and aspirations and which understood the role and fundamental importance of the nation’s volunteer base :

“It is recognised that this is particularly a field of endeavour in which instead of looking passively to Governments to do all the work and provide money (which may or may not be well spent) the people of Australia should help themselves.  Unless the voluntary ideal proved sincere by such willingness it may well be suspected to be a mere escape from obligations….Governments can direct and assist, both morally and financially, these excellent endeavours if an organized framework is established. 

The NHMRC made four key recommendations to the Minister for Health, viz:

1:  that he establish immediately a National Council for Physical Fitness answerable to the Minister;

2:  Involve State Ministers for Health and request the States establish related State Councils;

3:  Invite Local Governments to develop new community recreation facilities or improve those that already exist – playgrounds, sport fields, swimming pools. Community committees should be established to co-operate with local authorities in the provision of local facilities aimed at improving community fitness levels;

4:  that a permanent organisation be established.

The national co-ordinating council (NCCPF) interpreted its brief very broadly and wanted the States to do the same, suggesting that each State Council be made up of representatives from Health and Education Departments, Local government, women’s organisations, the youth movement and sporting bodies.  Foll made it clear in his remarks to the first session of the Council that the value and purpose of the Council, and its program of activities, was not just limited to war readiness: “….whilst national fitness is inseparably bound up with the question of defence this movement is one which the nation needs whether in war time or peace time.” 

Name Change: Commonwealth Council for National Fitness

The Co-ordinating Council met for a second occasion as a co-ordinating council on 2 May 1939 by which time Sir Frederick Stewart, had replaced Foll as Minister for Health.  It was agreed at this meeting that the name of the Council should be changed to ‘The Commonwealth Council for National Fitness  (CCNF).

After consultation with the States, and a lengthy ‘trial’ period, the work of the National Council, and the affiliated State Councils, was brought together under the authority of the National Fitness Act 1941.  The legislation, which became operational on 1 August that year, gave the Council an advisory role only; it was not given executive powers.  The Council was required to provide advice to the Minister on the promotion of fitness, specifically facilities for physical education and the maintenance of physical fitness and the training of teachers and leaders for the promotion of physical fitness.  In undertaking this responsibility, the Council would promote physical education and fitness throughout Australia including schools and universities.  

The structure for each meeting provided for a detailed report on activities from each State Council which would be under the direction of the Education or Health Minister in the respective States. In addition, the “fitness organisers” in each State would meet prior to each meeting of the full Council to discuss operational matters in more detail than would be possible during the official Council meetings.  For instance, the States began the process of collecting data on facilities using a model developed by Victoria.  The facility audit covered park lands, public playing fields, children’s playgrounds, public swimming pools, public gymnasiums, community centres, baby health centres, sporting bodies and clubs.

The CCNF declared that each State was free to arrange its priorities and activities as it saw fit and that the National Council would be inclusive of representatives from each State Council.    Therefore, the CCNF was to work through State networks.  It acknowledged, however, that because the challenge was national, it was the “full responsibility” of the Commonwealth Government to finance any “expanded program”

Priorities: not only the war effort

Funding was modest at the beginning, but carefully targeted.  There was a strong emphasis toward physical education in schools – a Council resolution on 2 May 1939 declared that physical education should be a normal part of the school curriculum and that ‘lectureships’ in physical education should be established at Universities throughout the country. An initial grant of £20,000 per year was provided by the Commonwealth with half the funds being directed to Universities in each State to hasten the training of Physical Education specialists. The balance was reserved for other elements of the campaign. 

From the outset there was an identifiable and urgent need for qualified physical education teachers if the aspirations of the CCNF – and those of the government – were to be met.

The priorities and rationale for the CCNF were further reinforced during the fourth session on 9-10 May, 1940.  The Council identified the priority target group for the national fitness campaign to be “children of school age and youths (boys and girls) between the ages of 14 to 21.”  and that the campaign should be supported by the Education Department.  While most accounts of this period reflect the view that the initiatives of the Council and its State affiliates were predominantly aimed at the physical fitness of military recruits, the deliberations of the Council were much broader in scope.  Resolution 2 of the fourth session concluded:

“It should be emphasized that individual fitness is the essential condition for national, social, economic or moral development. It should not be specifically associated with military needs or war conditions.”          

