The Golden Oldies: Champions of Emerging Sports Policy

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 2

By Greg Hartung AO


Many people – many of them barely remembered — have had a profound influence on the evolution of Australian sports policy.  It is important that we are reminded not only of who these people are, but also of the debates and arguments they championed in order to design the best possible policy framework for the development of Australian sport at a national level.  It serves us well to understand the building blocks which have formed the Australian sport system.

In my previous paper published by the indefatigable Greg Blood on his sport history webpage ‘Australian Sport Reflections’ I traced the design, purpose and ultimate expansion of the Australian Fitness Council from 1939.  It was an immensely important first piece of federal organisational infrastructure which has had a lasting influence on our direction as a national in which sport plays such a uniting and inspirational role.

This paper takes up where the Fitness Council left off.  Below I begin the first of what I hope to be a series of papers dealing with the game changing political developments of the 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and beyond.  The papers will focus fundamentally on the political machinations and thought processes which were at the central of the debates both by our politicians and political parties and by those outside Parliament intent on influencing those within.  By examining these debates through the words, energy and aspirations of the protagonists in the final three decades of the last century we might better come to understand the context of our sports policy history.  We can be better prepared for the future if we can grasp the essence of the past.

Australia has been blessed with some distinguished sports historians, several of whom have delved into how sports policy was developed and finessed over the years and the role of government and government agencies.  My only quibble is that we do not have enough academics and historians who have explored the complexities of the development of the policies and personalities which have helped define what makes Australian sport tick. I make no claim as an historian which is out of my realm; my only qualification, such as it is, has been as a practitioner for most of my adult life.

I have appreciated the articles and insights of my close colleagues who have contributed, often in this website, to exploring our sport policy history — notably Greg Blood himself and also, particularly, former CEO’s of the Australian Sports Commission, Ron Harvey and Jim Ferguson.  and coaching guru Lawrie Woodman. Nothing beats being there and doing it!

I hope the following paper, and those to come, will help throw some light on how historically sport policy jigsaw has taken shape and identify some of the key players who helped put the pieces together. It may provide a useful baseline upon which political debate, and policy decisions, may progress in the future. – Greg Hartung   


Australian Sport Policy in the 1970’s and 1980’s

(Editor: During the period covered by this article, Greg Hartung was a political correspondent based in Canberra and wrote extensively on the emerging debate surrounding sport policy in Australia).

The election of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1972 stimulated a period of abundant ideas and policy development across both sides of the political divide.  The Whitlam government’s Minister for Tourism and Recreation, Frank Stewart, inducted “sport” into the Canberra policy mix in 1972-73 with a multitude of ideas, concrete programs and many good intentions.  He was out of office by the end of 1975 which meant many of the initiatives failed to take shoot, at least for the 1972-1975 period.

For the time being, however, enthusiasm was in abundance, although the cash to back it up was a somewhat more restrained. Nevertheless, the Whitlam Labor Government had put the full spectrum of sport policy — from high performance to participation and sport for all — on the political map in a more comprehensive way than had been done before. 

Stewart initiated the study into establishing a National Institute of Sport, as well as a capital assistance program to develop sports facilities around the country. And he introduced the highly valued Sports Assistance Program to support and sustain core activities within national sporting federations.

Shape of things to come

It was the start of a turbulent political decade which unsurprisingly featured many stops and starts in sport policy.  The perceived “failure” of the Australian Team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics tended to galvanise the Australian sporting community into demanding an ongoing policy and funding response from the Federal Government. Having got this far with its own Federal Minister in government, Sport did not retreat and wanted a permanent place on the government’s social policy agenda. It did not matter which Party was in power:  Stewart had whetted their appetite, but it had not been sated.  They looked at their social policy “cousins” in the arts community and demanded equitable if not equal treatment.

The decade gave birth to the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) which at least for the next 20 years would have a powerful influence of the direction taken by Australian sport through government policy.  CAS professionalised, coordinated and emboldened the sport response. There were other change agents also at play: individual sporting associations, including managers, coaches, volunteers and athletes themselves became more vocal in their demands – and they promoted their agenda with local Members of Parliament.  

Academics and physical education specialists also found voice.  The Australian Olympic Federation and Australian Commonwealth Games Association were prominent and provided input to the political discussion. Although there was often disagreement about the best tactics to follow, the debate was alive and energised.

