Sport Policy Plays Catch-up: The Australian Sports Council

History of Australian Sport Series: Part 6

By Greg Hartung   AO

In the early years of the 1970s, there was a rush to get things done: sport policy had languished as a policy afterthought but now there was the political energy, and will, to make a difference.

In 1973, Australia’s first Sport Minister, Frank Stewart engaged leading sport administrator, Gordon Young, to examine and report on the international environment and study the sporting structures in countries comparable to Australia.  He was to provide advice on the creation of a Sports Council for Australia. 

A Council comprising leaders from within the world of sport was seen as the most appropriate vehicle to provide expert advice to government on the development of sport and physical recreation.  Young reported to the Minister on 15 February 1974 on the role, function, responsibilities and powers of an Australian Sports Council. (Ref 1)  Apart from the creation of the Department itself, the National Sports Council was to become the first significant sports advisory body to the Australian government, although, unlike its predecessor, the National Fitness Council, it did not acquire a legislative base.  That aside, the Australian Sports Council was to become an important piece of the machinery around which government investigated and tested sport policy directions. 

Young investigated the structures in eight countries: Great Britain, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Singapore, Norway, France and the Federal Republic of Germany.  It was apparent that several of these countries were well ahead of Australia in establishing the structures to develop sport and recreation and had established Ministries and Departments which were “actively engaged in fostering the participation of the public in recreation activities.”  In his report to the Minister, Young observed:

‘In some countries the organisation of sport had advanced to the stage that co-ordination of all sport was possible through established national sports federations.  These large assemblies of representatives acted as a Parliament of Sports while retaining the freedom and autonomy of the respective sports.  In these cases it was possible to form Sports Councils which provided the Government with the necessary contact and an avenue to implement the proposed government assistance.

‘In other countries only the Olympic sports were associated and many sports operated independently.  In these cases Sports Councils were formed on a non-representative basis.’ (Ref 1)

The Sports Council Model

Young found that the overseas models he studied, the Councils had moved from advisory only to a position in which they had been granted executive powers by government and were staffed by professional sports administrators.  He warned, however, against immediately following these overseas examples: “There is a danger that we in Australia may have under-estimated the tasks ahead and the administrative infrastructure which will be required.”  

The National Fitness Act 1941 was still the only legislative instrument connected to fitness, sport and recreation in Australia. Young appeared to anticipate that any legislative basis for a National Sports Council would be formed not through original legislation but through amendment to the National Fitness Act.  However, with the relatively recent appointment of Frank Stewart as Minister and the creation of the first Department of Tourism and Recreation, Young concluded the timing was not right for the immediate creation of the Council as a statutory body with its own executive powers.  A development along those lines was not to happen until the advent of the Australian Sports Commission in the mid-1980s.  This will be the subject of future papers in this series.

For the time being, the government opted for an interim arrangement for the Sports Council to enable “relationships and administrative machinery” to be tested over a short two-year period to establish the best outcome for Australian sport. Young advised that it would be “prudent” to allow for a period of transition from an advisory Council to a more substantial executive body with a greater range of authority and power.  It was not to receive the strong foundation brought by legislation, and it was to come within the administrative oversight and control of the new Department.

‘….it is proposed to encourage the Council to develop this massive national sports programme with full government support from the Directorate, unencumbered at this stage by heavy administrative responsibilities.  On the other hand, the Sports Council can only succeed if it is accepted and can work in close co-operation with the organised sports and associations allied to physical recreation.’

Growl but no Teeth

The absence of a firm legislative foundation reduced the authority of the Sports Council and placed it in a subservient role to the Department.  And as time would demonstrate, it left it vulnerable to change and abolition in a less sympathetic political environment.  But, at the outset at least, Young provided an optimistic assessment of the challenges and the effectiveness of the Council. 

‘The Sports Council in these initial stages will have a difficult task of establishing a satisfactory and efficient relationship with the Commonwealth Department and the Directorate, and generating the mutual confidence between the Council and the sports bodies….It would be prudent to allow the Council to make all the decisions which can be advanced to them.  In this way the policy can evolve with the Council sharing in the decision making from the outset.’

The report to the Minister proposed that the Council meet at least six times per year and undertake a wide-reaching program of research and planning.

First Meeting – Australian Sports Council

Image of Australian Sports Council’s chairman, Mr David McKenzie, the Minister for Tourism and Recreation Mr Frank Stewart and Professor John Bloomfield a council member on the eve of the inaugural meeting on August 29, 1974. 

Following acceptance by the Minister of the Young report, the first meeting of the Australian Sports Council was held in Sydney at the Wentworth Hotel on 28-29 August 1974.  This meeting established the operational objectives and terms of reference and determine the Council’s functions. 