As early as October 1941, State National Fitness Councils were already reporting a close collaboration with sports clubs to encourage participation in their activities. Victoria advised the National Council that it believed sport had an important role in promoting national fitness. Particular emphasis was placed on swimming and support was provided to Royal Life Saving and to learn to swim classes.  From the outset, the success of the Council depended on enlisting the involvement of community organisations, including the YMCA, YWCA and Scout and Girl Guide associations, Police Boy’s Clubs as well as State and Local governments and their respective agencies in the national fitness effort.  

The programs through the States covered an array of initiatives – from nutrition education and youth welfare to schoolboy boxing championships to the fielding of cricket, swimming and badminton teams. “Fitness” covered a wide canvas. Health and fitness were the goals of the Council; sport was one of the vehicles through which they could be achieved.  

Political Support

Initial meetings of the Council were chaired by the incumbent Commonwealth Minister for Health and included senior figures from government, community and the military.  The depth of political support for the Council gave added impetus to its program. This support included a young politician, Mr Harold Holt, who was present at the first meeting of the Council and for several later meetings. Holt was a political protégé of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, and, like Menzies, had a keen interest in sport.  Holt in fact achieved some degree of success while a student at Melbourne University where he became President of the Sports and Social Club at Queen’s College and won “Blues” in both Cricket and Australian Rules Football.  

As a young Member of Parliament, Holt was appointed to the initial Co-ordinating Council and attended the first four meetings of the Council from 1939 to 1940. Notes of the first session referred to Mr H. Holt M.P. as “a member of the Federal Parliament who has shown a live interest in the question of national fitness over a number of years.”   

Holt was later to become the Minister for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and in 1966 replaced Menzies when he retired as Prime Minister.  Holt’s interest in sport and physical fitness continued during his relatively short 22-month period as Prime Minister and in 1967 he launched the CNFC ‘Fitness Australia’ campaign in a national television broadcast. ‘Fitness Australia’ became the precursor for the very popular community based public education campaign entitled ‘Life. Be In It” launched nationally in November 1977.

Physical Education Development      

Melbourne University had begun offering an early course in physical education, as a Diploma, as early as 1937 — but more specialised training in Physical Education was still only available overseas or at a limited number of private training institutions in Australia when the Council commenced its work.   The Council heard that Teachers, engaged by State Education Departments received “incidental training” as part of their general teacher training but had been held back because of the lack of specialised training for teachers, physical education methods and practice. The quantum of Commonwealth Government funding gradually and marginally increased and an additional £50,000  per year was budgeted in 1943 and, for the first time, funds were provided to State Education Departments for the development and extension of physical education in schools and Teachers’ Colleges. 

Despite the urgency thrust upon the Council by the demands of the Second World War and the requirement that immediate action be taken to improve fitness and health throughout the community, there was an understanding that more permanent changes needed to take place which would last beyond the conclusion of the war.  The continuation of the Council, its work and its network was considered the obvious first step to meet this objective. This view was also reflected among the members with some of the States, led by Western Australia, in 1945, moving to establish their own Councils as Statutory Authorities providing a greater sense of security of operations.

The CCNF looked to the Commonwealth to broaden its role to include the development of physical education departments at Universities as well as physical education in schools, programs in teacher’s colleges, youth fitness strategies, international co-operation and research.  Encouragement of “sport” – while not its core focus – was not off the agenda, although Senator Foll at the inaugural meeting was less than enthusiastic about high performance sport meeting the government’s objectives:

“…The Olympic Games and Empire Games, whilst they have done much valuable work, to my mind fail in the main essential inasmuch as they provide for the specialists only and for a handful of people at the top of the athletic tree instead of encouraging physical fitness en masse.”   

Despite Foll’s reservations, community sport and an association with sports governing bodies remained as part of the agenda and became increasingly prominent, as the Council matured in the years ahead.

