By Greg Blood
Two important and critical Australian Government sport leadership positions – Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) and Director of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) – have recently been advertised. It is worth reflecting on the previous occupants of these critical positions and their background prior to their appointment.
What should be optimum experience and qualifications of these senior sport leadership positions? Particularly as these positions need to work across all levels of government particularly Australian Government and national and state sports organisations. In my experience, this is not an easy task these days in the political environment and constant changes in the Australian sport sector.
Australian Sports Commission Chief Executive Officers
Greg Hartung AO 1984–1988
Hartung came to the position as a sports and political correspondent with a strong interest in sport policy. He assisted the Australian Labor Party in developing its sport policy for 1983 Federal election. This policy included the establishment of the ASC. Hartung managed the Interim Committee for the ASC that led to the formal establishment of the ASC in 1985. Hartung had a good grounding in Australian politics and sport but had no previous direct experience in working in government. Hartung had to deal with the Confederation of Australian Sport’s opposition to the ASC and the Federal Department of Sport desire to hang onto many of its previous functions.
Ronald Harvey CVO AM 1989
Harvey held the dual roles of ASC CEO and AIS Director. This came about as the Hawke Government merged the AIS into the ASC during the period 1987 to 1989. Harvey had a strong background in basketball administration as well as a senior roles in the Australian Government including Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Besides managing the AIS after the John Cheffers era and Senate Inquiry into Drugs in Sport, he was required to undertake the difficult task on merging two government sport statutory authorities.
Jim Ferguson 1990–2000
Ferguson held senior Australian Government positions including from 1986 to 1990, the Head of the Tourism and Sport Division, Commonwealth Department of Arts, Sport, the Environment and Tourism. In this role, Ferguson was involved in completing the merger between the ASC and the AIS. Ferguson took over after the Hawke and Keating Government’s made significant increases into sports funding through the Maintain the Momentum and Olympic and Paralympic Preparation Programs. Ferguson held the position for ten years – the longest of any CEO to date.
Mark Peters 2001-2008
Peters, a former leading Australian baseball player and captain, held senior sport leadership positions in South Australian, Tasmanian and Queensland Departments of sport from 1983 to 2000. Peters was tasked with transitioning Australian sport beyond the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics – initially with decreased funding and limited government policy. In addition, Peters took over when the ASC and AIS lost many significant staff.
Matt Miller 2009-2011
Miller came to the position with Australian and State Government leadership positions including Queensland Commissioner for Fair Trading, General Manager of Queensland Building Services Authority and Child Support Agency. Miller was tasked with implementing the Australian Government’s response to the Crawford Inquiry – Australian Sport : the Pathway to Success – which did create some division in Australian sport sector. Miller’s lack of previous involvement in sport may have led to difficulties in working with the Australian sport sector and led to his early departure from the position.
Simon Hollingsworth 2012–2016
Hollingsworth was an AIS camps-based track and field athlete and represented Australia at Olympic Games (1992 & 1996) and Commonwealth Games (1990 & 1994). Hollingsworth, a lawyer, held senior positions in Victorian Dept of Premier and Cabinet. During his time as CEO, Hollingsworth with Matt Favier was tasked with implementing Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022. For some this was a radical change in high performance sport as it made national sports organisations more directly responsible for high performance sport and did result in some turmoil at the AIS due to the cessation of sports scholarship programs and sports science services.
Kate Palmer 2017–2020
Palmer became the first woman to be appointed ASC CEO or AIS Director. Palmer brought strong experience in leading state and national sports organisations – Netball Victoria (2000-2006) and Netball Australia (2007-2016). She was also Chair of the Victorian Institute of Sport (2010-2016). Palmer had extensive experience in sport but may have lacked experience in government bureaucracy particularly at a time where it is seen to be more politicised. During Palmer’s time as CEO, there was an increased emphasis on increasing sport participation through the Sport 2020 – National Sports Plan.
Australian Institute of Sport Directors
Don Talbot AO OBE (1980- 1983) deceased
Talbot came to the position as a high successful Australian Olympic swimming coach. In the 1970’s, Talbot coached in Canada and the United States. Talbot had no experience in working in government but brought in-depth knowledge of high-performance sport. Talbot struggled with the government bureaucracy but his direct approach and relationship with Minister Bob Ellicott played a critical role in the early establishment of the AIS. Talbot departed after the election of the Hawke Government in March 1983. Would have Talbot survived in the current environment with greater government control?
