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

History of Australian Sport Series:  Part 7

By Greg Hartung AO

Mixed Fortunes

The deliberations of the Australian Sports Council through the 1970s and the developmental work of the Department under Minister Stewart defined the core elements of what was emerging as the Australian sports system.  Our sporting organisation architecture and program delivery was taking shape.

The period since the 1930s to the election of the Whitlam Government when the Australian Fitness Council was the principle federal agency through which policy and programs were expressed, highlighted the extent and depth of the role and place of fitness, recreation and sport in the Australian society.  It was in the 1970s that the sector was more clearly defined and found its “voice”.

What brought about this progression? Government policy and political leadership added to the growing confidence and expectation with organisations delivering sporting and recreational opportunities to Australians.  It was also a period of mixed results on the sporting field for Australia’s top athletes which brought attention to the lack of serious government financial commitment to Australian sport.  Australian tennis players performed spectacularly well at Wimbledon, thanks to the likes of Margaret Smith, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and John Newcombe but our Olympic athletes fell short of national expectations at the Olympic Games.  The Olympic team failed to win a single gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and with just five minor medals could only manage to finish in 32nd place overall.  Although the Games were held after the Whitlam government lost office, they served to highlight the continuing need for government support to sport if Australia was to reverse the trend down the medal table. It was not all smooth sailing, despite the increased funding and involvement from Canberra, and the growth in expectations brought about tensions when those expectations were not met.

Follow the money

The fundamental elements of the emerging sport support arrangements were relatively easily identified: financial assistance directly to approved sports and ‘competitive recreation’ organisations for travel, events, administration, facilities, sports science and sports medicine, and support for coaching as a fundamental part of the development of the Australian system.  Much of the early attention was focussed on operational issues and on expanding these core programs, for example, in the 1974/75 budget coaching assistance was extended to also cover referees and officials.   (Ref 1) The department also set aside some limited funds for ‘special projects’ — for example $50,000 for collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs on cultural sporting exchanges mainly within Asia, including an exchange of sporting teams with the People’s Republic of China.

Assistance to sport and competitive recreation organisations was relatively straight forward once the boundaries of definition and amounts were clarified and agreed by the Sports Council.  Programs of assistance for more broadly-based fitness and recreation programs proceeded without the same precision.  The Council considered Department initiatives which included establishing an advisory committee on fitness and recreation to monitor this sector, the conduct of a survey of sports, assistance to ‘professional organisations’ and grants to assist the operation of fitness centres throughout Australia. 

Still the funding was modest: the 1974/75 budget allocated $100,000 in total.  But in the spirit of the times, the Council led by the Department thought it prudent to get going with initiatives which would have an immediate and positive impact and to develop the detail policy framework later.

Sport Survey

The survey of sports was provided with a budget of $25,000.  It was designed to establish the specific needs of sports organisations which would then inform further refinement in the sports assistance program.  It would also help identify those organisations engaged in more ‘sport for all’ type of activities which could be supported under the Fitness Australia campaign.  Assistance to professional organisations included direct administrative support to the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) and the Australian Sports Medicine Federation (ASMF) which were considered important organisations in developing community fitness, sport and physical recreation programs. Funds were also to be made available to assist other organisations involved in projects which were relevant to development of recreation or fitness.  The total amount for these initiatives in 1974-75 was $30,000.