Of equal importance were the discussions away from public gaze.  The political parties, Departmental and Cabinet Committees of various kind sharpened the political responses to the needs and demands of sport. The small coterie of public servants who advised the Minister of the day were, not surprisingly, very influential. They sifted and refined discussions through the then Sports Advisory Council and contributed to the internal bureaucratic debate and often led the arguments in favour of sport funding when other powerful co-ordinating departments were in opposition.

Champions on Both Sides: The two Barrys

Barry Simon

Sport assembled its champions within Parliament House, apart from the Ministers who had the difficult task of balancing community expectations against the reality of broader government policy objectives and budget constraints. One such “champion” was Barry Simon who was a significant contributor within the internal machinery of the Liberal Party and later encouraged a positive policy response following the change in government at the election in 1975.  He chaired a committee which provided policy recommendations to the new Fraser Coalition Government aimed at rekindling Liberal Party interest in sport policy. He not only drew heavily on the policy advocacy of CAS and the ideas promulgated by CAS, he also argued that it was in the government’s political interests to listen and act upon the demands being put forward by sport.  Simon gave CAS much needed credibility within the Parliamentary Liberal Party.

The 1970s advanced the policy interests of sport as never before — but it was not without ongoing internal debates within the major political parties of what should be the role of government with respect to interventionist sports policy and funding.  The Montreal Olympics, and aftermath, seemed to have sharpened the minds of the Coalition Parties. 

For its part, the Labor Party had given sport a legitimate place in its policy mix and had demonstrated its intent with the appointment of Frank Stewart as the first Minister for Tourism and Recreation.  After November 1975 Labor was out of government and embarked on a process of revitalising its thinking from Opposition.

Barry Cohen

The Labor Member for the NSW seat of Robertson and Shadow Minister was Mr Barry Cohen who, in 1980, had responsibility for sports policy. As the Shadow Minister for Sport, Recreation, Tourism and the Environment, Cohen needed to pick up where Frank Stewart had left off.

Cohen put in the hard policy yards, but he was destined never to get the chance to test his ideas as Minister. Despite his substantial contribution while in opposition – and much to his profound disappointment – Cohen was not given the sport portfolio when Labor returned to government in 1983.  That prize was to go to his colleague, John Brown.

In Opposition, Cohen pushed the case for sport in a paper he produced for the Labor Party caucus in February 1980 while he was Shadow Minister for Sport, Recreation, Tourism and the Environment. The landmark “Green Paper on Sport and Recreation” was designed to stimulate discussion and to identify the issues and future policy for Labor to consider in preparation for government.  For Cohen there was a political advantage to be gained for Labor in pursuing a progressive sports policy.

“There is a profound difference in the philosophical approach to sport between the present Liberal-Country Party Government and the Australian Labor Party Opposition,” Cohen argued when presenting the Green Paper. “These differences are evident in the level of funding and the relative significance given to different aspects of the sports program.”

Cohen said sport had become a “victim” of the Coalition government’s funding cutbacks and it was only the “outcry” from sporting associations that forced the reintroduction of the Sports Assistance Program which was pioneered by the previous Labor Government under Stewart’s supervision.

Cohen: “When questioned on sport, (Prime Minister) Fraser gives the impression that all that is required to produce a fit and healthy nation is a pair of sandshoes and running shorts.  This approach fits in well with the Liberal-Country Party approach that success is up to the individual.  Fifty years ago, when sport was primarily the domain of affluent gentlemen this may well have been true but it is a naïve unrealistic approach these days when wealthy nations are able to provide top quality coaches and facilities and less wealthy but politically motivated countries are prepared to devote considerable time and money to produce top sports persons”.

“If Australia wants to have a fit and healthy nation and to regain its position as a top sporting nation, then it will have to be prepared to spend money.  Not a lot, but considerably more than the $3.74 million now being spent by the Federal Government.”

This was the essence of Cohen’s case to the Labor caucus. 

He promoted a commitment to a dual policy outcome: mass participation and sporting excellence.  

He linked his policy discussion very closely to the improvements it would bring to national health standards.  He referenced the West German Sports Charter of 1966 sponsored by the German Sports Federation to underscore the health and community benefits of sport.

