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

History of Australian Sport Series:  Part 13

By Greg Hartung AO

Rocky road ahead

The drafting of a sport policy was the easy part of the creation of the Australian Sports Commission.  The navigation of the political, bureaucratic and sporting landscapes would prove to be infinitely more difficult.

This essay — the latest in my series of Papers on the history of Australian sport policy – continues the discussion following the 1983 federal election which gave the incoming Hawke Labor government its mandate to establish a sports commission with overriding responsibilities as the primary government sport policy delivery agency.  Despite the 1983 election victory, opposition to a Commission was maintained, and increased — and this fierce opposition was to continue unabated through to the December 1984 election, and beyond, to the 1987 federal election.

An analysis of the history of this formative period will provide an in-depth understanding of “why and how” the ASC was conceived and implemented – and raise debate whether the ASC has shifted from its original charter.

Not for changing   

The new government was not about to deviate from its course, despite the arguments opposed to a sports Commission. As discussed previously, there was a negative – or, at best, a neutral — attitude toward the concept expressed in the report of the 1984 Parliamentary McLeay Committee into sport funding.  (Ref 1) There was also outright opposition coming from the Confederation of Australian Sport, working in tandem with the Liberal/National Parties.

Despite all this, the Labor government was unmoved.

There was no denying that Sport Minister, John Brown, was a first-rate salesman, especially when operating in tandem with a Prime Minister such as Bob Hawke who shared his Minister’s passion for sport.  It was a formidable partnership and for the backers of a national sports commission, sport was the beneficiary.

ASC and Interim Committee    

The ASC was the most challenging central piece of the government’s sport policy architecture.  The 1983 policy provided the ASC’s broad operational mandate: to be accountable for funding and developing sport at all levels.

To give detail and substance to the proposal following the March 1983 election, Brown announced the appointment of the Interim Committee for the Australian Sports Commission (ICASC) and charged it — as its first task — to review the current state of sport and provide detailed recommendations to guide its own role and structure as a future Commission. 

The formal announcement establishing the “Interim Commission” was made by the Minister on 13 September 1983 in a media statement which also announced the five appointees to the Committee “to advise him on detailed arrangements for the Commission”.  (Ref 2)It was always portrayed by Brown that the Commission would be implemented and that this phase was to deal with the gaps in the detail. There was no doubt that the Commission would go ahead.  Even amid the gathering political scrutiny and criticism, as well as the nervousness within the Confederation — especially about the matter of independence — Brown was firmly fixed on having a sports commission. 

It was always going to happen, regardless.  It was not a question of “if”, but “how”.

The five-member ICASC was chaired by the Managing Director and Chief Executive of Ampol Ltd, Ted Harris, and included Olympic gold medallist and General Manager of Puma Australia, Herb Elliott, as Deputy Chair. Also on the Committee was the former captain of the Carlton Australian Football team, Mike Fitzpatrick, along with Sport and Political Correspondent, Greg Hartung, and Sport Sociologist, Libby Darlison. The latter two were engaged as full-time members of the ICASC. 

Brown initially set the ICASC the tight schedule of three months to investigate, consult with sport, and report to him on how the Commission should be established.  The Committee was asked to consider:

  • The role and powers of the Commission (including both sport and recreation);
  • The structure of the Commission and the responsibilities of its Commissioners;
  • Its relationships with:
  • The Minister for Sport Recreation and Tourism
  • The Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism
  • Sports organisations, including the Confederation of Australian Sport
  • Institutions such as the Australian Institute of Sport
  • Other levels of government

Brown expanded on the terms of reference and charged the ICASC to explore new approaches to sports development and to “develop ideas” for the most equitable distribution of the government’s sports funding.  An amount of $274,000 was budgeted for the interim committee’s work.

Farewell to the Sports Advisory Council

The role of the former Sports Advisory Council, which was originally established in 1973 by Labor’s first Minister for Sport, Frank Stewart, would be “absorbed” into the new Commission.  The three-month reporting timeframe was extended and it was not until 16 March 1984 that the report was presented to the Minister.