In a media statement released on 23 August 1974, Stewart declared that the Council was formed to provide the government with “expert advice on the development of sport and physical recreation in Australia, to encourage mass participation and develop excellence.” (Ref 2) 

The Minister’s statement laid down the principles upon which the appointees to the Council would operate.  In the next decade these principles would also be used to underpin the creation of the Australian Sports Commission and form the basis of the Commission’s modus operandi, at least in its initial years of operation.

Stewart said the members of the Council would not be appointed to represent the Australian government, their States or Institute or sporting organisation. ‘I want them to put aside all sectional interests and serve Australian sport in the widest possible sense.’ Stewart declared that the Government had no wish to interfere in the internal workings of the various sporting associations. ‘Instead, through the Sports Council, we hope to supplement and strengthen the work of these Associations.’

The inaugural Chair of the Council was Mr David MacKenzie, a prominent Sydney lawyer and a former Olympic Fencer.  At the time of his appointment as Chair, he was President of the Australian Fencing Federation and Deputy Chair of the NSW Olympic Council.  The Council agreed to a wide-ranging charter covering the full spectrum of physical recreation, participation and high-performance sport.  It was to provide advice to the Minister on sport and physical recreationcovering:

  • The encouragement of wider participation in sport and physical recreation in Australia;
  • The raising of the standards of performance in sport and physical recreation;
  • The provision of sports facilities throughout Australia;
  • Assistance towards the organisation and administration of national sporting organisations;
  • The promotion of a general understanding of the value of sport and physical recreation;
  • The establishment of policy for the development of sports and physical recreations;
  • The relationship between professional bodies, sporting associations and the Council;
  • The encouragement of industry, institutions, trusts and others in supporting the development of sport and physical recreation.

Taste of things to come

The terms of reference were not dissimilar to the objects and functions of the Australian Sports Commission with the notable exception that the Council was limited to providing advice only and was not directly involved in the allocation of grants to sporting bodies.  All detail relating to policy was to be controlled through the fledgling Department of Tourism and Recreation whose senior representatives attended Council meetings.

The Council was tightly managed by the Department. Members had been appointed because of their wide-ranging expertise in sport – but they were not appointed as representatives of any national sporting organisation. In 1974/75, the Council was allocated a small budget of $20,000 from within the Department’s overall budget to cover travel and sitting fees.  But while the Department exercised control and oversight, it did call on the Council members to give consideration to how the government (and Department) might liaise and engage with National Sporting Organisations (NSOs). 

Specifically, the Department was keen to canvass views as to the need for a Federation of NSOs and for one body to speak on behalf of Australian sport.  Such a development was to occur in 1976 with the creation of the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS).   The oversighting and control role by the Department, while positive, set in train the potential for a challenging relationship between Department and Council something which accelerated with the advent of the Australian Sports Commission as an Interim Committee in 1983 when tensions between the host Department and the Commission became a serious issue.  

The fledgling Department had formalised the government’s funding approach in a letter from the Department Secretary, Mr L. F. Bott, to National Sporting Organisations on 29 October, 1973.  It outlined how it was intended to allocate grant funds of $1 million which had been approved in the 1973/74 financial year.  (Ref 3).  Despite its embryonic budget, the Sports Assistance Program aimed to provide financial support to recognised NSOs for three core purposes:

  1. To subsidise the cost of fares for athletes and officials to attend “bona fide” national and international events;
  2. To support the cost of fares for overseas athletes and coaches to visit Australia;
  3. To assist with the administrative costs of conducting international events in Australia.

The guidelines provided for travel subsidies of up to 50 percent for national and international events and to support international experts to visit Australia.  There were also modest amounts up to $25,000 available to support the conduct of national and international events in Australia.  A sport would only be eligible to receive the $25,000 assistance once in 10 years for a world championship and $10,000 for any other international or regional event every five years.  By the time the National Sports Council met for the first time, the Government had approved about $634,000 in grants in the 1973-74 financial year. Because the Council had no executive power, the authority for taking funding recommendations to the Minister rested with the Department. 

Enduring support for National Fitness Councils

Continuing a practice which had commenced decades earlier an amount of $1 million was allocated for National Fitness Councils in 1973/74.  Life Saving was also a major beneficiary.  A long tradition of support was also maintained with both the Royal Life Saving Society and the Surf Life Saving Association which were provided $50,000 each to assist in administration expenses.  An additional grant of $100,000 on a dollar-for-dollar basis was provided to Surf Life Saving to assist in the purchase of rescue equipment. 

