Sport and the Ministerial Revolving Door:the Ebbs and Flows of Sport Policy and Politicians -and the Confederation of Australian Sport Makes its Presence Felt.

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 9

By Greg Hartung AO

Ministerial “gallery”

Bob Ellicott left the portfolio on 17 February 1981 after serving for two years and 74 days.  Even after he left, he retained a keen interest in the future of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).  Post Ellicott, the sport portfolio, in succession, fell to Michael MacKellar for about a month, then Ian Wilson for a little over 13 months and then it transferred to the National Party’s Tom McVeigh for about 10 months.

While Ellicott was a success story, the same could not be said of his successor as Minister for Sport. MacKellar barely had time to put his feet under the desk — let alone develop an agenda — before he was out the door. 

Minister fumbles the ball

MacKellar’s occupation of the portfolio was cut spectacularly short.  He held the reins for a paltry 30 days, falling victim to a bizarre political controversy labelled at the time as the “color TV” affair. He was forced to resign as Minister as a consequence of a false customs declaration when returning from overseas in 1982. Vigilant Customs officials discovered that either he, or a staff member, had mistakenly declared on the customs form that he was bringing in a black and white television when in fact it was a color TV.  A color television would attract a duty while a black and white one would not!

Once the oversight was discovered, MacKellar’s career as Minister for sport was terminated before it really began – a heavy price to pay for a color television set. So MacKellar’s impact on sport policy was negligible, although in life after politics he was to contribute as a Director on the Board of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Organising Committee as the Federal Government representative.

Ian Wilson takes the reins

South Australian MP, Ian Wilson, was appointed Minister for Home Affairs and Environment on 19 March 1981.  An establishment South Australian Conservative, he was not known to have any deep connection with Sport prior to his appointment.  However, coming to the portfolio in the wake of Ellicott, Wilson had the benefit of inheriting a solid foundation upon which to advance sport policy.

At the annual meeting of the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) on 11 December 1981, Wilson made his first address to the assembled sports.  His address came in the wake of the published ‘Master Plan for Sport’ by CAS, outlining the CAS sport policy agenda, and it afforded Wilson the opportunity to inform the sporting community how he intended to address their concerns and aspirations.  (Ref 1)

If sport was expecting a relaxation of the federal government’s purse strings, they were disappointed.  Wilson’s address held the Liberal Party line: responsibility for sport policy, and funding, was something that had to be shared among the States, sports themselves and the private sector.  The Federal Government could not be expected to be solely responsible.

“It is not sufficient any longer to adopt an attitude which constantly expects somebody else to do the work,” Wilson declared.  “It is no longer appropriate to expect the money, the enthusiasm and the expertise to emerge from any single source.”

For the cash strapped members of the Confederation, this message was nothing new. It was something any one of his predecessors would have said, albeit a little more softly. Wilson echoed the familiar themes of Liberal policy: to encourage and support the twin themes of participation and high performance. Wilson also espoused his belief in the top down and bottom-up benefits of government policy.

His message to CAS: “there is a clear interrelationship between these two elements. From the ever- broadening base of community participation, the stars of tomorrow will emerge…Just as we rely on growing levels of participation to bring forward our top athletes, so do the performances of those athletes encourage and stimulate increasing participation.”

Jewel in the Crown

The Australian Institute of Sport – the concept started by Frank Stewart as Minister in the Whitlam Labor Government and brought to fruition by the Fraser Liberal Government – was the jewel in the sports policy and program crown.  According to Wilson, the AIS was established to provide top athletes and emerging athletes with the best possible training environment. 

The AIS had only existed in a physical form for a little more than 12 months and could boast 150 athletes growing to 180 the following year in eight sports: basketball, gymnastics, netball, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field and weightlifting. 

Wilson drew attention to the essential criteria for a high- performance centre – the AIS had assembled, in a central place, top level coaches with a full sports science back-up operating in first class facilities. In addition to the AIS development, there was also the complementary facilities program previously foreshadowed by Ellicott, The International Standard Sports Facilities Program (ISSF) which had a budget of $25 million to be expended over three years on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis with the States.

