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

History of Australian Sport Policy: Part Five

By Greg Hartung   AO

The harbinger of the eventual demise of the Whitlam Labor government was the Tasmanian BAS by-election in June 1975.  The seat was won with a spectacular swing of 17 percent to Kevin Newman for the Liberal Party. Though by elections rarely favor the incumbent Party, this one was noteworthy not only because of the size of the swing but also that it was seen as an electoral predictor of the eventual fall of the Whitlam Labor government which occurred in November of the same year.

Newman became a key player for the incoming Fraser government as it continued to come to terms with its role in sport policy.  As discussed in our preceding paper, Senator Ivor Greenwood was appointed as minister for the Environment, Housing and Community Development (EHCD) which included “sport” among its responsibilities.  Illness limited Greenwood’s Ministerial career and he was forced to step aside in early 1976 after just a few months in office. His Ministerial position was filled by Newman who was enjoying a heightened reputation in the wake of his convincing by election win the year before. 

It is true that the Liberal Party’s attitude toward sport policy was still a work in progress; as Minister responsible for the development and delivery of sport policy, Kevin Newman had the challenge of defining the boundaries for Federal Government commitment. 

Newman, a former army officer, was an efficient and thorough manager of the portfolio.  He was disciplined and was not about to offer sport a big spending budget. Newman was a committed politician in the Liberal tradition, as was his family.  His son, Campbell Newman, was later to become Premier of Queensland in a Liberal National Party government and his wife, Jocelyn Newman, entered Parliament as a Senator for Tasmania in 1986 and was later to be appointed to the front bench as Social Security Minister in the Howard government.

Mere Money

Kevin Newman was admired in the Liberal Party for his service to the Party and for his by-election heroics. He could be seen as “old school”. In an address on 18 August 1977 in Melbourne to launch the Australian Olympic Federation’s 1980 Olympic campaign, Newman explained that the role of the Commonwealth was to reinforce, not replace, the principle of self-help within sporting organisations – “the government remains conscious of the fact that the voluntary principle is the basic element of the Australian sports system….”. (Ref 1)  He said the Commonwealth would focus on those areas not undertaken by other levels of government.  This would mostly be at the high-performance end.  The budget was set at $1 million for 1977-78 to assist in international competition; the administration of national sporting organisations; development of national coaching schemes; research and information and development.  There were to be no free lunches for sport.

Newman offered further explanation of the government’s approach in an address the following month to the annual meeting of the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS).  He called on State government to do some of the heavy lifting. (Ref 2)

Of the $1 million budget, Newman conceded: “In the overall government budget this is not a massive figure but it represents real concern for Australian sport and is merely a starting point.  When one considers the implications of our federalism policy in the sports area, that is, the funding of State teams to national titles is more reasonably a State responsibility, it becomes obvious that the $1 million in 1977-78 will go a lot further than previous funds.  Five of the six States now help their State teams to national championships and the Commonwealth funds are over and above this.”.  Newman also highlighted a one-off grant of $10 million from the Commonwealth to the Queensland government to support the staging of the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982.

In apportioning the $1 million, Newman deferred to the six-person Sports Advisory Council chaired by respected sports administrator, Jim Barry. The funds were to be applied 52 percent to international competition in Australia and overseas, 25.3 percent Administration, 14.5 percent coaching, 2.7 percent to nomination development projects, 5.5 percent to research and information dissemination.

The Newman Approach

Newman’s views and actions were modest, especially the funding levels, and reflected the government’s broader federalism agenda.  By reflecting on the historical debates, arguments and funding initiatives we can get a better understanding of where Australia sport is now and the journey to get here.

Newman’s approach was designed to allow national sporting organisations (NSOs) the time and opportunity to mature and better fend for themselves.   The funding came with strings attached.  Firstly, Federal Departmental officers were to participate in the recruitment processes with the sports for executive officers essentially because the government did not have the confidence that the sports had the capacity themselves to make the right choices. The government’s financial assistance was designed to raise the administrative standards of volunteer run organisations. 

It was a fine line the Minister was treading between providing the circumstances to get the sports to a certain professional administrative level without compromising the professed policy of independence and self-help. In essence, Newman was old school conservative; more in the ‘hands off’ tradition of Sports Minister.

When Australians are not meeting expectations of success at Olympic Games or at international events, it is not uncommon for politicians to become disciples of the “winning is not everything” perspective on sport. Newman was no exception to that rule.  In a statement in Canberra on 26 July 1976, after the disappointment of the Montreal Olympics, Newman declared that “…winning Olympic gold medals is not the be-all and end-all of sport…we have to decide what Australians really want with the finance available, which requires difficult decisions about priorities.” (Ref 3)

He need only to have spoken with the Confederation of Australian Sport or read its ‘White Paper’ on the priorities for Australian sports policy to answer his own questions.  More on the White Paper and the role of the Confederation is explored in future Papers in this series. (Ref 4)

Don Cameron

Newman’s approach to his portfolio was not universally applauded by his Parliamentary colleagues. Don Cameron, the Liberal MP for the Brisbane electorate of Griffith, was not so squeamish about the quest for Olympic glory. 

