Sport Policy Takes Shape: Malcolm Fraser’s Impact

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 3

By Greg Hartung AO

Flip the coin…sport goes forwards then backwards

Sports organisations had become accustomed to positive support from the Federal Government – but this was about to change with the election in December 1975 of a new federal government and the demise of the former Whitlam Labour Government.  The Department of Tourism and Recreation which, along with the Sports Council, had cultivated expectations among sport administrators that the funding and program drought for sport had ended. National Sporting Organisations were optimistic that sport had found its legitimate place within the government policy framework. 

It was to be brought back to reality in 1976.

Upon election, the incoming coalition government of Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, conducted an overall review of the Commonwealth Public Service in response to election commitments to reign in public spending and bureaucracy. Sport could not escape the axe.  In the process the government abolished the Department of Tourism and Recreation and transferred its sport and recreation functions to a new Department of Environment, Housing and Community Development (EHCD).  Further, there was to be no new funding for sport and recreation and only existing funding commitments would be met.  The funding tap was all but turned off for national sporting organisations.

Senator Ivor Greenwood

The new Minister responsible for the fledgling sport portfolio was, Senator Ivor Greenwood, who defended the government’s position in an address at the official opening of the Diamond Valley civic sporting centre in Victoria on 11 March 1976.  Although he was hardly in the position long enough to make a lasting impression, Greenwood   followed the strict fiscal management doctrine of the new government. He immediately placed any proposed new sports funding on hold.  He explained it thus:

“When it took office the government took the responsibility for the state of the nation’s finances.  We were – and we still are – living beyond our means and reasonable expectations.  We had a deficit – an over-spending – of $4,500 million to $5,000 million ahead of us.  And so we had to get either more revenue or we had to cutback expenditure.

…..In early February the Prime Minister announced saving in government expenditure in the vicinity of $300 million.  Of this, my Department contributed almost $31 million.  But the savings from the sports assistance program were a fractional part of that amount – namely $208,000 and no more. Indeed, of the projected expenditure of $1.5 million this financial year the whole amount will be spent except for this sum of $208,000.

The application for funds which will not be proceeded with are those which were made after November 10, 1975.  Where there were commitments made, for example coaches were appointed and the government was to contribute towards their salary, those obligations will be honoured.”

To sports administrators the funding decisions were a clear setback.  However, Greenwood was keen to explain that the Federal Government would not abandon its interest in sport.  He told his disappointed audience that the government’s position was to place a freeze on funding to existing sports programs at their present levels “except in a few cases where funds have been retained to assist particular on-going programs.”  The Australian Olympic Federation received a grant of $250,000 to assist in sending the Australian Team to the 1976 Montreal Olympics.  Senator Greenwood’s argument was that the funding decision was essential in the national interest after the profligate years of the former Whitlam Government and sporting organisations would have to do some of the lifting.

A frosty reception

The Montreal Games were a watershed event in Australian sport-political history with the Australian team failing to win a gold medal and Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, receiving a frosty reception from Australian athletes on a visit to the athlete village.

Greenwood foreshadowed that he would be undertaking a thorough policy review but that it would be done in consultation with the State Governments to determine where policy responsibility rested.  Greenwood’s position was developed against the background of an overall administrative review commissioned by the government under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Bland.  At the core of the Bland Review was a recommendation of the need for greater coordination between Federal and State programs and more clarity around national objectives along with the rationalisation of responsibilities between Canberra and the States.

Despite the fiscal austerity and structural changes of the times, Greenwood was confident that his policy review to be undertaken by his Department would result in a continuing role by the Federal government in the development of sport and recreation.  And in a comment which would not have been out of place coming from the previous Labor government, Greenwood said:  “ But I wish to make it unmistakably clear that the provision of opportunities for sport, competitive recreation and purposeful use of leisure time are vitally important to our concept of community development.”

Greenwood was one of Australia’s shortest serving Ministers responsible for sport and sadly he was not in the position long enough to see any of his plans develop. He was appointed Minister after the 1975 election but in May 1976 became seriously ill and two months later was relieved of his Ministerial responsibilities to be replaced by Kevin Newman.  Senator Greenwood died of a heart attack on 13 October 1976.

