Swings and Roundabouts: Different Political Philosophies

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 4             

By Greg Hartung AO

The 1970s was a decade of change and policy experimentation for Australian sport and recreation.  It was a decade in which the fundamental political ‘arm wrestle’ – ie whether the Commonwealth Government had any significant and integral role to play in leading policy on sport and recreation – was settled. 

Australia’s first Minister responsible for sport was appointed; an Australian Sports Council was established; several separate and ground-breaking reports and inquiries into sport and recreation were commissioned, including the report recommending the setting up of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). 

It was a period of political engagement between sport and government which had as much an impact on political policy makers as it had on the existing, mostly amateur, sports structures in what could loosely be called the Australian sports system.  The decade started with the controversial and, at times, violent tour to Australia of the South African Springbok Rugby team in July 1971.  This put the spotlight on the South African Apartheid system and how sport was used as public policy for all the wrong reasons.  It resulted in heavy-handed police and political retaliation against protestors, especially in Brisbane.  And, ultimately, it contributed toward positive changes to policy in South Africa and to the emergence of a different political view toward of sport policy in Australia.

Two Sides of the Coin – Whitlam and Menzies    

It was a decade of two halves.  The pioneering work of the government of Gough Whitlam from 1972 to 1975 was followed by a period of hesitation and retraction by the incoming government of Malcolm Fraser in November 1975 followed by further innovation with the commissioning the AIS. The 1970s, regardless of the Party in power in Canberra, was a period in which the political system and the sport system collided as they came to terms with their relationship. 

Frank Stewart was appointed Minister for Tourism and Recreation on 19 December 1972 and as a consequence became Australia’s first Federal Minister responsible for sport. His Department established the Sport and Fitness Branch to advise the Minister and to administer the government’s first forays into sport policy. 

In contrast to much of the preceding 50 years, the government was comfortable that the encouragement of recreation, and by inclusion, sport, fell within the scope of responsibilities of the federal government.  Leisure sat easily within Whitlam’s broader agenda of urban revitalising, personal growth and quality of life.  Although not known for any great depth of interest in sport, Whitlam set the context: he argued why it was an important inclusion in the public policy debate. It was left to Frank Stewart, a former hard-hitting front row forward for the Canterbury-Bankstown Rugby League club, to interpret the policy settings, provide the detail and the rationale and to get programs and funding underway. 

For many Australian sporting organisations confronting tougher international competition, the government’s approach post 1972 was akin to the breaking of a funding drought. Prominent and influential Swimming administrator, Mr Geoff Dowsley, maintained that the preceding federal coalition governments had not regarded funding of sport as desirable or even necessary.  (Ref 1).

Dowsley: “The notion of contributing directly to amateur sport in more than a token way ran counter, indeed, to the philosophies of a party which, under Menzies, had moved towards a reverence for the free enterprise way of life and for English traditions in amateur sport.”  As Prime Minister, Menzies was firmly of the opinion that sport — despite his passion for Cricket — was an amateur activity and a private matter for individuals. Supporting this observation, Dowsley, a postgraduate student in sports history, quoted from a 1951 Christmas message to Australian sports men and women from Menzies in ‘The Australian Amateur’:

‘….Most of you already know the place of honour which I have always assigned to the amateur in sport, and the value which I place on his and her role in Australian life. It is appropriate, therefore, as Christmas again draws near, that I should thank you all for all you have done for your country in the year just ending and wish you robust health and opportunity for 1952.  Keep on playing the game, all of you.  I would not be without your influence or your example in the important year we are about to enter….. (Ref 2)

1972: Before and After

The contrast between the pre 1972 and post 1972 periods was stark.  Whitlam envisaged Sport and Recreation as components of a broader social and quality of life agenda and, indeed, a foreign policy agenda – something to be nurtured and encouraged through specific government intervention and funding. On the other hand, Menzies regarded it as something to be encouraged – but at arms-length from government; it was regarded as a “good cause” and not the stuff to warrant serious political engagement. 

From the outset, Stewart defined the government’s role broadly and comprehensively to include the full suite of activity from leisure pursuits and community sport to elite sport.  The pursuit of a balance within these extremes for both funding and policy has been a subject for debate and argument since.  But for Stewart, his brief was clear: it was part of a continuum and a natural progression from the National Fitness Movement which had commenced in the late 1930s in the shadow of the First World War. 