British Model  

While no detailed studies of the effectiveness of the CCNF’s programs were undertaken, a review of progress was conducted in 1945 by the national office. The review drew a comparison between Australia’s challenges and the performance of the British national fitness movement.  Britain had served as a model for the Australian Council with its focus on public campaigns, health standards and physical fitness.  

Activities of the British National Fitness Council ceased with the outbreak of War whereas in Australia they continued. Britain had the advantage, however, of a more developed and sophisticated organisational structure to sustain it beyond the war with a strong combination of fitness programs, Colleges of Physical Education, physical education in schools, regular camps and a ‘Central Council for Recreative Physical Training’. 

Reflecting on Australia’s predicament, the review observed that in 1939, at the start of the war, the methods used to teach Physical Education in Australian schools was two decades behind those used in Britain.

“The Australian campaign, after its initial period of publicity, found itself faced with this challenge. Whereas in Britain, the real foundations had already been laid, in Australia they had to be created.  It was in realising that challenge and in being given the means to meet it, that the National Fitness Movement secured for itself a permanent future.  It is certain that the movement would have survived no longer than the British, if it had not been able to move beyond the stage of a mere publicity campaign for physical fitness.” 

Beyond the War

The Australian fitness movement indeed survived beyond the war: the Council established the platform for more extensive government involvement in sport and recreation in future years.  In his analysis of the period, John Bloomfield in ‘Australia’s Sport Success: the Inside Story’ questioned whether the objectives of the Fitness Movement were fully achieved – “but at least a structure was in place on to which some additional recreational functions could be grafted after the war years.” (p34).  Responsibility for oversighting the State National Councils increasingly became the responsibility of State Education Departments and by the end of 1944 it was only in Victoria where the State National Fitness Council remained under the control of the Minister for Health. The Health portfolios in the respective States continued to be represented on the Council Boards.

Federalism at Work

The national fitness movement was a genuine beneficiary of Commonwealth/State co-operation.  This became the foundation upon which wider co-operation in the delivery of sport and recreation opportunities would be made possible as respective Departments and bureaucracies were established from the 1970s. In June 1973 a meeting in Canberra of Federal and State Ministers responsible for sport and recreation agreed to form a Recreational Ministers’ Council (later to be called the Sport and Recreational Ministers’ Council) with the aim to more formally co-ordinate the development of sport and recreation in Australia.        

What were the key successes of the formative years before the end of 1945 and what would be its achievements going forward?  The CCNF only ever presided over a small budget, but it compensated for the lack of funds with strategic alliances and careful targeting.  As it matured as an organisation perhaps its biggest contribution to the evolution of the Australian fitness, recreation and sport system was the encouragement it gave to other organisations to form, co-ordinate and work together. The results of that can be seen in the Australian sport and recreation system today. The Australian system is grounded on the foundations of independence, volunteerism and co-operation. According to the then Commonwealth National Fitness Officer, Kathleen M. Gordon, writing in the 1945 national office review, the Movement had succeeded in establishing itself “as an educational and recreational movement for youth with physical fitness as its basis.”

Throughout the early years, the Council emphasised the need for continuing training of leaders in physical education and physical recreation and the development of facilities for physical recreation for adolescent youth. The States reported close engagement with local government especially with respect to the development of recreational facilities as well as the development of national fitness camps, hostel and youth hostel associations.

Sport Gets Support

When the CCNF met for its ninth time on 29-30 October 1946, the NSW National Fitness Council had placed ‘sport’ on the agenda – NSW was particularly seeking financial support for surf life-saving clubs which were largely run by volunteers.  In supporting the NSW suggestion, the CCNF expressed the wish not to single out any particular voluntary organisation for special attention. Nevertheless, the issue was now firmly on the table and it would return. 