  • Sport promotes the health of the individual and increases the vitality of the people;
  • Sport contributes to developing the personality and is a facet of education for which there is no substitute;
  • Sport offers by many forms of exercise, an effective aid for living together in the community;
  • Sport makes possible the useful enjoyable employment of leisure time.

Cohen highlighted the health benefits of engagement in sport and physical activity drawing upon the evidence of research in several countries, including Australia.  He drew on a report ‘Health Promotion in Australia 1978-79’ produced by the Commonwealth Department of Health and concluded Australia should concentrate its efforts on the school system where “little more than lip service is paid to physical education”.

Cohen was a politician who took an historical perspective in actively developing and arguing for a contemporary sports policy. He wanted to play a leading role as the responsible Minister in government to revitalise Australia sport which he saw as in decline since the Stewart Ministry in the early 1970s. In presenting his Green Paper, he sounded that alarm that Australia’s deterioration as an international sporting nation was “now a fact”.  For Cohen, Australia had become complacent and now it had become critical for the government to step in once again to develop the sport system but on a more consistent and permanent basis.

Cohen: “During the fifties and sixties top sports administrators, coaches and sports writers warned the Government and the sporting public that Australia would fall behind as a sporting nation because of the failure of our Government, particularly the federal government, to provide funds that would enable Australia to keep pace with sports development in other parts of the world.”

He told the Labor caucus that government had hidden behind a certain pride in that Australia was able to produce world champions, despite its small population and despite inadequate facilities, coaching and funds for competition.  “Proof of the superiority of the ‘Australian way of Life’ and our reputation as great outdoor sportsmen was the fact that we could produce world champions on a shoestring.  Australian sportsmen were the last of the true-blue amateurs able to match the best in the world without the help of multi-million-dollar budgets and sporting scholarships,” observed Cohen.  By 1980 only one Australia had reached the semi-finals of the Australian Tennis Open and the highest world ranked Australian player was John Alexander at number 16. Geoff Hunt (Squash) and David Graham (Golf) were the only Australians to win major international events in the previous 12 months. “True, our Rugby League players are probably the best in the world but how many countries play Rugby League?”

Cohen’s Green Paper gave expression not only to what he believed ought to be done by government but also responded to the political policy sceptics who still questioned why government should be involved in delivery of sport in the first place.  Cohen, with a nod to Whitlamesque social development policy, tackled the issue head on:

“The question that many will ask is does it matter? There are many who argue that it doesn’t.  it is not important – whether Australia wins or loses.  They would claim that sport is the new opiate of the people and our obsession with it is unhealthy and something to be discouraged.  This has been a popular theme amongst many commentators in the Australian scene during the post war period.  Australians, they claim, don’t give a damn about anything but beer, beaches and betting….

“Strangely enough the same people who argue against an elitist approach to sport often will argue that more Government funds should be made available for the arts……it seems to me that if Governments should provide funds to develop excellence in art, music, literature, etc, then similarly sport has at least an equal claim on public funds.  In fact, if public interest is a measure of how much support should be forthcoming from the Government, then their claim is even more legitimate.”

Cohen was able to stress two fundamental things – (1) argue powerfully that sport was important for the national not just as a weekend recreation but for national pride and identity, and (2) provide the stimulus to give sport the political traction it needed to warrant a clear policy position for a future Labor government.

He appealed to nationalism, health and fitness, excellence, community, and social development.  According to Cohen, sport ‘ticked’ all the boxes. He used his Green Paper of 1980 to condition his Party to agree to a more fulsome policy document he was preparing for the election to be held in 1983.  This document and the Green Paper outlined a comprehensive policy aimed at supporting high performance sport and coaching, as well as fitness programs and improving sport and recreational opportunities across society.  To support his case, Cohen researched policy in several countries, notably, the US, Japan, Sweden, Federal Republic of Germany, Canada and the UK. Based on this research, the programs started by the first Minister for Sport, Frank Stewart, in 1972-75 and the subsequent enquiry into establishing a national sport institute, Cohen put forward 14 options as the basis of a new policy for Labor to take to the next election.

