The Australian Sports Commission and its political struggles: John Brown and Bob Hawke introduce a new era in Australian sport policy

History of Australian Sports Policy Series:  Part 12

By Greg Hartung AO

The genesis of the Australian Sports Commission had its roots in the Australian Labor Party’s sports policy released during the 1983 Australian Federal election campaign.

The John Brown Influence

John Brown was elected to the marginal Labor Sydney seat of Parramatta in 1977 and was appointed Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism in the first Hawke Ministry in 1983.  A businessman with an abiding interest in sport, Brown was to become one of Australia’s longest serving sports Ministers holding the portfolio until January 1988.

John Brown was determined to have an impact on the direction of Australian sport policy. He was not there as a seat warmer to mark time waiting for promotion up the ministerial pecking order. Sport was where he wanted to be. Brown was like the sport minister from central casting: a student of all things sport, he brought to the portfolio a deep knowledge of Australia’s sporting history and an appreciation of the important role sport played in Australian society.  He was convinced that the government would reap a political dividend by treating sport policy seriously.  He saw it as a win-win for both sport and the government.

While his predecessor, Barry Cohen, made a substantial contribution as shadow sport minister, it was Brown who drew from the detail of Cohen’s Green Paper on Sport and added to it his own research and ambition to produce a comprehensive sports policy document to take to the 1983 election.  (Ref 1) Cohen planted the seed; Brown got it to grow. 

A sporting partnership 

To Brown’s great advantage he had an equally enthusiastic sports policy supporter in his leader, Bob Hawke. It was a partnership deserving of the MCG on Boxing Day. Brown actively promoted sport as an issue deserving of serious political interest and he elevated it during the 1983 campaign. His friendship with Prime Minister Hawke was to be no disadvantage in managing this task.

Brown was also the beneficiary of having on his staff a sport adviser and canny political operator in Emmanuel Klein.  Like Barry Cohen for Labor, and Barry Simon for the Liberals earlier, Klein was one of the important but under-appreciated contributors to the evolution of Australian sport policy and practice. It was Klein who absorbed Brown’s policy interests and intent and injected the research and rigor into the policy document preparation. I must declare at this stage that I also had a part in the crafting the elements of the 1983 policy document, specifically in relation to the construct of the proposed new central government sport agency, the Australian Sports Commission.     

Brown’s 1983 campaign policy was the most wide-ranging sport policy document to be introduced to a federal election campaign.  A manifesto of some 127 pages in length, it was strong on principle, purpose and promise. (Ref 2) Labor’s success at the poll meant Brown was well placed to successfully influence the Hawke government’s role, not only in supporting high performance sport but also in relation to community recreation and leisure. Brown backed his position, and promises, with historical evidence and data along with and international experience and examples. The genesis of the Australian Sports Commission as the organisational centrepiece of government sport policy and program delivery can be traced to this campaign policy.  

The 1983 policy captured the government’s philosophical position and formed the foundation and rationale for its policy intervention. The scope of the policy was wide, covering the broad sweep of policy from competitive sport to recreation and participation.  Brown wanted sport and recreation to be open to everyone.  It was all things to all people – a sport for all policy.  

“With the development of an increasingly complex technological and industrialised society, greater demands have been placed on a meaningful use of leisure time.  People are turning to sport, physical fitness and leisure activities to promote their health, happiness and fulfillment.

“Labor recognises that sport is probably Australia’s most undervalued social service.” (Ref 2)

The 1983 Federal Election Campaign

In his election campaign launch at the Sydney Opera House on 16 February 1983, Hawke underscored the John Brown utilitarian commitment: “We will ensure, through substantial funding increases, that sport, physical fitness and recreation facilities will be available to all Australians seeking to enjoy them whatever their wealth, ability or level of aspiration. 

“Particular priorities for increased funding will be the National Institute of Sport, sports education in schools, the building of family leisure centres in or near schools and surf life-saving associations.”  (Ref 3)

Labor’s policy for sport was closely linked to positive national health and fitness outcomes – and it aspired to create the circumstances where opportunities to be involved in sport and recreation would be open to all regardless of gender, financial status or ability.

The sweeping policy promises included the establishment of a Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism in large part emulating the Departmental structure established by the Whitlam Government under Frank Stewart as Minister. Big ticket items included the “generous” funding of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), which also provided a commitment to the building of athlete accommodation to serve athletic talent.  According to Labor, if Australia expected its athletes to compete and win on the world stage then government had a responsibility to provide them with world class training facilities.