The signs that the interests of sporting organisations needed greater attention and support from the Council did not disappear. Sport continued to emerge as an item for discussion and decision at later meetings of the CCNF, particularly in the period immediately before the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. But it was not at always positive toward high performance sport.  There was concern, for instance, expressed by Tasmania at the September 1954 meeting of the need to encourage smaller amateur sports groups which were not actively preparing athletes for the 1956 Olympic Games: “Because all resources might be devoted to training the few, there was the danger of losing the spirit of sportsmanship in the over emphasis on competition and the winning of events.  Every opportunity should be taken to emphasise the best in sporting tradition, as this should be more important to Australia than the winning of events in the Games.”

Sport was often seen as central to Australian social and community life, but it took many generations before it was viewed as something government ought to financially support.  Sport Historian, Dr Bob Stewart, in ‘Australian Sport: A Profile’ maintained that the prevailing political view was that sport was not something for government involvement or responsibility.  Not surprisingly given this attitude, the contribution by State governments to sporting organisations during the 1950s and 1960s were small. 

They shared the Commonwealth view that sports and recreation, being essentially non-utilitarian, elective, private pursuits were not appropriate areas for government involvement.  As a consequence, sports financing was seen to be the responsibility of the local community, involving a combination of local government, volunteer labour and internal club fund raising.  Large scale sports funding through State governments did not emerge until the 1970s…… (Bob Stewart Australian Sport A Profile 1985)

By comparison with many countries, particularly within Europe with more mature sport systems, the role of government in sport policy and funding in Australia was slow to emerge.  However, as Stewart points out, this reluctance to play a more significant role did not seem to inhibit what is generally regarded as a golden age of Australian high-performance sport in the 1950s and 1960s with world champions across several sports – notably athletics, swimming and cycling.  The extent to which National Fitness programs and support encouraged such talent to develop is an open question but it is reasonable to conclude it had a positive influence.   

Foundations and Partnerships

While arguments may be mounted questioning its depth and effectiveness, the early national fitness movement through the Council and its national architecture provided a foundation or reference point upon which future sport policy initiatives could be built. It was a beginning and it brought together the three levels of government and relevant bureaucracies as well as community and private sector organisations.  State National Fitness Councils actively encouraged the establishment of sports committees and the co-ordination of sport interests in their respective States.  Specific attention had been given to coach education and training, as well as the development and placement of sports playing amenities.  The development of a network of popular national fitness camps were highly successful and a visible reminder of the rationale for establishing the Council. As the Fitness Councils recorded, by 1954, a number of milestones had been reached:

  • Western Australia – The State Associated Sporting Committee boasted 25 major sports organisations as members and had conducted a number of “schools for coaches” in 1953.  Attendees at these schools included 65 Soccer coaches drawn from clubs; 60 coaches from 15 women’s Hockey clubs and schools, Teachers College and University; 51 Cricket coaches from clubs, schools and the Women’s Cricket Association.
  • South Australia – The establishment of the South Australian Women’s Amateur Sports Council by the Fitness Council.  The acquisition of land for the development of a combined sports centre for women’s amateur sport.
  • Tasmania – 24 Coaching schools and junior competitions were conducted under the auspices of the Tasmanian Associated Youth Club Southern Recreation Association and field officers. The total enrolment in the courses was 644, and the courses were conducted as weekly sessions over three to 23 weeks.  They covered the sports of  badminton, batinton, basketball (men), cricket, gymnastics, soccer, softball,, surf life-saving, tennis, table tennis and volleyball (women).  Weekly sports competitions were held in athletics, basketball, cricket, soccer, table tennis and volleyball involving 1,670 young players.
  • New South Wales – The NSW Sports Federation was established in 1953 following a series of sports forums organised by the National Fitness Council.  The Federation comprised a membership of 40 organisations including representatives from the State Fitness Council.  A function of the Federation was to encourage the development of playing fields and facilities and to assist the assimilation of migrants through sport.
  • Queensland – Meeting facilities were provided for a large number of sporting organisations.  Flood lights at venues were provided and ‘learn to play’ schemes were organised.