  1. Acceptance that the Government has a responsibility to provide national leadership in making sport and recreation available for everyone who wishes to participate;
  2. Recognition that sport and recreation has a vital role to play in developing a physically and mentally healthy nation and that part of the funding for sport and recreation should be appropriated from the health budget*;
  3. Establishing a national sports institute to serve as a focal point for sports science, national coaching scheme, international sports relations and sports information. Consideration to be given to the national sports institute being incorporated in the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now University of Canberra) with the Bruce Stadium as its major training facility*;
  4. The national institute to work in cooperation with State institutions which provide training for instructors in sport and physical education;
  5. Increase funding for the development of national coaching programs aimed at achieve excellence at international level;
  6. Increase in funding to assist athletes gain international competition and experience;
  7. Continuation of the Sports Assistance Program to enable national sporting associations to adequately administer their sport;
  8. Increase funding for sports medicine research;
  9. Cost sharing with State and Local Government to provide funds to build gymnasiums in particular in the school system what would be available to students during school hours and to the public at other times;
  10. Continuation of the “Life.Be in It” program with the introduction of an Australian Fitness Award system for people of all ages;
  11. Encouragement and financial support for mature age sports competitions;
  12. Funding of a biennial national sports competition along the lines of the East German “Spartakiad” competition. This would take place at town, suburban, regional, state and national levels with the Federal Government assisting in underwriting the national competition;
  13. Establish an enquiry into the feasibility of introducing tax incentives for industry to provide sports amenities at the workplace;
  14. Establish a national Hall of Fame for sportspersons in the national capital.  

(* my emphasis)

Following the completion of the Green Paper, Cohen and the Labor Party organised a National Seminar on Sport and Recreation to be held in Brisbane on 16-17 February 1980 to be held in the shadow of the growing foreign policy debate over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan and the lobbying by the government for a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games that year. The intent was to share and seek endorsement of the directions proposed by Labor. The seminar at the QE11 Jubilee Sports Centre in Brisbane was attended by athletes, coaches, academics and the luminaries of the sport administration in the early 1980s, including the President of the Australian National Football League, Dr Allen Aylett, the President of the Australian Soccer Federation, Sir Arthur George, the President of the Australian Rugby League, Kevin Humphreys as well as former Cricket Captain, Bob Simpson. 

In a media statement on 7 February, in advance of the seminar, Cohen focused particular attention on core elements of his policy:  the enhanced role of the emerging National Institute and the development of a national competition to encourage participation in sport.  He said the Institute would serve as a focal point for sports science, coaching, international relations and sport information. He further explained that it would be a Labor Government’s intent to incorporate the Institute in the Canberra College of Advanced Education, using the Institute Stadium in the Canberra suburb of Bruce as its major training facility. Cohen was also keen to follow the example of the East German “Spartakiad” which was a mass sporting competition involving four million East Germans between the ages of six and 18.  It was a program organised as a pyramid type competition with finalists drawn from competitions held around the country.  Cohen envisaged that in Australia athletes would compete in Olympic sports at town, suburban, regional, State and National levels.  This was the basis of the idea of the Australia Games, a concept which was attempted, successfully, in 1985 but which subsequently lost political favour.

Bill Hayden adds to policy

The Leader of the Opposition in 1980 was Bill Hayden, a person not known for any great depth of personal interest in sport but with a profound interest in developing a comprehensive suite of policies to equip Labor for the next Federal election. However, Hayden had a deep interest in policy and had developed a reputation for leading the intellectual effort to draft the portfolio of policies for Labor to take to the election. (Hayden was deposed as Leader just prior to the 1983 Federal election and was replaced by the more popular Bob Hawke who was to be the political beneficiary of Hayden’s policy work).

Policy seminars were a key method used by Hayden to tap into expert opinion and to enlist public support. The seminar — for the first time driven and organised by a major political party — was organised to assist the Labor Party to “sharpen and clarify” its sporting policies. Hayden gave the opening address to the Seminar and affirmed Labor’s policy commitment to sport:

“The days have gone when it could be claimed that government had no role in sport which rested on a predominantly volunteer ethic.  In recent years governments at all levels and in all countries have entered the area of sporting policy and have provided varying degrees of funding and other support.  In Australia, this increasing government involvement flowed directly from the decision of the Labor Government to establish a National Sporting Ministry.” Hayden said that following the defeat of the previous Labor Government, the Ministry disappeared as an independent entity and its functions and structures were absorbed in other government departments and authorities.

Hayden viewed sport policy from a wide political lens: “….sport remains very much an important function at all levels of government, and I believe this trend will accentuate in the years ahead.  

“Sport is no longer one of the Mickey Mouse areas of government.  It has important implications for other areas of government – health, education, community welfare, urban and regional development and, to an increasingly ominous extent, foreign affairs.”