Apart from Gordon Young’s report on the ‘Role, Function, Responsibilities and Powers of an Australian Sports Council’, (Ref 2) referenced on my previous paper on the Australian Sports Council, a central reference for the Government’s initiatives was the report prepared for Minister Stewart by Professor John Bloomfield, ‘The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia’ which was presented to the House of Representatives on 25 May, 1973. (Ref 3)

Much of the Department and Council’s early work was grounded on the Bloomfield report recommendations.  The government had introduced the inaugural Sports Assistance Program, provided support to athletes, coaches and administrators and had embarked on a range of longer-term projects.  A Capital Assistance Program was started in 1973/74 to assist the development of single and multi-purpose sport and recreation facilities; a project titled ‘youth say’ was conducted in 1973-74 to ascertain the views of young people between the ages of 12 and 20 on their recreational needs. Interest in the National Fitness Council network continued with funding assistance for operations, fitness campaigns and capital expenditure.  The long tradition of supporting water safety in Australia continued with the Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving organisations being provided with $50,000 in administrative grants. Surf Life Saving received an additional amount of $100,000 on a dollar-for-dollar basis for the purchase of rescue equipment.

Athletes with a disability get a look in 

This was the period before the advent of the Australian Paralympic Committee, but the year 1973-74 was the first time consideration had been given to supporting sport and recreation for people with disabilities.  The Department provided assistance with fares to the Australian Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Council to send teams to national championships, the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games and the Stoke Mandeville Games in England.  However, the level of assistance was not to be considered equal in every respect to that of able-bodied athletes and sport.  For instance, sporting events for disabled groups were considered as ‘outside the terms of sports assistance program’. (Ref 1) 

In deciding on those groups which would be eligible for support under the sports assistance program, the Department sought the advice of the Australian Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (ACROD).  Without providing reasons, the Department advised the Sport Council that for “handicapped groups” involved in competitive recreation “only certain areas of assistance would be available”.  The Department did not appear to have a clear grasp of the size and scale of the organisational structure of sport for people with disabilities.  It maintained that “present indications are that national/international level handicapped sports maybe paraplegic/quadriplegic, blind, deaf, amputees.  May be some others”.   Clearly the Department was on a steep learning curve.

While it was an important milestone that athletes with a disability and their organisations would receive some assistance, it was equally noteworthy that they were not considered equal, nor deserving of the same level of support, as their able-bodied peers.  No rationale for this discrimination was provided and as the future would reveal it was to be a debate which would continue to return for decades to come.

Australian Institute of Sport  

The Department and Council were keen to advance the evolving concept of an Australian Institute of Sport foreshadowed in the Bloomfield report.  A feasibility study was planned and funded and it would report on the functions and staffing of the proposed Institute, including coaching, information dissemination and research, as well as its location.  The study group, chaired by prominent sport academic, Dr Allan Coles, was appointed by Stewart in September 1974.  On October 12 the Sports Council was provided with a briefing on the scope of the planned study which would also look at international models in a number of countries. It was anticipated the Study Group would report by March 1975 but it was not till November 1975 — the month of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government — that the report was finally presented.  (Ref 4).  The Study Group report anticipated that the Institute concept would support the needs of sport “with respect to mass participation and excellence” and it envisaged a central facility and a network of State branches.

Our Sports University

In an address to Parliament, Stewart spoke about creating “Australia’s first national sports university, with the multiple aim of education, research and training.”  (Ref 5)

Stewart: “Most advanced European countries have found similar universities of tremendous value not only to their sporting elite but to their entire sporting and recreation structure.  We intend to find out whether Australia is ready for this giant leap forward and, if she is, how we should go about it.”  (Ref 5)

Stewart was very conscious of the pioneering work of the government and was equally keen to emphasis not only support for the elite, but also the commitment to general community fitness. 

“There is not much doubt that in sport and recreation Australia has entered a new, long overdue era, that our Government has, for the first time ever, openly and without bashfulness, decided to accept at least partial responsibility for the physical well-being and the leisure time recreation of its people.  But much more needs to be done,”

More certainly needed to be done and many of the ideas and programs embarked upon by Stewart had not gone much beyond the planning stages before his tenure, and that of the Government, was cut short.  Stewart and the Whitlam government were to lose office in 1975 and hence the opportunity to embark on the Study Group’s recommendations. That opportunity was provided to the incoming Liberal-National Party coalition government led by Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, with the Institute becoming a physical reality with the formal opening on 26 January 1981.        