Amateur Sport

The link between the CCNF and sport had been established to a level not planned at the commencement of the Co-ordinating Committee’s work in 1939.  Assistance to sport by the 1950’s had become a regular part of the annual reporting and an important instrument in achieving results. The 1951 Report of activities by the Commonwealth Minister for Health, Sir Earle Page, commented:

One of the most important developments in National Fitness activity over the last two years has been the increasing assistance given to amateur sport.  While it has not been possible to give financial assistance to any extent, State Councils have found ways and means of rendering valuable service in kind to these groups. It is felt the encouragement of amateur sport for young people can go a long way towards meeting the problem of unattached youth, which the established voluntary youth organisations have not yet been able to solve. 

This interest continued, and in 1954 some funding, although small by today’s standards, began to flow from the State National Fitness Councils to sport.  The report for that year acknowledged that the South Australian Council had provided direct grants to sport amounting to £610.  This included £300 to the South Australian Women’s Amateur Sports Council for a memorial playing field project and £200 to the SA Women’s Basketball Association for the resurfacing of courts.   (Ref: 1954 report)

Menzies – Hands Off

Researchers such as Stewart, point to the reluctance of  Federal Coalition governments in the period from 1949 to 1972 to intervene in the delivery of sports policy, programs or funding.  Prime Minister Menzies held the view that sport was a matter for the individual, not government.  In 1938-39 assistance to national fitness was a mere $6000 rising in modest increments to $350,000 per year by 1969. By the mid-1970s the assistance rose to $600,000 mainly as the Commonwealth’s contribution to the Life.Be in It campaign. An “aberration” was the Olympic Games hosted by Melbourne in 1956.  It was on this occasion that the Federal Government come forward with essential funds particularly for venue and infrastructure.        

Menzies may have been by nature hands-off when it came to government policy, but he was a lover of sport nonetheless, particularly Cricket. He was a regular attendee at Cricket Tests in both the UK and Australia and he inaugurated the signature “Prime Minister’s X1” match in 1951 against the touring side. However, Menzies’ credentials did not extend far into the sport policy space.  His attitude was very much an extension of the old English amateur traditional approach to sport – markedly different to the approach by government toward sport in both the UK and Australia some decades later.

Game On

Fast forward to the Federal election of 18 May 2019 and there was nothing “amateur” about the Liberal Party approach to sport funding.  It was poles apart from the Menzian tradition of small government. Millions of dollars were promised and invested in a range of sporting facilities, events and programs by the Liberal/National Party coalition.  It was not just the Coalition Parties; Labor was into the spend-fest as well.  Up to 240 clubs and organisations were blessed with Federal cash.  No longer was the Federal Government limiting itself to matters national in nature; it was delving right down to the State and Local levels – where the Parties mine for votes. The beneficiaries were AFL teams and Netball and Swimming – in fact, just about any activity which attracted a viewing and interested public.

Despite the reluctance of the Australian Government to take on responsibility as a funder of sport and athletes, the CCNF continued its supportive role at the community level.  Coinciding with the 1956 Olympic year, Australia agreed to host the World Congress on Physical Education in Melbourne.  It was viewed by the CCNF as an opportunity for Australian physical education practitioners to gain first-hand knowledge about international trends in physical education from physical education and fitness and health leaders from other countries.  Significantly, the event provided the opportunity for the inaugural meeting of the Australian Physical Education Association.  The Association was also represented on the organising committee for the Congress which received supporting funding of £1500 from the National Fitness Fund.

Decline of National Council  

After a robust and influential beginning, the National Fitness Council’s role gradually became less critical to the national effort from the late 1950s as the State Councils took on more responsibility. The CCNF provided a consolidated report for the years 1959 to 1961 and 1962 to 1964.  Funding to the States in the early 1960’s was set at £72,500 per year which went primarily to support the programs of Universities, Education Departments and the State National Fitness Councils. 

States tended to set their own priorities to suit their particular State circumstances.  Support varied, but all States by then were supporting sports clubs. In NSW, the Fitness Council had established a Sports and Recreation Committee and sports received cash grants and access to a range of services and programs such as coaching.