1980 and Moscow: Hayden and Fraser

Hayden did not support a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics when sport was singled out as the main sanction against Russia over the Afghanistan invasion – and not trade or cultural links or other forms of sanction. “The United Nations has condemned the Russian invasion of Afghanistan but it has not imposed sanctions.  The relevant international body, the IOC, has strongly resisted pressures to cancel or transfer the Games.  It has adopted the correct view that under its Charter it cannot take the Games away from Moscow. This attitude is shared by most of the nations of the world, including the great sporting nations of Western Europe, Africa and Latin America.”

Hayden’s view was that the government’s Olympic boycott against Russia was “blatantly unfair and opportunistic.”  Efforts had been made by the government to protect trade to Russia, while politics was to overshadow sport and the Olympic Games.

He told Labor’s policy seminar: “If an Australian team does not go to Moscow, but wool, foodstuffs and strategic minerals to make weapons of war still go to Russia, then it won’t be the great ideals of Olympic sportsmanship that will have triumphed.  The only victor will be the sanctity of the dollar.  Crude self-interest will have prevailed over national ideals of sportsmanship, fitness and equality of sacrifice.”

The Prime Minister, Mr Fraser’s position was the polar opposite.  The US President, Jimmy Carter had urged a boycott of the Moscow Games and Fraser agreed. Fraser’s view was that in the Soviet Union, sport and politics were inseparable and that the best way to send a message to Moscow over the invasion of Afghanistan was through a sports boycott. Fraser believed the situation was desperate: he described it as the greatest crisis since the Second World War and even more critical than the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean War and the Berlin blockade.

The sporting community was divided over the issue and probably missed an opportunity to bargain a deal to ensure greater financial security for national sport federations beyond Moscow.  The government made a modest commitment to assist financially should an alternative Games to the Olympics be arranged and it would consider compensation to any companies which would lose money in the event of an Australian Boycott of Moscow. According to Hartung in “Sport, Money, Morality and the Media”, the Australian sports leadership “fumbled their chance to force the government to consider the long-term future of Australian athletes.”.     

In addition to stating his political position on this issue, Hayden was determined to tackle both the political and ideological questions relevant to sport policy. As the alternate Prime Minister, he was keen to explain why government ought to be engaged in sport as a legitimate policy function.  Further, he was keen to negate the impression (shared by Labor’s first Minister for Sport, Frank Stewart) that senior sport administrators were “anti Labor” in their political stance. Hayden used the seminar to deliver the message that government had a genuine role in sport policy; that it was reasonable for sport to accept funds from government and that the world of sport had moved on from the days of the noble amateur exclusively supported by the volunteer. And to reinforce his view, he highlighted the decline in physical fitness among the Australian population and the declining performances of Australia’s athletes on the world stage.

Hayden: “…as a nation we seem to be curiously resistant to any sort of national direction on funding of an intensive effort to restore standards of reasonable physical fitness among our people.

“To my mind, there is nothing sinister in national sporting, fitness and recreation programs.  They have been adopted by countries of such differing ideologies as Canada, West Germany and East Germany.  It is surely axiomatic that a healthy and decent society and a reasonable living quality is very much dependent on good health and a reasonable level of physical fitness.”

Hayden maintained that this social dividend from sport could no longer be assured through voluntary effort alone, “yet the strong feeling persists that sport should be exclusively amateur in its administration and funding.”

Hayden: “This feeling came out most markedly when the Labor Government introduced the first national sporting programs in 1973.

“Somehow the myth persisted that it was better to spend years of fund raising by raffles and barbeques then perhaps put up some rudimentary facility such as a clubroom or tin shed changing facility, rather than to accept government money without strings attached.

“In turn, there was a feeling in some elements of the Labor Party that establishment administrators in some sports were anti-Labor….I should add that my late colleague, Frank Stewart, never lost his commitment to assist Australian sportsmen and women, despite the existence of these attitudes.” Whether real or imagined, Hayden’s message was designed to deal with this perception well before the next federal election.  It was a positive portrayal of the value of government supporting sport from someone who had never laid claim to a personal sporting pedigree. 