In a statement recorded by Hartung in “Money, Morality and the Media”, Cameron said: “….to give them their due, the ALP when in government helped sport like it had never been helped before.

“….since the introduction of federal government assistance in 1973, seventeen Olympic sports have attracted total expenditure of $920,000.  We have got one bronze medal for $120,000 in swimming; two bronze for $104,000 in yachting and one bronze in the equestrian event where the princely sum of $3,172 was spent.  $101,000 spent on athletics in three years gave us a nil return.  In the last three years we have spent $64,000 on hockey and some results are evident there.  It seems crazy that in the 1974-1975 financial year, seventeen of the Olympic sports were given almost $400,000; but because of government intervention in the year that mattered most, the expenditure program for those sports was $20,000 less.  It would have been worse if the previous government had lost office earlier.” (Ref 4) 

Robust Debate – a Good Thing        

A common and distinguishing feature of the period of the 1970s and 1980s was the robustness of the sports policy debate.  The Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) and the pro-sport lobby had its political backers. However, Minister Newman was not easily swayed. He told the 1977 Confederation AGM that despite the criticism levelled at the government for its slowness in committing funds to sport, he had seen “little evidence” of sports being able to plan their own future.  (Ref 2) He advised the assembled sport leaders that, in future, they would need to substantiate their claims for government assistance by providing four to five-year development plans.  Newman was ahead of his time — it was not until the establishment of the Australian Sports Commission by a future Labor Government in 1985 that the requirement for such plans became enshrined in legislation.

Ray Groom

Newman’s tenure in sport came to an end on 20 December 1977.  In the Ministerial reshuffle announced on that date, Newman was replaced as Minister for Environment, Housing and Community Development by another Tasmanian, Ray Groom. 

Groom’s tenure was relatively short – finishing almost 12 months later on 5 December 1978, during which time he followed the same course laid down by his predecessor.  He kept the Sports Advisory Council as his principal advisor on the allocation of sports development funds and assistance to be provided to the Australian Commonwealth Games Team to the 1978 Edmonton Games.

Groom maintained the consistent messaging: sport should look for complementary funding from business and other levels of government. His view reflected Liberal Party orthodoxy that sports themselves should be responsible for their own development and that the role of government was to encourage them in this endeavour.   

The Bob Ellicott Transformation

The sport function of government was absorbed within the Department of Home Affairs in December 1978 and became the responsibility of Bob Ellicott who became the Minister charged with bringing the National Institute into a reality. 

His appointment was pivotal in bringing traditionalists within the coalition parties to understand the value and importance of establishing some government intervention and ownership of the direction taken by sport and recreation in Australia.  A former Attorney General and Cabinet Minister (and later to be a Federal Court Judge) Ellicott was highly regarded as a person of integrity and carried significant personal authority with him into the portfolio. 

Ellicott was a game changer – he was determined to make a difference.

In addition to the ongoing capital works leading to the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport, Ellicott moved the internal political debate regarding broader sport policies within government.  He undertook two important initiatives — the commissioning of a report by the Sports Advisory Council in February 1979 and 12 months later a further examination of potential policy, this time by an inter-departmental committee of government. The Sports Advisory Council was considered a precursor to the Australian Sports Commission. A closer examine of the development and history of the Sports Advisory Council will feature in a future Paper in this Series.

The other instrument engaged by Ellicott was the Sport and Recreation Branch of the Department of Home Affairs whose experienced and knowledgeable officers played an active and influential role in supporting the Minister to re-establish a sports policy role for government.

First, the Sports Advisory Council (SAC) report – “Toward A National Sports Program”. 

The SAC defined the core challenges for sport as:

  • Administrative deficiencies;
  • Not enough international competition;
  • The high cost of competition within Australia;
  • Insufficient opportunities to develop high level coaches;
  • Lack of international standard sporting facilities;
  • Difficulties facing athletes through career disruption and foregone educational opportunities;
  • Lack of coordinated sports research;
  • Failure to identify and nurture talented sportspeople;
  • Insufficient emphasis on sport and physical education in schools.

These were the primary concerns of the SAC in its report designed to assist the government in constructing a long-term sports development policy. Reflecting the influence of the former Whitlam government approach to social policy in general, the SAC maintained that “in every walk of life, from the desire to improve quality of life to the pursuit of excellence, Governments are being called upon to play and increasing role and to provide an increasing proportion of funds. Sport is no exception.”