In Victoria, the sport connection was through the Youth Council to which eleven sports were affiliated. Queensland did not make cash grants to sport but offered administration services and coaching courses to sport.  In South Australia, the Fitness Council fostered a Council of Sport and Recreation as a consultative body on a range of sport projects.  Some funds were also provided.  Western Australia established an Associated Sporting Committee, with 46 member sports, as a sub-committee of its Fitness Council. The member sports were assisted with office services and access to meeting room.  Some cash grants were available but these were made through the Associated Sporting Committee. The Tasmanian National Fitness Council worked with the Tasmanian Sports Council to develop and utilise sport and recreation facilities.  Coaching programs and office services were provided to sport, but no cash. 

The Funding Tap: On and Off

With the exception of the work of the various State Councils within the National Fitness Council framework, history shows that prior to 1972 successive Commonwealth Governments maintained a relatively benign attitude toward sport funding.  There was intermittent funding of Australian teams to attend the Olympic Games and Empire Games and there were a few thousand dollars made available to support national teams attending world championships.

The 1985 report of the Interim Committee of the Australian Sports Commission (ICASC) documents funding for Australian teams – $40,000 was provided to the Olympic team to the 1960 Rome Olympics; $60,000 for both the Tokyo and Mexico Olympics in 1964 and 1968 respectively.  Even lower levels of funding were made available to the Commonwealth (Empire) Games teams.  In 1968 the team received $16,000 to attend the Cardiff Games and the same amount for each of Jamaica (1966) and Edinburgh (1970).  The funding was solely for the purposes of team preparation, outfitting and travel.   

The Commonwealth provided supporting funds to both the Surf Life Saving and Royal Life Saving movements ranging from $10,000 a year from 1951 to 1958 to $50,000 per year in 1972-73.  Both Royal Life and Surf Life historically have been consistently supported with federal funds on an annual basis.

In addition to the support given to these organisations and events, the Commonwealth, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, supported individual Australian sporting teams with small one-off funding grants to attend international competition in the decade before 1972.

State Departments of Recreation and Sport began progressively to replace State National Fitness Councils through the 1970s and absorbed most of the functions previously undertaken by the Councils. Oversight and co-ordination of fitness initiatives became the responsibility of the Sport and Recreation Ministers Council (SRMC).

Life. Be in It 

One of the high-profile programs to emerge in the 1970s was the ‘Life. Be in it’ program.  The program was an extension of the work of the Fitness Councils. Originally conceived and developed in Victoria in 1975, it was designed, using popular cartoon characters as a marketing tool, to encourage Australians to be more active and to enjoy physical activity.  The national program was launched jointly by Federal and State and Territory Ministers in November 1977. The Federal Government allocated a minimum of $600,000 a year for three years to the national project which comprised widespread advertising and promotional activities. The funding from the Commonwealth ceased in 1981-82. The ‘Life. Be in it’ program proved immensely popular and while the role of the CCNF was phased out, its enduring impact was reflected in the emergence of such programs. The ‘Life. Be in It’ program was still on the political radar in 1980 when the then Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation, Mr Barry Cohen (ALP) issued a discussion paper within the Labor Party caucus designed to encourage a policy debate on sport and recreation policy.  “The campaign” he said “appears on the evidence available to be successful in that it has made more Australians aware of the relationship between an overindulgent lifestyle, physical exercise and good health.  Surveys already taken indicate that 82 percent of the population are aware of the campaign and its objectives……Fun-runs and jogging are now immensely popular with the recent Sydney City to Surf run having 24,000 participants.

“However, I suspect that the campaign requires a further step to cash in on the basic message that the Life.Be in It campaign has achieved,” Cohen stated in his discussion paper.  And further….

“…there is the general feeling that the campaign lacks specific goals for people to aim at.  Endless jogging and exercises can be very boring for a large number of people who may quickly tire if the only result is the knowledge that it is good for their health.”  Cohen recommended that an element of competition be introduced to the Life. Be in It campaign citing the Canadian Fitness Award program where youth between the ages of 10 and 17 are given recognition for achieving certain fitness standards. He suggested that the targeted program could also be extended to other age groups in Australia.       