He presented Labor as the natural ally of sport. He explained that it was only through significant underwriting from government, particularly the federal government, could there be a substantial improvement in national physical health which, in turn, would be reflected in improved sport performances by elite athletes: “Only in this way can such disturbing symptoms as the faltering levels of support provided for sport by the private sector through direct sponsorship and the exodus of may of our finest coaches to other countries can be eliminated.”  Hayden defined what he saw as the imbalance between policies and funding directed to Olympic and high-performance sport as against grass roots sport, a perennial in the Australian sport debate.

Political Interference 

Hayden raised the potential red flag to fiercely independent sport administrators about the potential for political interference in sport through government funding: “the Olympic Games has shown that such funding is a two-edged weapon.  For the first time it has brought an element of political strings into government support for sport.  If the government is allowed to get away with this over the Olympic Games, then there is no reason why strings should not be attached by future governments for political purposes.”

The specifics of a Labor sports policy, Hayden left to Cohen.  However, he expressed a personal interest in developing a facilities program on a cost sharing arrangement with State and Local Government to provide infrastructure such as stadiums, gymnasiums, swimming pools and facilities for specialist sports such as Archery and Shooting.  While the Commonwealth would be responsible for co-ordinating such a program, Hayden gave no firm commitment but would consider an outlay of $7.5 million as an initial commitment.

CAS as a political player

By 1980, the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) had become a serious contributor to the sport policy debate and was influencing Government and Opposition thinking.  Cohen had invited to the ground-breaking Labor sport conference the President of the Australian Soccer Federation and the recently elected Vice President of CAS, Sir Arthur George, to provide an international perspective on the state of Australian sport. 

Sir Arthur did not miss his opportunity and urged government to adopt some of the approaches of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Eastern Block countries where pride in physical excellence was encouraged:  “Undoubtedly the GDR’s sporting program is politically and socially motivated, and is one more way to develop communism.  But it is, I suggest with respect, possible to ignore the political motives and concentrate on the program itself.  You have to be obsessively anti-communist to ignore the good aspects which are apparent in it.”  Sir Arthur argued the strengths of sport systems in other regions of the world – Asia, Africa, South America and Canada – compared to that in Australia.  He highlighted that the difference was the strength of the political leadership.

Most relevant to Australia was the comparison with Canada, a country of similar size but a country with a vastly different approach to sport funding.

Sir Arthur:  “Funding of sport in Canada for the year ending 30 June, 1977, totalled $25 million and for the year ending 30 June 1978 totalled $32 million.

 “By contrast the total funding for the year ending 30 June 1980 by the Australian Government is $2.7 million, of which $700,000 is specifically for the Australian Olympic Committee. So, $2 million is the figure which must be contrasted with the Canadian figures.”

Sir Arthur (and presumably this also reflected the view of the CAS) advocated a 10-year six point plan:

1: the upgrading of sports facilities at all levels, both competition and training venues;

2:  a program of support to national sporting associations to improve administration and coaching;

3:  assistance to sport to travel to competition domestically and internationally;

4:  a national approach to sport and fitness with a priority to sport in schools;

5:  a national approach to promoting integrity and discipline in sport;

6:  positive effort to regenerate national pride in sport as a way to unify the country.

Sir Arthur, again reflecting the direct approach of CAS, called for a government commitment of $120 million a year aggregate from all levels of government for 10 years.  This aspirational target was eventually reached but not for some years.  Just how this amount would be calculated was less clear than the demand.

Pivotal Moment          

The seminar was an important input to the general push from the sport community for greater government commitment and funding. The Green Paper, and Hayden as Opposition Leader, put ‘Sport’ forward as an agenda item for the next federal election campaign.  Cohen used his position and the additional authority the seminar afforded him to argue sport policy publicly against his government opponents, first Bob Ellicott as Minister for Home Affairs with responsibility for sport and later with Mr Ian Wilson who later replaced Ellicott in 1981. 

As far as a political debate goes, this was a strong sport season. Sport, which still suffered from a lack of status in the political hierarchy, was beginning to be considered important enough to openly argue and debate. Although there was a great deal of common ground between government and opposition policy this did not prevent the political point scoring and this dynamic probably helped rather than hindered the outcomes for sport. 

Many commentators, including prominent coaches and sports academics, had been expressing concern about the decline in Australia’s international sports performances, noticeable since the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games where the host country finished third on overall medals, behind the US and the Soviet Union.  But by 1980 there was increasing concern within sport, voiced by individuals and by CAS, that Australian sport was drifting.