Stewart’s first report to Parliament maintained that the new Department saw its responsibility as “encompassing the total leisure environment”. (Ref 3) “This is a new concept in Australia. Recreation facilities are part of an interlocking system which offers the individual choices for using his leisure time. The Australian Government’s task is to help ensure that Australians have access to a wide range of recreational opportunities.”

The Department focussed on five core areas to achieve the government’s goals: sports development, fitness, community recreation, youth affairs, tourism.  It consulted widely and commissioned a number of specific reports:

‘From these fact-finding programs has emerged a multi-pronged approach to recreation in which the various streams of sports development, fitness, community recreation, youth affairs and travel are related to each other in a comprehensive network of opportunities offering ever-widening choices to Australians.

There has been emphasis on the Federal Government’s role as providing leadership, facilities and encouragement to all those authorities, institutions, organisations and individuals involved in leisure time activities.’

In a speech to the House of Representatives (Ref 4), Stewart championed the case for sports funding.

‘I sincerely doubt, with due respect to all my colleagues, that there is another Ministry which can provide so much good for so many people with so little money. Every swimming pool, playing field, indoor hall or basketball court we help provide is used by thousands of our people, by the young and the old, the fit and the fat, in their leisure time and during their meal hours.  What is that mysterious, so-called ‘quality of life’ if not the caring for the people’s needs after their working hours in their leisure time?  Ours is a solid, tangible opportunity to translate this often empty and confusing cliché into action and we can do that with a few million dollars.’

Important Reviews

The Department commissioned a number of reviews across sport and recreation none more significant or influential than a report by Professor John Bloomfield from the University of Western Australia: The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia. Presented to the Minister in April 1973, the Report made a number of recommendations covering recreation, Community centres, facilities, sport participation and high- performance sport. The report was important in that it promoted and reinforced the concept that the sport system was grounded by community participation and recreational sport at the bottom of a sports pyramid or hierarchy with elite sport at the peak. In a statement which would not be out of place with the founders of the National Fitness Councils in 1939, it concluded:

‘Because people are failing to adapt physically, emotionally and socially to their rapidly changing environment, Australians of the seventies must be shown how to compensate for the lack of physical activity demanded by today’s technological world.  Only in this way can the quality of life for each individual citizen be improved.

‘Opportunities must be provided so that all people, regardless of income, geographical location or diverse interests, may achieve the sense of well-being which results from satisfactory levels of physical fitness…’(Ref 5)

The report produced 74 recommendations covering recreation, sport and fitness, training and research.  The recommendations were not supported by any estimate of cost, nor was that the aim.  However, they unavoidably carried far reaching implications for government expenditure. In identifying the various elements in a robust sport and recreation system the report was keen to emphasise that the role of community and individuals were supported and not displaced by government intervention and funding. 

In a statement which would have been worthy of the approval of Menzies, the Report said the government would not become a “Santa Claus” handing out money. “Rather it should act as a leader and a catalyst to movements and groups already in our community which at present lack co-ordination and guidance.  Our voluntary system of club leadership, which has done such a commendable job in the past, must be preserved at all costs.’

Menzies, with his arms- length approach, presumably would not have approved of the extended statement: ‘In order for these people to function efficiently however, there must be well-informed guidance from a central body, which can assist in the short-term training of recreation leaders and coaches as well as helping to finance important programs.’

Sport Funding breaks the drought 

The first allocations of funding reflected the breadth and scope of the government agenda. By 30 June 1974, the new government had provided grants amounting to $557,258 to 131 sporting organisations to help cover the costs of travel to national and international events and to support the hosting of events in Australia.  A further $100,000 was provided to the Surf Life Saving Association as a contribution toward the purchase of rescue equipment.  A capital assistance program was also introduced providing $4 million for the construction of single and multi-purpose sporting and recreation complexes.  National fitness funding was increased by $400,000 to $1 million.