More Valuable than Cash

The advent of the CCNF, whatever the initial and primary war preparedness priorities and agenda, was recognition that the Commonwealth had a genuine role to play in this area of Australian life as a partner with other levels of government and the community. At its very basic level it spelled out the role of the Commonwealth in supporting the health, fitness and well-being of Australians and to provide opportunities to enrich their lives.  This role grew organically to embrace community sport and associated functions such as organisational support, provision of amenities and support for administration and coaching — an outcome acknowledged by Julie Collins and Peter Lekkas in ‘Fit for Purpose: Australia’s National Fitness Campaign’ in the Medical Journal of Australia, 2011:

 “Beyond the metrics of fitness, the Act’s legacy is more tangible.  It provided crucial material resources and infrastructure in local communities.  Perhaps more importantly the Act nurtured the emergence of physical education, recreation and sports medicine bodies, including the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation and the Australian Sports Medicine Association (now Sports Medicine Australia).  Indelible also was the provision in the Act for research by the NHMRC into causes of physical unfitness.”

“In its governance, design, application and rhetoric, the Act was strikingly modern. While authority of the Act resided with the Department of Health, the department cooperated with departments of labour and national service and, at a state level, education.  With the Act commanding a position federally while engaging across multiple levels – national, regional and local – fitness was afforded a prominence to which current health initiatives aspire.”  

Repeal of Act  

The National Fitness Act was not repealed until 1994 although responsibility for fitness and recreation policy shifted to the Recreation Ministers Council in the 1970s. The longevity of the CNFC supports the view that government, and the community, regarded action across the full spectrum of what the CNFC took on as its agenda as important and worth government attention.  Funding was limited and organisational architecture was not yet in place when the National Fitness Act was passed in 1941 but the positive achievements of the earlier Co-ordinating Council helped ensure that there was to be an expectation of a continuing role for government in the delivery of programs and funding aimed at the health and fitness of the population.

Canberra’s Second Fiddle

While it is important not to underestimate the positive role performed by the National Fitness Council network during and after the Second World War, it is equally clear that the Commonwealth has continued to evolve its role in fitness, recreation and sport (although not always in a productive or successful direction).  

Attempts to nurture an enduring level of collaboration between Canberra and the States has had mixed results.  And often it appears that recreation and participation in physical activity and sport has played second fiddle to Commonwealth government funding and programs directed at high performance or elite sport – something which would not win the approval of the pioneers who started the ball rolling in 1939.

The ‘It’s Time’ Time       

The status and funding of sport and recreation changed quickly in 1972 with the election of the first Federal Labor Government in 23 years under the leadership of the Gough Whitlam with a broad ranging social program which included quality of life issues such as the encouragement of community engagement in sport, recreation and leisure.

Whitlam saw sport and recreation in the context of a broad social agenda which included education, health, transport and employment. His interest was not in sport per se but in how it fitted into society.  Though not a great sport enthusiast, he did see sport as an important ingredient in enriching the lives of Australians and hence was deserving of government attention. It was this, not a deep passion for sport, that motivated him most of all. In an address prior to the 1974 federal election, Whitlam underscored his philosophy which was to shape not only his tenure in office but, indirectly, future policies of successive governments:

“No government’s responsibility terminates with bread and butter issues, with matters of finance, employment and defence – though material prosperity and national security are essential conditions for the good life.  To an increasing degree governments are expected to improve the intellectual, artistic, recreational and sporting opportunities of their people.” (Address to ‘Leisure – a new perspective’ seminar 22-24 April 1974)

Whitlam saw sport and recreation fundamentally through the prism of social development:

“We are seeking to restore the basic right of the people to a richer life…..Leisure and recreation and their many offshoots affect the whole community: the school child, the young mother, the aged, the handicapped as well as the athlete.  All have a right to create for themselves leisure activities and outlets most suited to their needs, environments and temperaments.” (ibid)

The government created the Department of Tourism and Recreation and Whitlam appointment Australia’s first Minister responsible for sport, Frank Stewart.  The creation of State departments responsible for sport and recreation followed suit.  Along with the Departments came the National Sports Council – the forerunner to the Australian Sports Commission – the Australian Institute of Sport, the Sport and Recreation Ministers Council (SRMC) and Standing Committee of senior departmental officers. 