The irrepressible master swimming coach, Forbes Carlile, a virtual one man lobbying group, constantly reminded politicians that it took time and money to produce a champion and that what governments were doing was not adequate. In an interview for the Bulletin magazine on 4 March 1980, just two weeks after the Labor national seminar, Carlile, as if to continue to drive home the message, declared: “We need more coaches, more facilities, better administrators, more scientific aid and more sports medicine specialists, all of which could become realities if sport is an election issue.” Carlile was not only a fierce advocate for and on behalf of elite sport, he also was a passionate promoter of sport participation policy and practice, especially physical education programs in schools.

Carlile had found a willing listener in Labor’s Barry Cohen who promoted the two central elements of labor’s approach to sport policy – (a) to improve national health and physical fitness, and (b) to provide support to Australia’s high-performance athletes to reach their potential.  He promoted the proposal to construct 75 family leisure centres over three years which Ellicott attacked as “an illusory promise”.  There was clear alignment of policy in many areas such as support for coaching development, administrative support for national sporting organisations and for athletes competing overseas.  And there was conformity over support for the 1982 Commonwealth Games to be held in Brisbane and the construction of the new Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.

In a speech to the Australian Council of Health and Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER) in Adelaide on 26 September 1980, Cohen criticised the government approach to sport policy as ad hoc and lacking an inadequate budget: “There has not been…a coherent philosophy or program behind Government involvement in sport and recreation…..An Australian Labor Government will implement a coherent philosophy, long term planning and increased funding to carry it out.”  He highlighted Labor’s national games proposal to promote mass participation and the construction of leisure centres.  Other initiatives included the creation of a national recreation facilities fund and an Australian fitness award scheme.

Cohen and the Liberal’s Bob Ellicott locked horns over sport policy through 1980 to the election in October.  While the Hayden led Opposition came within a few thousand nationwide votes of claiming victory at the 1980 poll, the Liberal/National Coalition triumphed. For sport, it meant that the Ellicott agenda could be further explored, if not implemented, before his departure from the portfolio of Home Affairs in February 1981. That agenda included, inter alia, the opening of the national sports training institute in Canberra; assistance, for three years, to be provided to the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) to establish a Sports Studies course; the development of the proposal for a National Sports Lottery (in conjunction with the NSW Sport Minister, Ken Booth, and the Victorian Sport Minister, Brian Dixon) and the further development of the National Coaching Accreditation Scheme. 

Labor lost the election but the injection of sport policy into the political debate was not lost and three years later when election fortunes changed with the election of the Hawke Labor government, sport was well positioned to take advantage of the attitudes and policies within the new government.  

The political debate was an encouraging sign for organisations such as the Confederation of Australian Sport which challenged contemporary political thinking and cultivated debate.  But putting the political point scoring aside there was not a huge gap between both their aspirations to open opportunities for Australians to engage in sport to the level of their ability or choice.  The dividend would be seen in the appeal to national pride, community spirit and general wellbeing.  The real difference might be seen in the level of funding and the speed of change. The important thing for sport was that it was now the subject of legitimate political debate.  Ministers and Shadow Ministers regularly appeared at various sport forums to address specifically their program of action and to receive input from sporting organisations themselves.  The tide had turned thanks to this generation of political leaders both inside and outside the Parliament.

Postscript – a great deal of the focus in this paper has been on the Australian Labor Party but subsequent papers with explore the sport policy debate with the Coalition parties.

Further reading

  • Green paper on sport and recreation by Barry Cohen. Canberra, Australian Labor Party, 1980.
  • Sport and recreation. Canberra, Australian Labor Party, 1980. (This is an edited version of papers presented at the ALP National Seminar on Sport and Recreation held in Brisbane on February 16 and 17, 1980.)

These documents are held by the Clearinghouse for Sport.

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 3 – Sport Policy Takes Shape: Malcolm Fraser’s Impact

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

5 responses to “  The Golden Oldies: Champions of Emerging Sports Policy”

  1. Greg. Great view. The problem (and has been for a long time) at the moment is that those planning, overseeing the current HP system believe they have all the answers and don’t need to reflect/know the road to today and have all the answers. No consistent coordinated approach to the support and development of the next generation. So sad. The success in Tokyo will mask the flaws and ineffeciencies of what is the environment now.

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