Under this program, the Federal Government had provided $8 million to NSW for the construction of the indoor sports hall and Hockey and Athletics facilities at Homebush.  In Victoria an amount of $3.5 million was offered toward the construction of a State Hockey Centre, an Equestrian Centre and an upgrade of Olympic Park and $3 million for the development of an international standard motor racing circuit.  Queensland received funding for a Rifle Range, Velodrome and Athletics centre.  South Australia won approval for a new aquatic centre and Western Australia received help with the construction of a Baseball facility while in Tasmania work on a feasibility study for a Canoe and Rowing facility was agreed. The Northern Territory won approval for its major indoor sports complex to be constructed in Darwin with the Commonwealth contributing $1.5 million.

Wilson described the International Standard Sports Facilities Program as the “most expensive single initiative in sports policy.”

The AIS and Sport Development Program

As well as the AIS, Wilson highlighted the growing importance of the Sports Development Program (SDP) which was the primary vehicle providing direct financial support to national sporting organisations for the employment of full-time administrators and coaches.  The AIS and the SDP were at the heart of the government’s sports agenda. 

By 1981 annual Federal government expenditure on sport had increased to $18 million within which $2.8 million was earmarked for the SDP.  Wilson had used the SDP to introduce the National Athlete Award Scheme (NAAS).  The budget allocation was an entry level amount of $190,000 which enabled financial support to be provided world ranked athletes to assist with training and competition costs.  The program has continued under different names and has been a source of funding which has enabled athletes to continue and extend their careers.

Sales Tax division

The controversial issue of sales tax on sporting equipment became one of the divisive matters between CAS and the government.  Wilson raised the question in his address to CAS and explained that the rationale behind the government’s planned increase in sales tax on sport equipment was to create the fiscal circumstances later for a reduction in direct taxation.  Wilson was keen to explain that it was not sport alone that was being singled out for the tax rise – however, he was equally clear that despite counter arguments from CAS the Government had no intention of directly returning such revenues back to sport: “I again want to emphasise that the Government does not believe in the hypothecation of revenue in this way, nor do I believe that it would necessarily be in the interests of sport to follow this course.” It was an explanation which would not ameliorate the Confederation’s concerns, despite increases in Federal budgets.

CAS flexes its muscle

CAS already had begun targeted the government over funding levels, claiming it was not adequate to meet the growing pressure on its members both to produce international results while meeting increased community demands.

Similarly, it was concerned that sport had borne a disproportionate burden over the dispute with Russia and the consequent Moscow Games boycott.  This issue, along with several other examples where sport had been used as an instrument of foreign policy, was brought to sharp focus in a major paper ‘Effects on Sport of Australia’s Foreign Policies” prepared by CAS and presented to the Government in late 1981. When Ian Wilson was replaced by National Country Party MP, Mr Tom McVeigh, in May 1982, as Minister for Home Affairs and Environment, there was already an unsettled relationship brewing between sport and government.

The President of CAS, Wayne Reid, wrote to all member associations on 23 August 1982 expressing the Confederation’s disappointment with the 1982-83 Federal budget and urging all sports to contact the Minister expressing their concerns.   Of specific concern was the core Sports Development Program which provided essential support for administration, coaching and competition.  Reid said that the Sport Development Program was to be increased by $305,000 to a total of $3.19 million.  But this was to be spread across 110 national sporting organisations – insufficient, according to Reid, to provide any impetus. 

Reid: “New projects, including those funded by the Federal Government are placing continually greater demands upon the capabilities of sports administrations and with rising costs, the ability of many sporting bodies to meet these new demands may well be overtaxed because of limited resources.”

Tom McVeigh – Sport goes to the Nationals

Since the days of Australia’s first Federal Minister responsible for sport, Frank Stewart, the portfolio had been something of a revolving door for politicians either on the way up or the way down in their political careers. In some instances, the sport function was “bolted” on to a much larger portfolio of which sport would become a minor part too easily considered by Ministers as the “good time” part of the job.  Despite the standout successes of an Ellicott or, in a later government, a John Brown, sport struggled to climb the ministerial pecking order.