A National Sports Institute

The Institute was a long time in gestation.  The idea of establishing a national high-performance sport centre had long been on the agenda having been raised formerly as a worthy objective in the Bloomfield report: ….  . And it was again raised as an important initiative by the first Minister for Sport, Frank Stewart.  In September 1974 Stewart announced a Study Group under the chairmanship of academic, Dr Allan Coles.  The landmark report was not handed down until November 1975.  It is not surprising that in the turbulent political climate of the times, the report lost its initial impact.  At the heart of the report was the recommendation, based on national and international research, that the government establish The Australian Institute of Sport (TASI).  Given the tough budgetary constraints applied by the new Fraser government, it is not the times were hardly ideal for the government to embark on a new spending initiative, especially one which would have on-going claim to recurrent expenditure beyond the initial capital cost.

The Montreal Effect

The Montreal Olympic Games in July 1976 had a profound effect in creating the circumstances for the government to re-assess its approach to sport, particularly elite sport.  The Games failed to deliver a single gold medal to the Australian Team which delivered one silver medal and four bronze medals.  The disappointing trend was repeated at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. It was out of this so-called failure that future success was to come.  Clearly the reaction from athletes in Montreal and the general public had the desired effect on the Prime Minister.  For Fraser it was a revelation:  not only could government assistance make a difference to Australia’s sporting fortunes, but that it should!

Fraser recalled his Olympic experience some years later on at least two occasions. In a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Friday, 8 October, 1980, Fraser reflected on Montreal and reinforced the important role government should play in backing Australia’s athletes:

When I visited the Australian team after or during the Montreal Games, I met a number of reasonably dispirited athletes. Australia had not done as well as we had on previous occasions and I was very interested and concerned to speak with our own athletes to find out what they thought was wrong.  We also did not do so well at Edmonton, but at Montreal for the first time I think I had insight of our own athletes of the difference that can be made by Government support, support for pre-Games, training and support for institutes of sport……The Australian Institute has since been established.  It is doing very well…

In an address to his electorate on Sunday 11 October 1982, Fraser enthusiastically heralded the Brisbane Games which, he said:

“….brought out the best qualities in Australians and those qualities came through clearly in the efforts and achievements of the thousands of competitors and organisers.

I look back to 1976 when I visited the Australian team at the Olympic Games in Montreal where we had not won a single gold medal.  The team was depressed; Australians in general were disappointed.  The intensive training and coaching and the scientific approach to sport in other countries meant that our athletes were being left behind.

The government had to decide whether we would let the world pass us by or whether we would give our athletes the full-blooded support they needed to win world victories.  We established the Australian Institute of Sport; it has cost $34 million to build and equip so far and it has contributed significantly to Australia’s 107 medals (at the Commonwealth Games) this year…..”

These occasions explain how Fraser came to became a supporter of sport, particularly of the development of a national institute of sport, during his Prime Ministership

Fraser’s epiphany was all but complete: federal government support for sport was about winning and medals. 

Effectively the perceived “failure” of Montreal lit the flame of Australian sport’s revival.

The renewed commitment to Sport was aided by public reaction to Montreal reflected in a Gallop Poll conducted in the two weekends of August just after the Olympics which showed that 70 percent of Australians supported further government assistance to sport.  Dissatisfaction with the government was also gaining traction within sports organisations which were encouraged to join together formally as a Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS).  CAS was for several years to become the main sports advocacy group in Australia. (I will expand on the life and times, success and failures of CAS in a later paper).

Barry Simon

In my previous paper on sport policy in the 1970s I touched on the agenda setting role of Labor MP, Barry Cohen.  Now the Liberal Party had its own “Barry” and a back-room champion of sport. Barry Simon, the Liberal Member for the Victorian seat of McMillan, was instrumental in prompting the new Minister to take tangible steps to develop its own comprehensive sports policy. 

Simon spoke with the Minister in August 1976 urging him to endorse a special committee of government MPs to investigate and report on a sports policy as a matter of urgency.  Kevin Newman promptly took the advice and officially asked the Urban Affairs Committee of the government to refer the issue of government policy toward sport to its Sport and Recreation sub-committee chaired by Simon.  The reference included (a) the possible establishment of a national institute of sport; (b) support for high performance sport; (c) promotion of recreational sport and national fitness and (d) the future of the Australian Sports Council.

Simon saw both an operational and political imperative in moving quickly.  In a letter to the Minister on 28 October 1976, after the sub-committee had completed its interim report, he left no doubt that sport was becoming a political issue. 

In presenting his report, Simon made the following general observations:

  1. It is of absolute urgency that the government make known its policy on Sport and Recreation as quickly as possible.
  2. There are a number of sporting associations which had a degree of expectation established under the previous administration, and which I would strongly urge the Government to “honour”, e.g. the International Archery Championships to be held in Canberra in 1977; the weight-lifting association.  Although we have not documented and costed these commitments, I believe that you have already knowledge of the subjects and that they could be met for the sum less than $100,000.
  3. The political advantage to our Government in firstly meeting the funding referred to in paragraph (2), but more importantly in making our announcement on a policy on Sport and Recreation, is considerable……
  4.  A number of senior sporting administrators have voiced doubts about the Confederation of Australian Sport and the role that it would play in this area in Australia.  I would go so far as to suggest that your name as Minister may well be used by the Confederation to consolidate its position with a number of Associations who are presently extremely sceptical, if not antagonistic.

The Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) which only emerged as a sport leadership organisation in the wake of the Montreal Olympic disappointment in 1976 was clearly already making a political impact.

For Simon, there were votes to be had — or lost — in sport. For all his pragmatic political approach, Simon, though little remembered for his work today, was one of the champions of the Australian sports system within government ranks and provided a direct insight to the Minister of the unrest within sporting organisations. He both publicly and privately advocated a role for the federal government in developing a comprehensive policy toward sport.  In his sub-committee report to Minister Newman, Simon maintained that the Commonwealth had a role, and a responsibility, across the spectrum of sport and recreation, particularly at the elite end. In the opinion of Simon this would be good for Australian sport – and in the political interests of the government. 

He said in his advice to the Minister that the role of sport and recreation was an important element in nation building standing equally alongside the arts and other cultural pursuits.  The comparison with funding to the Arts was frequently used by sports administrators in their arguments to government.  In his advice to the Minister, Simon relayed the sentiment: “It is not unnoticed by a large number of those who came before the sub-committee that the Arts received approximately $20 million in the current (1976) budget to serve 3 to 5 percent of our population, compared with less than $2 million for sport and recreation in which 25 to 33 percent of our population is directly or indirectly involved.”

Committee Recommendations

In arriving at its recommendations, the Simon Committee held meetings in all States and Territories and surveyed sports organisations and individuals with three fundamental questions, viz:

1: Should the Commonwealth Government have a national policy on sport and recreation?

2: If so, should the federal government role be limited to funding international and national sporting events or fitness programs or should it have a broader responsibility?  Should an independent National Sports Institute, responsible to the Minister, be established which would develop a national system of coaching accreditation and encourage fitness and high-performance sport in line with the recommendations of the Sports Institute Study Group (Coles Report)? And should the Federal Government co-ordinate with State and Local governments a long-term facility development plan?

3:  Should the Commonwealth Government resource a national policy from consolidated revenue, or should it source revenues from other avenues, such as a sports lottery? 

Simon reported to the Minister that there was unanimous support for a national policy and overwhelming support for individual initiatives canvassed to be contained in such a policy.  On the matter of funding sources, there was less unanimity: The national sports lottery was a concept which did not get traction then and it does not now, although this has not prevented sports administrators reinventing the wheel every now and then, including some 42 years later.  A sports lottery is no further advanced and the reaction is the same as it was in 1976.

The Simon report optimistically concluded it was “worthwhile investigating” a Russian lottery system for funding sport and recreation.  It also suggested alternative sources such as tax deductibility of donations to Olympic sports as that which occurred in the United States; the apportionment of revenues from sales tax on the sale of sporting equipment (estimated then at $25 million per year) to be used to fund the sport policy.

The report from Simon, delivered on 28 October 1976, reflected the feedback from the national sport meetings and survey results. In a philosophical nod to Australian history and tradition, the report stressed the importance of maintaining the volunteer base of the sport system.  Funding would be derived from the hypothecation of sales tax revenues (all or part) collected by Treasury on sporting and recreational goods. The Committee also recommended the creation of a lottery to raise funds as well as tax deductibility on donations from individuals and corporations, similar to the US Olympic Fund.

Government Sport Structures

There were to be three elements to the Government’s sport structure – (1) the Department which would provide support to national sporting organisations, establish a coaching accreditation scheme and support sports medicine. (2) creation of the Institute of Sport “in the longer term” which would eventually take responsibility for the sport functions undertaken by the Department. (3) the continuation of the Australian Sports Council as an advisory body to the Minister.

The Simon Committee report was important for highlighting the broad political implications of a sport policy and community expectations. Similarly, it reflected the value and initiatives espoused by both the reports of Bloomfield and Coles, but it was relatively conservative in nature compared to another internal draft policy being circulated within government ranks. 

In hindsight — and when considered against the poor level of political policy debate by contemporary standards today — it was an exciting and challenging time for ideas and sport policy. 

Such was the nature of the robust discussion around sport policy that the government circulated a draft policy framework for debate among backbenchers picking up and expanding on the work of the Simon Committee. The draft was never formally adopted or even debated publicly — however, it fed ideas into the policy discussion highlighting how far the discussion had come in less than a year since sport funding had come to a virtual halt. 