Research Advisory Council

Research and sports science were always a key part of the Department’s focus.  The Recreation Ministers’ Council – comprising Federal and State Ministers — had endorsed the establishment of a Research Advisory Council in September 1974.  The Recreation Minister’s Council was established in 1973 to bring about greater cooperation and coordination among Federal, State and Territory governments. As was the case with the Sports Council itself, the Research Advisory Council was effectively under the control and direction of the Department.   The Federal Department of Tourism and Recreation would receive advice on areas for research from the Officials Committee of the Recreation Ministers’ Council and the Department would then prepare proposals for consultation with the Research Advisory Committee.  Approved projects would then be circulated for tender to Universities and other interested institutions.  Successful tenders, funded by the Federal Government, were subsequently announced by the Federal Minister. 

Australia Games

Access to competition, along with the other core elements of the Federal sport policy, formed part of the early discussions of the Sports Council.  The concept of an ‘Australian Games’ was first raised in the Bloomfield report and the Department put it before the Sports Council with the aim of providing access to competition for Australian athletes and a stimulus to improve sports facilities.  It would be Australia’s own multi-sport national championship. The ideas circulated included the combining of national championships of a number of sports into one event so that the Games would be for Australians only. A second option proposed was to develop a National Games to which international teams could compete by invitation. The concept of an Australian Games remained on the Sports Council agenda but the journey from concept to reality proved difficult especially when interrupted by the election of 1975 and the subsequent change of government.  

Australian Sports Confederation – argument begins for a sport lobby group

At a subsequent meeting in Adelaide, the Council recommended that the Australian Games be accepted in principle but that the establishment of such a Games would need to be conditional on the creation of an ‘Australian Sports Confederation’ (Ref 6).  This is significant on two counts:  firstly, the Games were considered a worthy initiative to assist sports development, and secondly, the promotion of the idea of establishing a Sports Confederation in Australia comprising the various national sporting associations, gained early Council support. 

The Confederation was later incorporated as the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) and became the key multi-sport advocacy group, or lobby group, in Australia.  The Minister also saw considerable value in developing a sports advocacy or lobby group. In a 1974 Parliamentary speech (Ref 5), Stewart gave strong backing to a Sports Confederation which he saw as being an ally, or partner, to the Minister in seeking favourable budgetary treatment for sport. 

This view was supported and expanded in an interview with Greg Hartung on 6 April 1979, after Stewart’s ministerial career had ended. (Ref 7)

In Parliament Stewart extolled the virtues of sport and of the potential value of a suitable pressure group:

“As it is becoming fashionable nowadays, I would like to present the case for a pressure group, even if this group, for a change, is the vast majority, the silent majority of our country – the you, the you and the me…These people are entitled to a fair deal from us and I am sure our Government will give it to them. Surely we can find money for this majority when large sums are available for extreme, sad or eccentric cases.

The notion of a sports pressure group remained on the Sports Council agenda throughout 1975.  The Council seemed to ascribe to it a wide-ranging role, beyond political advocacy, including linking it to the debate to the delivery of Australia’s first national multi-sport Games.  According to the Council, the aim of the Games was to provide international competition for Australian athletes and specifically to allow smaller sports the opportunity to compete in a larger environment.  It would also have the benefit of gaining greater media and public exposure to sport.  The proposal, and the Council recommendation, were sent to the sports development sub-committee for further work on the basis that the Games would be conducted every four years, in the year before the summer Olympic Games.

The objective was for the inaugural Games to be held in 1979. The deadline was not met, but the establishment of the Confederation of Australian Sport did materialise later in the decade. The overriding catalyst to bring it about was Australia’s disappointing performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. 

The notion of Australia’s own multi-sport Games did not die; the inaugural (and only) Australia Games was conducted in Melbourne from 26 January to 3 February 1985. There has been no serious attempt to revitalise the concept since.