The Australian Sports Commission raises its head

As well as the creation of a new Department and enhancement of the AIS, Brown promised the establishment of an Australian Sports Commission as an essential component of the national sport organisational structure.  All three bodies – the Department, the Sports Commission and the Institute of Sport — were given significant roles which often over-lapped creating significant bureaucratic tension in ensuing years which Brown did not envisage.  This theme will be explored in a future Paper in this Series.

In addition to internal inter-agency tensions, the role of the Commission was treated with suspicion by the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) which was to lobby hard, albeit unsuccessfully, against the Commission, strongly opposing the passing of its enabling legislation. 

Throughout the formational period for the Commission, CAS — as part of its strategy to scuttle the initiative — contacted every federal politician to campaign against the emergence of the Commission.  CAS ultimately won the support of the Coalition in Opposition but it was not enough to bury the concept before it began.  More discussion of this campaign will be contained in future Papers.  Perhaps it had been forgotten that a prominent Liberal MP, Barry Simon, had previously provided the Coalition government with a recommendation in 1976 that such a Commission, as a Statutory Authority, should be created. 

While the Coalition Parties eventually voted against the ASC Bill in 1985, it was the vote of the Australian Democrats in the Senate which gave the Hawke government the numbers to pass the ASC legislation.

Minister in a hurry

Nothing in sport policy appeared beyond the grasp, or ambition, of the first term Hawke government. The Brown policy document promised to work with State Governments to improve sport education in schools and to collaborate with State and Local Governments on the provision of international standard sport facilities, as well as basic sport and passive recreation facilities across the country. 

He committed Labor to supporting the concept of a proposed biennial Australia Games. This was an idea, initially sponsored by CAS, but which gained support across the political spectrum.  Unfortunately, after one attempt and despite the agreed value of the innovation, the Games quietly slipped off the sport political agenda.

The general sports community warmly welcomed Brown’s promise to increase funding under the Sports Development Program to National Sporting Organisations (NSO).  This was the “meat and potatoes” program providing essential funding to struggling NSOs to help them survive financially. He highlighted the fact that the Fraser Government’s previous budget of 1981-82 allocated $3.2 million to support 120 NSOs for the employment of managers and coaches catering for a total sport participation base of some five million. “Although the proposed spending in the area of youth, sport and recreation has increased from $20.1 million allocated in 1981-82 to $26.7 million in 1982-83 nearly 90 percent of those funds go to building, construction and maintenance costs.  Those sports centres benefit mainly the ‘glamor’ sports (eg tennis and swimming) and elite sports people,” declared Brown. (Ref 2)

Bridging the political-sport divide

Brown, who enjoyed a successful businessman career before entering politics, regularly spoke of the value of sport to society, to individuals and to business. And he saw a clear connection between sport and politics.

“Of course, there is no need for individual athletes to be political. But we must realise also that everything in some way is related to politics.  Therefore, rather than shying away from the political process we need more and more sportsmen to become involved in politics where due to their expertise and intelligence they can argue a good case for sport,” argued Brown in his 1983 campaign.  And drawing on ancient history, he declared: “there have been politics in sport since well before Athens and Sparta used to seek perfection against each other on the Olympian field or later when Philip of Macedon was assassinated at the Olympic Games in order that Alexander the Great might succeed him.” (Ref 2)

Electoral benefit

It was not a one-way street: Brown maintained that there was “undeniable electoral benefit” to be gained by government being engaged in sport policy.  The creation of a separate Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism would, Brown declared, have a direct effect on the lives of more Australians than any government instrumentality other than the Taxation Commission.  Despite the hyperbole, Brown meant what he said – and he became sport’s advocate and salesman inside the new Hawke government. 

Except for respect shown toward the work of the former Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Ellicott, Brown gave little credit to the contribution to sport of the Fraser Coalition Government: “The Fraser Government is becoming increasingly interested in sport as an electoral gain.  However, its basic elitism constrains it from achieving the full impact that is possible from a diverse imaginative and generous sports policy…there is still a lingering residual distrust in sporting organisations and with sports people generally of the Fraser Government over their cynical attitude to sport at the time of the Moscow Olympics.”