It stimulated internal Party discussion. Again, the draft reflected the government’s desire to maintain the independence and voluntary nature of the sport and recreation network and encourage both ends of the spectrum from high performance to participation. It also promoted a radical change of sports organisational framework.

That framework involved:

1:  the creation of a “Australian Sports and Recreation Authority” as a Commonwealth  Statutory Authority;

2: the creation of a “Federation of Australian Sport and Recreation” which would be a representative body elected by national sport and recreation organisations.  Its role would be to provide advice to government;

3:  establishment of a National Sports Coaching Centre.

It envisaged the continuation of the National Fitness Council, a government organisation originally established in 1939 in response to the improve the fitness of Australians during time of war.

The sporting architecture proposed was radical for its time in Australia. However, an amended version of the proposal was to take shape over the next decade. 

Sport and Recreation Authority

Federation of Sport and Recreation

The Sport and Recreation Authority is probably the early prototype of the Australian Sports Commission, the Statutory Authority established by a future Labor Government under Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, in 1983.  The other piece of sport infrastructure — the Federation of Sport and Recreation — was the equivalent of the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) which was already in its early stages of formation following the Montreal Games.

The draft unpublished policy, as circulated within the Coalition Government, envisaged the government establishing and funding both the Statutory Authority, as well as the Federation.  The model would involve the government providing the services, staff and facilities for the Federation Board which consist of those elected by the sports themselves, as well as those appointed by the Minister. The Federation would by advisory to government, be a representative and advocacy body for sport organisations and provide a forum for debate.  The government did not anticipate that the Federation would be an adversary or a complainant. This is where it diverged from the purpose and expectations behind CAS, the industry body established by sport itself to represent its interests to government. 

For its part, the Sport and Recreation Authority would be answerable to the Minister and would:

  • disburse government funding – grants would go toward international travel for athletes and teams.  And salaries would be subsidised for one Coach and one Administrator for all recognised national sport and recreational organisations;
  • train and register coaches;
  • promote education for administrators and for facility managers;
  • fund research into sports medicine in conjunction with the Australian Sports Medicine  Federation;
  • establish a design and building code for the construction of sports facilities;
  • .establish a national headquarters for sport and recreation organisations;
  • design and sponsor national fitness programs in conjunction with the National Fitness Council and the Heart Foundation.


Both the Simon Committee report and the draft policy, although never implemented in full, pushed the sport framework for the Fraser Government which was clearly sensitive to the backlash from sport after Australia’s performance at the Montreal Games.  Policy positions were measured against the “New Federalism” policy which was designed to reduce Federal bureaucracy and control and transfer function, certain revenues and responsibility to the State Governments.  This was Fraser’s response to what he saw as the excesses and centralisation of the period of the Whitlam Labor Government. 

Simon endeavoured to address New Federalism with his emphasis on shared responsibility and non-government funding sources.  Simon’s report and the later draft policy discussion paper were both financially open-ended.  But, as a contribution to policy ideas, the respective documents were ambitious and would have appealed to the sports now uniting under the umbrella of their new peak organisation, the Confederation of Australian Sport.

Both these reports were significant because they reveal the internal policy debate active within the government – a debate which was not only about what government should due in sport, but how it should do it and how should it fund it! It was a period of introspection but a decided shift away from the Menzian ‘noble amateur’ approach to sport when there was no expectation of government funding.

There were now clear signs that the Liberal Party was moving away from the old Party orthodoxy with respect to engagement with the sport and recreation sector. The Party reviews, reports and conversations reflected a new approach to government’s connection with the community of sport aided and reinforced by the core outcomes of the two principle public enquiries and reports to that time – the Bloomfield Report on the Role of Sport and Recreation and the Coles report of the Australian Sport Institute Study Group. 

But there was more — much more — introspection and debate to follow before ideas were to become a reality. This will be covered in future papers dealing with events in the significant decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

Further reading

John Bloomfield.The role, scope and development of recreation in Australia. Canberra : Department of Tourism and Recreation, 1973 (Bloomfield report)

Report of the Australian Sports Institute Study Group.Canberra : Australian Government Public Service, 1975.(Coles report)

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 4 – Swings and Roundabouts: Different Political Philosophies

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

4 responses to “Sport Policy Takes Shape: Malcolm Fraser’s Impact”

  1. Greg,

    Well done indeed. Your reflections on the current, future and past histories are fantastic….look forward to catching up when I can return to CBR…keep well and safe,



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