Ministerial Council

The policy framework and the embryonic Federal-State Ministers Council was also beginning to deal with broader issues covering sport and society.  The Ministerial Council was apprised of the fact that the involvement of tobacco companies in sport sponsorship and promotion had increased since the phasing out of cigarette and tobacco advertising on radio and television.

Victoria became the first jurisdiction to draw a line in the sand on tobacco sponsorship of sport: it declared that if a sport took financial support from a tobacco company it would forfeit its right to receive government funds. The Sports Council, at its fourth meeting in Canberra on 24-25 March 1975, stopped short of adopting the Victorian position preferring to refer the matter to sports organisations themselves while recommending that the Australian Government not become a co-sponsor with a tobacco company of any sporting event. (Ref 8)

Frank Stewart: the Minister who raised expectations    

Frank Stewart was Minister for Tourism and Recreation from 19 December 1972 till 11 November 1975, a relatively short period but an immensely important one for Australian sport and the future direction of direct Federal Government assistance to the Australian sport system. He managed to position sport, albeit tenuously, within the ambit of government responsibility; he commissioned reviews and reports and injected at least some government funding for sport and recreation.  Perhaps the most significant contribution he made was to awaken the sport and recreation community to the role and potential of government intervention in their domain – and sports own opportunities and responsibilities. He whet the appetite for what could, and would, be achieved with government support. 

With the raising of this awareness came heightened expectations. This new found political voice became significantly more important after November 1975 when a new government attempted to put sport and recreation funding into reverse. For many in the world of sport there was no turning back. 

And while many within the sporting community felt there was a great deal of unfinished business at the premature conclusion of Stewart’s tenure his successes did not go unrecognised.

Forbes Carlile

One of the most passionate – and certainly most persistent – of voices was that of celebrated swim coach, Forbes Carlile.  He was among the first to acknowledge the progress made by Stewart and the government, but only saw it as a beginning: ‘…The present government has set the ball rolling and has done a lot for sport in a relatively short time, but what has been done, all will agree, is only a drop in the bucket, so great are our needs after so many years of neglect.’ (Ref 9) Carlile demanded that sports funding needed to increase twenty times if Australia was to compete successfully against the world. But he realised that Australian sport needed to become more politically active it funding improvements were to be made.

‘…If this money is made available, it will be only because we, the people of Australia, demand it.  We must go from here, and throwing diplomatic caution to the wind, we must use all possible means to make our voices heard – to influence our associations, and our local Members of Parliament, write to the newspapers and so on.  The Government must hear ours and other voices.  It is because we have not done this nearly enough in the past that we really have ourselves to blame that in this democracy other things have long been given priority…..’(Ref 9)

Austerity breeds discontent and CAS

Stewart’s tenure ended with the dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975. The incoming government, in the context of budget austerity, sharply curtailed the sport budget; responsibility for sport and recreation shifted to became a relatively small part of the much larger Department of Environment, Housing and Community Development.  The Department was comprised of 10 Divisions. Youth, Sport and Recreation was retained as a Branch within the Community Development Division, enjoying far less profile and patronage than the previous three years.  The accounts for 1975-76 showed no increase in funding for sport, fitness and recreation programs compared to the estimates and in many instances a decline in funding. 

The change in Government and sport focus – combined later with the disappointment of the Montreal Olympic Games – stimulated the growing political awakening within sport which had become accustomed to a greater engagement with the Federal Government.  This growing political awareness, outside formal political structures, and within the predominantly volunteer-based Australian sport system culminated in the formation of the multi-sport advocacy group, the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS), which had been talked about by Stewart and within the debates of the Australian Sports Council. 