AIS expands 

McVeigh was genuinely interested in the portfolio and keen to leave his mark but the short tenure hardly worked in his favour before the government changed in March 1983 and John Brown took the mantle. McVeigh did not waste his limited opportunity and announced a significant embellishment of the role of the AIS. In December 1982, he agreed to broaden the role of the AIS beyond the eight residential sports.  He wanted the AIS to also become a National Training Centre for non-residential sports to bring the facility, along with its growing reputation for sports science and medicine, within the reach of more athletes and more teams.  This became one of the bedrock strengths of the AIS as it matured and earned its reputation as one of the finest Institutes in the world, a reputation which was sadly eroded in later years. But at the time it was to the credit of McVeigh that he came forward with a significant innovation and long-term expansion of the AIS role.

“It will encourage sports, in addition to the eight sports now resident at the Institute, to use the facilities available for squad training, national selection trials, national team training, talent development programs, coaches’ seminars and workshops for sports officials,” McVeigh announced. “Access to the sport science laboratories would allow the Institute’s sophisticated scientific approach to training to be of benefit to many more sports than can be catered for on a full-time basis.”

Eight Ministers

By the time of the 1983 election, Tom McVeigh had been Minister responsible for sport for about 10 months.  He was the last of eight Ministers who had served in the portfolio during the term of the Fraser Government from 11 November 1975 to 11 March 1983.  Only Bob Ellicott had served in the role for two years or longer. Like his predecessors, McVeigh had the benefit of a group of public servants in his Department who had developed excellent relationships with sporting organisations. 

McVeigh used his time well.  As well as his boost to the AIS, he continued with the key national programs already underway and initiated the new National Talent Development Scheme. The 1981-82 budget for sport and recreation amounted to $16.4 million which enabled the continuation of programs for Sports Development, coaching accreditation, lifesaving support, the National Athletes Award Scheme and international sports facilities.  There were also modest amounts within the budget for assistance for athletes with a disability. The Talent Development program provided grants of $1000 to young athletes showing the potential to reach a world ranking.  In that year young aspiring champions such as Michael Hillardt and Sue Howland in Athletics received this financial assistance along with Grant Kenny (Surf Life-Saving) and Chris Dittmar (Squash).  In addition, the concept of an Australia Games, discussed in a previous Paper in this Series, received McVeigh’s backing, picking up the recommendation of the Confederation of Australian Sport.

As Minister for Home Affairs and Environment — which included responsibility for sport and recreation policy – McVeigh was the ninth “Sport or Recreation Minister” across both Labor and the Liberal National parties, in less than 10 years. The CAS had been arguing for the re-establishment of a separate and clearly identifiable Department responsible for sport and recreation since its abolition in 1976.  That lobbying effort was rewarded later with the creation of the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism under Minister, John Brown, on the change of government in 1983.

1983 Election Looms       

The government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser received a popularity boost in the wake of the successful Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane in 1982, but it was not enough to carry him and his government through to the election the following year.

It was becoming clear that CAS was having an impact in Canberra.  With an eye to the pending 1983 election, McVeigh kept open communication with sport, including the Confederation, mindful that CAS was lobbying for some substantial changes to Government approach to sport policy. For instance, in the run up to the 1983 election McVeigh announced that if re-elected the Coalition would establish a Sports Aid Foundation, an initiative to attract funds from the private sector for sport and championed by CAS.  The Foundation concept also found its way into Labor’s sport policy.    

In the shadow of the looming election, the government announced an inquiry commencing in October 1982 into youth sport and recreation to be conducted under the auspices of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure.  The Committee was chaired by National Party MP, Stephen Lusher, and comprised cross Party representation (six Liberal/National, five Labor). 

This presented CAS and other sport organisations the perfect opportunity to put forward ideas and recommendations, simultaneously, to both sides of politics prior to the election and help frame the future sport policy debate.  The timing was ideal for CAS.  This significant Parliamentary enquiry, started under a Coalition government was finalised under Labor government with the Committee chaired by NSW Labor MP, Leo McLeay.

The 1983 election brought in a change in government and would introduce a watershed period in Australian sport.


  1. Confederation of Australian Sport. The master plan for sport, March 1980. Melbourne. The Confederation, 1980.

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 10 –The Voice of Sport – the Story Behind the Confederation of
Australian Sport: Sport Finds its Strength in the 1970s and Begins to Influence
Government Policy

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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