The quid pro quo

Brown promulgated the view that great electoral benefit would flow to the political party which could tap into Australia’s love affair with sport.  “A generous investment in the right areas and a recognition that the Labor Party really does care for sport and sporting people might well be the special impetus we require to win that small percentage of votes we require for a Labor Government in 1983.”

The claim by CAS that it represented in excess of 100 National Sporting Organisations which, in turn, had an accumulated membership of some five million Australians actually helped Brown win over his Parliamentary colleagues.  The size of the sport industry – and therefore its contribution to the national economy — was one of the arguments used regularly by Brown to rebut the sceptics about the political wisdom of supporting sport.  He used the economic argument to highlight the value of sport to the country.  At the same time, he maintained that sales tax, which at that stage was paid on sporting goods and equipment, was a financial impost on “ordinary sportsmen and women” amounting to $90 million a year.  He promulgated the view that the imposition of sales tax on sports clothing and equipment acted as a disincentive to people to play sport.

The Australian Sports Commission: for better or worse

A national coordinating body responsible for the delivery of the Federal Government’s sports policies had for many years been on the political radars of both the Labor Party and the Coalition Parties, although the concept was not always clearly defined.

The Liberal Party discussed the idea in vague terms during the 1970s (although the Liberal Party later changed its position to one of total opposition during the 1987 election campaign) and Labor, through its main sports proponents, Barry Cohen and later John Brown took the idea further. The concept featured during the 1983 federal election campaign and was again on the agenda during the 1984 election campaign. 

Despite Labor’s enthusiasm, there were many questions left unanswered. It was left to a new Committee to consult with sport to fill in the gaps. The Interim Committee for the Australian Sports Commission (ICASC), which was appointed by Brown with the support of Cabinet after the election victory in 1983, was given the task of putting meat on the bone.

The journey to establish a fully functioning Sports Commission, with a legislated mandate to be the central policy and funding agency of the Government, was marked by dispute and argument.  The problem arose because there was more than one player in this space — the new Department and the AIS also had similar defined roles and the boundaries were not always made clear. Relationships at times were strained.  And differences about responsibilities, control and authority over program delivery became inevitable which required careful navigation.

For many among the wider national sporting organisation network, the ASC was welcomed; for others it was simply tolerated.  But for some it was outright opposed. The Commission, and the authority with which it was trusted, was not to everyone’s liking — a characteristic which has followed its history and compromised its effectiveness and success. 

For the major professional sports, whose independence and strength in both budget and patronage, the Commission was much less significant or important than for the smaller, less wealthy, Olympic sports which relied on government financial support and programs.

ASC: the bridge to sport

The Commission was the vehicle through which Brown and the Hawke Government delivered its primary policy objectives in such areas as support for national sporting organisations from the base through to high performance.  It put into effect the government’s stated intentions to identify and support groups in society which were disadvantaged in accessing sporting opportunities – athletes with a disability, women, aborigines – and to promote a sports culture among children through the Aussie Sports initiative. There may not have been equality as yet, but no one was to be left ‘outside the tent’.

Although there was no constitutional requirement for the Federal Government to establish a policy to specifically provide financial assistance to sport and recreation, the initial justification for such support had its genesis in the 1941 National Fitness Act.  As I explored in an earlier Paper, this legislation, on the back of defence imperatives at the time, targeted programs to improve the health and fitness of Australians as part of the war effort.  The work of the National and State Fitness Councils was maintained and extended and continued for many decades after World War 11 ended.

McLeay Review and the struggle ahead

The Interim Committee for the Australian Sports Commission (ICASC) was in the midst of its work in 1983 providing the rationale and purpose of a permanent Commission for the Minister’s consideration when the House of Representatives put forward what was to be the first of many “speed bumps” in its path.

The all-party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Expenditure was originally established prior to the election and was chaired by the National Party’s Stephen Lusher.  It was the Fraser government’s final initiative in sport.  While Fraser lost the election in March 1983, the enquiry which was suspended during the election campaign continued afterwards thus traversing part of the terms of two governments. Submissions were widely sought from the sports community and from all levels of government.  The large number of submissions provided a rare insight into the issues, concerns and aspirations which drove the Australian sport system. 

The enquiry was charged with reviewing the efficiency and effectiveness of federal government expenditure on youth, sport and recreation.  In its deliberations, it could not avoid the post-election enthusiasm for a fully functioning Commission for sport by the Hawke government. However, the excitement for a new Commission was not shared by the Committee.  