The Sports Assistance and related programs were complemented by a Capital Assistance Program to support the development of single and multi-purpose sporting and recreation facilities.  Almost $4 million was allocated for this purpose in 1973-74.  One of the early tasks considered by the Council, and led by the Department, was the development of a survey of sport and recreational facilities.  The research was aimed at assembling an inventory of all facilities and obtaining information of their usage.  

Work was underway in the Department on the details of a Sports Assistance Program and it sought input from the Council on establishing funding and support guidelines – for example: how do sports qualify for support? should there be developed a sliding scale of support?  how should the government deal with sports which have several national bodies which fail to work together (Karate was cited as a sport with four or five national bodies)?  The Department had adopted a policy of recognising just one national association per sport in an effort to reduce fragmentation and encourage better use of available resources. 

Already the Department was distinguishing organisations which were deemed to be sport or recreational in nature.  For instance, several organisations were not considered for support under the Sports Assistance Program because they were deemed to be “competitive recreation”, not sport.  Boomerang throwing, darts, debating, marching girls fell into this category.

Organisational Architecture

While this first year of activity concerned mainly the allocation of funds, the Sports Council was beginning to look beyond funding and to explore other aspects of the Sport system.  The Department was keen for debate on the creation of a central facility to act as an administrative hub for national sports organisations either based in Canberra or decentralised through State capitals which, in turn, would house National and State organisations. Consideration was given to the recommendations of the Bloomfield report on “The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia” which had been tabled in Parliament on 25 May, 1973. (Ref 4)  The Council also considered the results of a project titled “the Recreational Priorities of Australian Young People” which had been conducted by the National Youth Council of Australia between August 1973 and March 1974 and presented to the Minister.  (Ref 5) The project was marketed as the “Youth Say” project and sought to canvass the views of young people between the ages of 12 and 20 on their recreational needs.

The Council became a sounding board for what was becoming the Department‘s ambitious plans for the future. These plans covered a wide spectrum of physical activity programs, from elite sport to mass participation and fitness. The Council considered a proposal by the Department to establish an advisory committee for recreation to provide advice on approaches to fitness and physical recreation and areas for research.  It was planned that this concept would replace the Commonwealth Council for National Fitness which was to be phased out in June 1975 having been in existence since 1939.   (Ref 6)  There was clear evidence of a genuine effort by the Department to engage with the Sports Council in devising ways in which to encourage fitness and recreation programs.  This included the provision of assistance to professional organisations – e.g.  the Australian Sports Medicine Federation (ASMF), the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER) – for approved projects supporting sport, recreation and fitness. 

Sports Assistance Program

The central element of the government’s funding support to sport was the Sports Assistance Program the development and implementation of which was firmly under the control of the Department.  The Sports Council was invited to discuss the program and provide advice on its detail.  The discussions at Council meetings provide important insight into the many of the early issues being considered in the emergence of the Australian Government’s attitude toward sport and recreation policy.  These included the overall needs of national sporting organisations and the possibility of broadening the guidelines of the sports assistance program to include funding for sports administration and the establishment of a centralised administrative headquarters for sport.  From the outset it introduced debate which was to become ubiquitous about the difference between performance sport and competitive recreation.

Asian Games

The Department and the Sports Council considered the possibility of Australia joining the Asian Games.  This had been a long running issue having been raised at the first meeting of the Sports Council.  In August 1974 the Council discussed the value of Asian Games participation as beneficial initiative for sports development in Australia, as well as serving Australia’s foreign policy objectives. The sports of interest at that time were badminton, table tennis, volleyball, basketball, tennis, weightlifting, wrestling, track and field, gymnastics, soccer, shooting, fencing, cycling, boxing, water polo, field hockey and swimming.  The proposition failed to attract majority support from the Asian nations.  Despite the lack of traction, the concept remained on the Australian agenda and as recently as 2007 a proposal by Australia to participate in the Games was put forward again unfortunately with the same result as the first attempt.  The President of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, maintained Australia’s participation would be unfair to other Olympic Councils in Oceania.

Reflecting the government’s focus on supporting the spectrum of the Australian sport and recreation sector, the Australian Sports Council (ASC) adopted a broad focus covering five core areas:

1: education and public relations – emphasis on the value of participation at all levels, including community groups and the education system from pre-school through to adult education;

2: leadership and coaching – the training of professional and voluntary staff in leadership and coaching;

3: administration – the provision of assistance to national organisations for both administration and for the conducting of national and international events;

4: facilities – the need for properly managed facilities catering for mass participation and specific sporting events;

5: advisory services – the need to co-ordinate approaches to research and to establish criteria for building design.  