The SAC was cautious about endorsing the recommendation, made more than three years earlier, by the Australian Sports Institute Study Group, in favour of a high-performance centre independent of the mainstream bureaucracy, perhaps reflecting the fact that the secretariat for the SAC was provided from within the host Department with an eye on overall control. The SAC concluded: “Such a suggestion also raises the possibility of whether sport would be better served by a body outside the Federal bureaucracy. Such bodies have been established in other disciplines and have proved to be successful because of the flexibility they have in all their work.  It is perhaps too early to consider such a possibility for sport…..”.   

New Look at Sport Policy

The government established an inter-departmental committee (IDC) to examine in more detail the recommendations of the Sports Advisory Council and to consider the possible content of a sports policy.  The IDC was comprised of representatives of the Departments of Home Affairs which provided the Chair, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, Finance, Education, Social Security with Foreign Affairs also co-opted. Its first meeting was held on 5 November 1979. 

Ellicott’s Department of Home Affairs was assigned the task of preparing a paper for the Committee covering the history of government involvement in sport policy and programming.  This was designed in the first instance to expose the ad hoc approach of the past and what it termed the current “policy by default”.  The Departmental analysis covered four core areas:

  1. Australia’s position in international rankings;
  2. Government assistance to sport compared to the levels of funding in countries such as Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and West Germany;
  3. The influence of sport on health outcomes;
  4. The role of sport in the increasing significance of leisure.

A High Point

With respect to Australia’s international performance, the Department produced data which showed that Australia’s reputation for international success was at its height from the mid 1950’s to the early 1960’s. The Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 was recognised as providing a “home ground” advantage to Australia. 

The Department stated that Australia’s general decline from 1960 to 1976 was in direct contrast to the general rise in sport performances by Canada, the UK and New Zealand.  It concluded that Australian success came as a dividend of climate, open space and relative affluence but these “natural advantages” had been negated to a large extent by the concerted efforts of foreign governments to achieve international sporting success.  In this, the Department was reflecting the view held by the Confederation of Australian Sport and other sports organisations and contemporary leaders. Australia was now at a relative disadvantage to other nations in relation to facilities, access to national and international competition and the availability of quality coaching.

How We Compared

The Department also concluded that Australia was definitely the “poor relation” compared to the countries under review.  The study showed that in the 1977-78 fiscal year expenditure per head of population on sport was:

  • 8.6 cents in Australia;
  • 36.6 cents in the U.K.;
  • $1.15 in New Zealand (for total Ministry of Sport and Recreation.  Over 75 percent of this Ministry’s outlays were on sport);
  • 83.3 cents in Canada.

Similarly, Australia lagged the other sample group in expenditure on sport as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

Regarding the health and social benefits of sport and recreation, the Department report  referred to national and international studies showing a positive causal relationship between levels of fitness in the community and general mental and physical health, particularly coronary heart disease. It concluded: “The effect on the national health bill via reduced morbidity and mortality and increased productivity has not, to date, been measured quantitatively although it is generally accepted that a positive relationship exists.”

The trend toward increase in leisure time and flexibility in work patterns was also a matter of interest and action by government. Without drawing an exclusive, or even direct link to sport, the Department’s report concluded: “We would argue that non-work time and leisure, as a large component of this time, is being increased in a variety of ways.  While a person’s use of their leisure time is a matter of individual choice, the consequences of this use either for the individual or the larger society are matters for governmental concern and action.”        

Policy First, then Cash

While the Government report, drawing also on the Sports Advisory Council recommendations, considered the various elements of a sport policy it remained hard headed about appropriate levels of assistance which had to be considered against competing claims on the federal budget.

It was still firmly a matter of getting the policy settings in place, not about quantifying the level of funding to be provided. It questioned where the role of the federal government ought to comfortably rest: with health and leisure or with the encouragement of sporting excellence.  The committed Officers in the Department of Home Affairs argued for a wide interpretation of the role of the Commonwealth; the powerful Departments of Treasury and Finance were not in support of this interpretation.  They favoured the federal government defining its role within the boundaries of international high-performance sporting success. This would mean that support to sporting bodies would be limited to those sports and athletes most likely to achieve such success. The debate – high performance vs participation – would continue.


  1. Speech by the Minister for Environment, Housing and Community Development, Mr Kevin Newman , M.P., at the launching of the Australian Olympic Federation’s campaign to send the Australian team to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow – Melbourne, 18 August, 1977.      
  2.  Address to annual meeting of Confederation of Australian Sport by the Minister for Environment, Housing and Community Development, Mr Kevin Newman , Melbourne, 10 November 1977.                                                                        
  3. Meeting on Sports Program: Statement by Kevin Newman, Minister for Environment, Housing and Community Development, 26 July 1976
  4. Confederation of Australian Sport. White paper : the financial plight of sport in Australia, May, 1977, Melbourne, CAS, 1977.
  5. Greg Hartung,  Sport and the Canberra Lobby, In, Cashman, R. and McKernan, M. (eds.), Sport: money, morality, and the media, Kensington, N.S.W., New South Wales University Press, 1981, p. 194-215.

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 6 – Sport Policy Plays Catch-up: The Australian Sports Council

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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