Following the election, the role of chair of the enquiry fell to NSW Labor MP, Leo McLeay. The McLeay committee presented its report, The Way We P(l)ay, in November 1983 and, contrary to the Government’s policy position, was surprisingly ambivalent toward the need to establish a Sport Commission.  Its reservations were a harbinger of the struggle that was to come. (Ref 4)

Although it failed to change the Government’s intended course for the Commission, the McLeay report declared that it had an “open mind” regarding the desirability of establishing a National Sports Commission as an independent agency absorbing those functions previously carried out by the Department. (Ref 4 p.77). Any support, such as it was, was lukewarm.

It acknowledged the calls from witnesses for stronger Commonwealth leadership in sport and recreation. “To the extent that the purpose of the Commission was to provide such leadership, the Committee accepted the Commission’s establishment.”  This was hardly a warm endorsement.

Commission not the best option

The McLeay’s Committee’s reluctance to get behind the government’s declared policy on the Commission was even clearer in the following statement in the report: “…the Committee believed that a Commission structure was only one and not necessarily the best of a number of organisational models including a department or an advisory committee which could achieve the leadership objective. In the Committee’s view however, the need for leadership extended beyond sport to cover recreation.”

The McLeay report concluded that there was a danger that the Sports Commission’s role “could just as easily and more effectively be performed by a Department of State.”.  That said, the McLeay Committee, somewhat reluctantly, concluded that if a Commission was to proceed it should be given its independence.

Brown and Hawke were not about to change course.  The struggle for the Commission to establish itself had only begun!

The Committee had heard evidence from across the sport spectrum. Australia has never been short of government inspired enquiries into sport, most of which gather dust through lack of political will.  This enquiry was one of the better ones. It attracted probably the most comprehensive collection of views, before or since, on the future direction and funding of sport.

CAS and the Australian Sports Commission

The concept of a National Sports Commission was listed as commitment number 12 in John Brown’s sport policy but contained little detail how it would work with his new Department which was also foreshadowed in the policy document. Commitment 12 declared that the formation of a National Sports Commission would “oversee the provision of federal assistance to sport at every level”.  Consequently, it invested in the proposed Commission a sweeping role in national sport. Tension between the Department and the Commission was going to be difficult to avoid.

Brown left little doubt as to the role envisaged for the new Sports Commission in his 1983 election manifesto: it would be the centralised organisation to provide leadership and long-term direction for the future of sport. “…it would act also as a valuable advisor to governments, a repository of sports literature, a research institute (especially in the field of sports medicine) and through its Commissioners drawn from the sporting academic, media and business worlds it could assure a more equitable distribution of the sporting dollar.” 

Brown said the national Sports Commission would be charged with responsibility for matters relating to Australian national and international sport.  “It will work with the various State and federal sporting organisations already in existence. It will also permit a greater degree of flexibility in the general administration of sporting activities.”

Such a sweeping description posed many challenges and potential problems for established organisations within Australian sport.  What would be the power and authority balance between the Commission and the Department?  How will the Commission relate to the increasingly influential and vocal CAS which, as it grew in size and strength, saw itself as being the representative and co-ordinating body of sport? Why did government need to take on this role?

The Confederation was cautious at first but became an unambiguous opponent and critic as more detail became known. It campaigned accordingly.

In opposing the creation of the ASC as a statutory body in 1985, the CAS sought, and won, the support of the Liberal/National Opposition.  The CAS opposition only intensified during the progress of the enabling legislation through the Parliamentary processes.  Despite this opposition, the legislation was eventually successful — but still the campaign to dismantle the Commission continued unabated till the 1987 federal election.

The battle lines were well and truly drawn: in the world of sport in the 1980s it shaped as a titanic struggle to be explored in detail in my forthcoming Papers in this Series.


  1. Green paper on sport and recreation by Barry Cohen. Canberra, Australian Labor Party, 1980.
  2. Australian Labor Party. The A.L.P. sport and recreation policy Canberra, ALP, 1983.
  3. Robert Hawke. ALP Sport and Recreation Policy Launch, 28 February 1983.
  4. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure. The way we p ( l ) ay : Commonwealth assistance for sport and recreation : report, 1983.

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 13 – What led to the creation of the ASC…Supporters and Opponents of a Sports Commission line up for a titanic ‘for and against’ struggle

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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