At its peak, the CAS was to carry the strength of a broad sports membership in its dealings with the government.  It was for some years a remarkably effective organisation with a clear agenda founded on the aspirations of the bulk of Australia’s National Sporting Organisations.  While the relationship between CAS and government was at times difficult, it did produce results.  CAS challenged government decisions and funding levels. It’s active and public role in highlighting the needs of Australian sport, domestically and internationally, provided a necessary stimulus to the evolution of sport policy.

Sport Advocacy and Stewart’s observations 

Carlile’s view about effective sports advocacy was reflected to a considerable degree by Stewart, now in Opposition, in an interview with Greg Hartung on 22 November 1978.

‘When I was Minister I said if you want me to help you, you will have to help me.  I am a little bit sorry about having to be the only ball carrier…if you want me to get money out of Treasury, money out of Cabinet, you have to make a noise.  You have got to support me!’ (Ref 7)

Stewart maintained: ‘sport will not get recognised by government until such time as they create a stir. Hit out at the government where it hurts.  In terms of making sport an issue, lobby backbenchers.’

In a submission to the Parliamentary into Commonwealth Assistance for Sport and Recreation chaired by Labor MP, Mr Leo McLeay in1983, Hartung, at the time a Journalist in the Canberra Parliamentary Press Gallery, referred to his interview with Frank Stewart conducted just prior to his death:

Greg Hartung: “According to Stewart, sport administration was still kitchen table; it survived on the proceeds of chook raffles and barbecues.  Developments in sport overseas meant that sport in Australia had to change – or forget about winning.”  

Hartung provided evidence to the Committee that there were mixed feelings within the sport community toward the injection of funding into sport under the Whitlam Government.  They seemed to welcome the funding but resented the consequent intrusion into their affairs by government and bureaucracy.  Referring to feedback from MP’s, Hartung said there was a view among some sport administrators which welcomed the money from the Whitlam Government but thought the Government were “were mugs for handing it out”.   

The Legacy and the Revolution ahead

For a long period after 1976, CAS was to have a profound influence on the direction of government sport policy and it came in the wake of the Whitlam/Stewart era.  It was this era, short as it was, which identified the core elements of the Australian system of sport and recreation and addressed some of the funding and structural issues. 

  1. It brought administrators together as well as coaches;
  2. It established the Australian Sports Council and commenced planning toward the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport;
  3. It embarked on programs which engaged with the community;
  4. It began to assemble the key elements of what could become a coherent sport and recreation policy framework.
  5. It grappled with responsibilities in the less clearly defined area of recreation.
  6. It recognised government had a legitimate responsibility to back the people and organisations driving the Australian sport and recreation system.  It set an agenda — but left it unfinished. 

Above all else, this period elevated expectations.  Sport and recreation, in its broadest sense, was being taken seriously by Government and had a legitimate claim on a share of the budget. 

A basis had been created and it was left to the leadership within sporting organisations in turn to ensure in the future that the opportunity was not lost.       


  1. Australian Sports Council Minutes Second Meeting, Melbourne, 7-8 Oct. 1974.
  2. 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.
  3. John Bloomfield, The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia, Canberra, Dept. of Tourism and Recreation, 1973.
  4. Allan Coles (Chair). Report of the Australian Sports Institute Study Group. Canberra, Australian Government Public Service, 1975.
  5. Frank Stewart, Speech of Her Majesty The Queen, House of Representatives, 7 March 1974 (Championed the case for sports funding).
  6. Australian Sports Council, Fifth Meeting, 21-22 April 1975.
  7. Greg Hartung interview with Frank Stewart, 22 Nov 1978 (located in Greg Hartung Collection at National Library of Australia)
  8. Australian Sports Council, Fourth meeting in Canberra on 24-25 March 1975.
  9. Forbes Carlile. ‘Athletes Under Stress’, Sports Coaching – a report of a seminar for sports coaches, Melbourne, 29-31 May 1975, Dept of Tourism and Recreation, 1975, p91.

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 8 –The ‘Ideas Factory’ of Australian Sport: the emergence of the Confederation of
Australian Sport

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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