Departmental Leaders

In the spirit of the times, the Council was nothing if not ambitious.   But if the Council was ambitious, so too was the Department and its key sport personnel, Graham Dempster and Paul Brettell, who led most of the developmental policy work and provided direction and leadership to the Council.  Dempster and Brettell deserve great credit for their roles in pushing the boundaries of sport policy within government. They had a deep understanding and commitment to sport and were determined not to waste the opportunity to make a difference.

The Department and Council broadly divided their approach, firstly, into funding programs to assist sporting and recreation organisations and, secondly, into a range of research and policy initiatives which included the development of an Australian Games concept, the emergence of an Australian Institute of Sport, research and support for particularly disadvantaged groups in Australian society.

The funding assistance to sport continued to subsidise fares to athletes and officials to attend national and international events and to assist overseas athletes and coaches to visit Australia, as well as assist in the delivery of international events hosted in Australia.   In the 1974-75 federal budget, coaches received specific support to attend accreditation courses in Australia and overseas.  Funds were also allocated for the production of coaching educational aids – manuals, film, video tapes.  It was not a one-way street, however.  Council records reveal that sporting associations needed to meet the following criteria in order to qualify for assistance, viz

  • Be a single national association;
  • Be organised national with affiliated organisations in the majority of States;
  • Have appropriate documentation such as annual reports, financial statements and constitution;
  • Be affiliated with a recognised international organisation;
  • Have a “reasonable number” of national registrations at all levels of competition;
  • Be operating for a minimum of three years at national or State levels;
  • Be broadly representative of the community and not be limited or restricted on ethnic, political or religious grounds. 

Having set the bar high in the context of the Whitlam government’s social agenda, the government faced the dilemma of how far should federal assistance be spread.  The Department made its first serious effort to set boundaries between sport and recreation to determine what organisations would be assisted and by how much. The Council adopted a definition of what constitutes an approved sports association: “…one which caters for persons who participate for no significant remuneration in pursuits which involve competitive physical effort and/or physical skill and which are organised primarily for these purposes.”  Associations which met this definition and complied with the criteria would receive assistance. 

Is it Sport or Recreation?

The Council struggled with the difference between a sport and a recreation, a theme which has continued to cause debate since.  The Department and Council dealt with this issue by expanding the program to cover sport and “competitive recreation”.  Activities such as boomerang throwing, darts, marching girls, ballroom dancing, indoor bias bowls, chess and debating were not covered as sports but received assistance as competitive recreations. 

To qualify as a competitive recreation, organisations were required to meet, broadly, the same criteria as a sport by being properly constituted and national in scope.  Many of the issues and questions identified by the Sports Council in the 1970s have endured over the decades, and have continued to engage debate within government agencies and the sports community. The debates seem perennial, for example: funding support for sport and/or recreation? high performance sport versus participation? a single entity per sport? support for amateur sport versus professional/mass participatory sport? support for disadvantaged groups?   The Sports Council recommended the adoption of the principle that the Department should only deal with one body per sport.  Similarly, it supported the view that there should be no differentiation between amateur and professional bodies.  It supported equal treatment of organisations catering for athletes with a disability. In many respects, the Council in 1974 although limited in its powers was ahead of its time.

The Sports Council concept was an experiment of sorts; it was originally established with a two year time frame in mind.  The fact that it lasted beyond the 1970s and into the early 1980s proved that it was fullfilling a real need for the voice of sport to be heard when decisions about sport were being taken in Canberra.  The Council and its role will be further explored in the next Paper in this series.


  1. The Sports Council Australia : a review of selected countries with Ministries of Recreation/Sport and a report with recommendations pertinent to the establishment of a sports council in Australia / prepared for the Department of Tourism and Recreation by W. Gordon Young.Canberra : Dept. of Tourism and Recreation, 1974.
  2. Sports Council members appointed, Media Release, Frank Stewart, Minister for Tourism and Recreation, Mr Frank Stewart, 23 August 1974. Includes list od inaugural members and brief background.
  3. Dept of Tourism and Recreation, Review of the Activities for the Period December 1972 to June 1974, Canberra, Government Printing Office, 1974, p.6
  4. John Bloomfield, The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia, Canberra, Dept. of Tourism and Recreation, 1973.
  5. The Recreational priorities of Australian young people : report to the Minister for Tourism and Recreation … on the Youth Say Project / conducted by the National Youth Council of Australia. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1974.
  6. Australian Sports Council First Meeting Minutes, 28-29 August 1974, Sydney, agenda item 6). 

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 7 – Our Sport System Shapes Up: Politics, Programs and Progress – Tracking the
Evolution of Australian Sport Policy

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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