And the Influence of the Council…..

To conclude that the CCNF was solely an instrument created to support Australia’s war effort would be understating its significance in preparing the way for government to accept that it had a responsibility to support sport, recreation and fitness as a legitimate role for government and as part of a broader social agenda. Sport and recreation and supportive policies were to become a more familiar part of the political lexicon in the later years of the twentieth century.

This was perhaps the most far reaching legacy of a non-sportsperson to Australian sport…. In his main campaign address in 1972, Whitlam proffered the philosophical foundation for his government’s future role in supporting sport and recreation: 

“There is no greater social problem facing Australia than the good use of expanding leisure. It is the problem of all modern and wealthy communities. It is, above all, the problem of all urban societies and thus, in Australia, the most urbanised nation on earth a problem more pressing for us than for any other nation on earth. For such a nation as ours, this may very well be the problem of the 1980s; so we must prepare now; prepare the generation of the 80s – the children and youth of the 70’s to be able to enjoy and enrich their growing hours of leisure.”     (Extract from the election speech by the Hon Gough Whitlam, ALP Leader, delivered at Blacktown, NSW,13 November, 1972.)

The following year, Australia’s first Federal Minister for Sport was appointed and, with this initiative, a new and more interventionist role for the Federal Government began.    


The 1941 National Fitness Act was a fundamentally important first, yet tentative, step toward a more interventionist role for government, Federal and State, in the delivery of policy, funding and organisational architecture in sport and recreation. The place of the Council in the evolution of the Commonwealth’s role in fitness, physical recreation and sport is even more significant given the circumstances in which it was created.  It is now possible to draw a clear line between circumstances and response in 1939 to 1972 and the commencement of the range of changes that began to take place in Australian sport and recreation.   

While the CCNF was a trailblazer in the emergence of the Australian political response to recreation and, eventually, to organised sport, it was by no means without significant limitations.  Funding was not adequate for the task assigned to it.  But this could not be seen as a criticism of the Council itself, rather a manifestation of the state of the Commonwealth budget and the prioritization afforded by government to its programs. However, there was no doubt the Council had ambitions which stretched beyond its balance sheet: from the training of physical education teachers and instructors, to the development of implementation of hygiene, health and fitness programs, to the development of infrastructure, to support of life saving at beaches and waterways through to youth camps and the development and support of recreation and sporting opportunities.  All of this was delivered through a co-operative network of State councils to city and country and across all age groups.  

It would be a mistake to measure the importance and effectiveness of the National Fitness Council superficially and solely in dollar terms. To use a sporting term, it began from a standing start! It was a starting point for future reviews and structural changes in a range of fields, including the delivery of sport and recreation policy and related services since it began in its early form in 1939. This was accelerated in the early 1970s to begin a period of growth – and change – in the Australian sport and recreation system.

If the lack of adequate funding can be interpreted as a weakness it might equally be used to highlight the extraordinary achievements of the Council despite being confronted with significant funding challenges. The CCNF was an organisation which demonstrably showed what could be achieved in a federal system through co-operation among all stakeholders – government and non-government. 

Author’s Background

Greg Hartung AO brings great knowledge and experience to the development of sport in Australia. He was a sport & political journalist, Member of the Interim Committee of the Australian Sports Commission (1983-1984), inaugural CEO Australian Sports Commission (1983-1988), Commissioner of the Australian Sports Commission (1991-1996), 2006-2010), Chair of the Australian Sports Commission (2008-2010), President of the Confederation of Australian Sport (1989-1995) and Australian Paralympic Committee (1997-2013) and Vice President of the International Paralympic Committee (2009-2013) and Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra (2014-)


Part 2 –  The Golden Oldies: Champions of Emerging Sports Policy

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

4 responses to “Up For The Fight: Commonwealth Government’s First Tentative Steps Toward the Development of a National, Co-ordinated Approach to Fitness, Recreation and Community Sport”

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