John Cheffers (1984-1986) deceased
Cheffers had a background in track and field as athlete and coach and played Australian football in the VFL. Prior to his appointment, Cheffers was Professor of Physical Education at Boston University. Cheffers period was marred by allegations of financial mismanagement. However, Cheffers broadened the role of the AIS in Canberra through the establishment of interstate programs and in his words “lowering the drawbridge. In retrospect, Cheffers may not have understood the critical importance of managing government funding in a prudent manner.
Ronald Harvey CVO AM 1987-1988
Harvey was appointed to bring back a level of government accountability after the Cheffers period. His experience is listed under ASC CEO – he moved from the AIS Director to this position with the formalisation of ASC legislation.
Robert de Castella AO MBE (1990-1995)
de Castella prior to his appointment was Australia’s greatest marathon runner winning 1983 world championship and in the early days of the AIS worked with Dr Dick Telford in the physiology laboratory. de Castella’s appointment came after a period where the AIS reputation had been battered by the Senate Drugs in Sport Inquiry. Despite having limited organisational management and government experience, he brought an extensive understanding of the high-performance sport and a sense of credibility.
John Boultbee AM (1995-2000)
Boultbee, a lawyer, came to the position with a strong background in rowing administration particularly as Secretary General of International Rowing Federation from 1989 to 1995. Boultbee with ASC CEO Jim Ferguson was tasked with implementing $140m Olympic/Paralympic Athlete Program (1994-2000) that enhanced the way important high-performance sport in Australia operated and this led historic Australian results at the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics.
Michael Scott (2001-2005)
Scott with a background in swimming had held senior leadership positions with Victorian and South Australian Depts of Sport and was the inaugural Director of the NSW Institute of Sport (1997-2001). Scott was tasked with of reinvigorating the AIS post Sydney Olympics and Paralympics and this occurred through additional AIS programs, upgraded facilities and new management model.
Prof Peter Fricker OAM (2005-2011)
Fricker, a sports physician, was the Head of AIS Sports Medicine from 1983 to 2000. He was appointed Head of AIS Sports Science and Medicine Services from 2000 to 2005. Fricker brought to the position an extensive understanding of high-performance sport and government bureaucracy. Fricker was the first AIS staff member to be appointed AIS Director.
Matt Favier (2012-2017)
Favier was an AIS track and field athlete (1983-1986) and worked in high performance for several Australian sports organisations from 1994 to 2003. From 2003 to 2011, he held leadership positions with UK Athletics and UK Sport. Favier was the driver of the AIS Winning Edge Policy 2012-2022 which in many ways was close to the UK sport system. This led to AIS no longer managing scholarship programs and the diminishing several AIS sports science disciplines.
Peter Conde (2017-2021)
Conde came to the position with extensive experience in management consulting. After 2004 Athens Olympics, he assisted Yachting Australia (now Australian Sailing) in high performance planning after their poor results. From 2009 to 2017, he was Australian Sailing’s High Performance Manager. During Conde’s period there has been more resources directed at athlete health, wellbeing and resilience and had to manage the difficulties of a delayed Olympics and Paralympics during COVID-19. He was the first AIS Director that resided outside Canberra.
The ASC CEO and AIS Director positions require the occupants to work across all levels of government and a wide range of national and state sports organisations and provide national leadership. It is critical that they have a very good understanding the dynamics of the Australian sport system – without this they most likely will struggle. Significant experience and/or understanding in government is highly desirable particularly due to the increased ‘political’ nature of governments. In addition, they will need to work in the competing environments of the ASC and AIS. Many have observed in recent times that this environment has been strained. It is apparent that the current Australian Government is not going to split the ASC and the AIS.
We are coming up to 2022 and it reminds me of 1990 – then there was a new ASC CEO (Jim Ferguson) and AIS Director (Robert de Castella) and this new leadership with John Boultbee in 1995 provided a strong stability and leadership to the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics. Australian sport needs similar leadership heading into the 2032 Brisbane Olympics and Paralympics – chopping and changing of these leadership positions will most likely lead to conflict and frequent changes in direction.
It would be great to see the new ASC CEO’s and AIS Director hold the positions for at least five years to ensure that sustained leadership is provided to the Australian sport sector in these challenging but exciting times.