By today’s standards these allocations were modest but they marked, for the first time, the responsibilities of the federal government which have been maintained, although priorities and emphasis have changed over time. (Ref 6)  The Department also established close links with recently established State Departments of Recreation. This connection was reinforced through the creation of the Recreation Ministers’ Council, a forum for Federal and State Ministers. The Council was established in 1973 following a meeting of Federal and State Ministers responsible for recreation the aim of which was to co-ordinate the development of recreation policy.

International References

Apart from developing links with sport and recreational groups and organisations, the new Department studied the operation of sport systems in several countries, particularly in North America, Europe and the United Kingdom.  It drew upon international experts and overseas models in a national three- day seminar organised in April 1974: ‘Leisure – a new perspective’. 

The seminar was a significant initiative aimed at consultation and enlisting support and ideas from an impressive and disparate group: federal and state politicians, government departments, universities, youth groups, welfare associations, sporting groups, religious, tourist and industrial leaders.  ‘In the last sixteen months or so we have moved into areas previously uncharted: we have probed and experimented and acted on issues affecting the life-styles of millions in this country, all with a single aim: to add a new and richer dimension to that life-style.’(Ref 7)

Much like the whole of government program under Prime Minister Whitlam, initiatives in sport and recreation were undertaken at a rapid pace.  In his address to seminar delegates, Whitlam said: ‘When the Department of Tourism and Recreation was created in December 1972, community recreation was a mere catchphrase; we had no national projects, no experience and very little data on this complex subject. Now, through a process of study, consultation and action with state and local governments and other interested organisations, real progress has been made towards developing a national recreation policy.” (Ref 8)

Whitlam documented the financial and policy support given for sport and fitness programs and the National Fitness Council and to the construction and use of facilities:

  • $4 million to the States since the budget of August 1973 for the building of sport and recreation facilities. “We realise that ten times that amount would not meet the existing demand and fill the enormous gap”. (Ref 9)
  • A pilot study with the South Australian government to enhance the use of school sport and recreation facilities. The government planned to make school leisure facilities available for the use of the whole community;
  • $1 million to assist national amateur sports organisations.  “…our assistance program should encourage mass participation in sport.  At the same we should encourage and help the very elite on which any sport’s broad appeal is based.”;
  • Planning for the first national Sports Council as an advisory group to government;
  • Early planning for a study into establishing an Australian Institute of Sport “for education, coaching and research in sporting activity.”;
  • Increased support to the National Fitness Council and to life saving organisations;
  • The development of sport and recreation courses at Colleges of Advanced Education to train recreation workers;
  • A new impetus to include leisure as an integral part of the school curriculum.

Whatever else might be concluded about the Whitlam government, initiatives in sport and recreation were conceived and implemented at a hectic pace. 

Whitlam’s perspective on leisure was viewed through the prism of quality of life for Australians: “The capacity for leisure, the enjoyment of games, arts and conversation for their own sake, is one of the defining qualities of our species.”  It was regarded as a basic human right and for Whitlam the programs supporting sport and recreation were part of a broader plan to enrich the lives of Australians.


  1. Geoff Dowsley, The Black Tide, official journal of the Wales Swimming Club, Vol 3, No 1, 1985, p.1
  2. Robert Menzies, A message from the Prime Minister to Amateur Sportsmen, The Australian Amateur, Vol 1, No 7, P3. December 1951, p.3
  3. Dept of Tourism and Recreation. Review of activities for period December 1972 to June 1974, Canberra, Dept of Tourism and Recreation, 1974. p 1
  4. Frank Stewart, Speech of Her Majestry The Queen, House of Representatives, 7 March 1974 (Championed the case for sports funding).
  5. John Bloomfield.The role, scope and development of recreation in Australia. Canberra : Department of Tourism and Recreation, 1973, p.1
  6. Frank Stewart. Opening address by the Hon FE Stewart MP Minister for Tourism and Recreation, Leisure, a new perspective : papers presented at a National Seminar in Canberra, 22-24 April 1974, Canberra, AGPS, 1975.
  7. Gough Whitlam, Paper, Leisure, a new perspective : papers presented at a National Seminar in Canberra, 22-24 April 1974, Canberra, AGPS, 1975, p.34
  8. Whitlam, p.34

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 5 – The ‘nitty gritty’ years from Kevin Newman to Bob Ellicott: Australia Sport
Policy 1975-1980

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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