The report foreshadowed major changes to the management of sports development and that they were essential to achieve the aims the government had for sports development.  This would involve changes to existing structures and responsibilities, including that of the new Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, which, under the ICASC model, would transfer functions to the ASC.       

From the March 1983 election until the conclusion of the ICASC report, it was the Department which was the central agency dealing directly with the Minister on sport policy. That role by the Department was under challenge now that the report had been delivered.  It was a recipe for protracted discussion about the division of roles and responsibilities. 

The ICASC advised Brown that it would not be possible for the Australian Sports Commission to achieve the government’s goals unless it was given the powers of a statutory authority.  It said that the ASC, with statutory powers, would offer the promise of “a new era” for sport in Australia with benefits shared from high performance to the grass roots of sport. (Ref 3)

The Report

In the course of its investigations, the ICASC invited feedback from all national sporting associations and peak bodies and conducted research into similar central agencies in Europe the UK and Canada.  There was no room for ambiguity in the ICASC report.  It recommended that the proposed Australian Sports Commission, as a Statutory Authority answerable to Parliament through the Minister, be the primary government agency for the development, funding and delivery of sports policy.

Despite the fact that the report was delivered in March 1984, the Minister was in no hurry to make it public; this alone created significant political backlash and suspicion among sporting organisations, and gave its primary opponent, the Confederation of Australian Sport, ammunition supporting its campaign of opposition.

The report was not tabled in Parliament by the Minister until 1985, and long after the ASC was formally operational. 

The Sports Commission gets the green light

Despite the reasons for the initial hesitation, the government acted on the ICASC report and on 13 September 1984 the Prime Minister and Minister in a joint statement declared the Commission open for business and announced the names of the 21 Commissioners with the Board to be chaired by Ted Harris.  (Ref 4)

The Commission was empowered to commence operations with immediate effect but would temporarily act as an advisory body to the Government pending legislation to establish it as a full statutory authority. This would have to wait till after the election called for December 1984.

Bedrock reasons for the ASC

The joint statement provided a clear perspective why the Commission was considered necessary:

1) to increase the level of direct input by the sporting community into defining its needs and priorities; and

2) to have the “flexibility and autonomy” required to generate additional funds from the private sector through a Sports Aid Foundation. 

These were the two fundamental reasons confirmed in 1983 establishing a national sports commission.  The opponents of such a Commission – the Confederation of Australian Sport, as well as the federal Coalition Parties – feared the Commission would not meet its remit.

The Labor Party’s original concept envisaged the ASC as a central government agency designed to support, not dominate or control, the work of individual sporting bodies.  It was designed to collaborate with, not control, sport federations.  Its role was to co-ordinate Australia’s national sport effort to achieve best outcomes.  National Sporting Organisations would remain the responsible entities for their sports.

The Foundation was considered a fundamental part of the Commission — to raise funds to “supplement” (not replace) federal government appropriations.  It would be designed “to attract additional private sector resources that could be used to support sports development programs that will benefit all levels of Australian sport, including assistance to Australia’s high-performance athletes”. In the years since 1983, this element of the ASC’s role has changed.  With the Australian Sports Foundation now a separate organisation this no longer appears a part of the ASC’s remit. 

The 1984 campaign promise

Therefore, from 13 September 1984 the Interim Commission existed as a fully functioning body, with government approval, while waiting for legislation to be drafted and passed. 

Although not an orthodox approach, it enabled Hawke and Brown to go to the next election held on 1 December 1984 with the claim that it had delivered on its primary sport promise from the preceding election: The ASC had commenced operations; Commissioners were in the process of being appointed and announced; several staff from the Department had been transferred to the ASC; programs were underway. It was all positive and full steam ahead, at least from the perspective of government.

In his campaign address on 23 November 1984 at the Eastern Suburbs Leagues Club “Sport. We’re Moving Fast”, Hawke declared that the Commission, established two months earlier, would provide the government “with a direct link to the sporting community.”.  He declared that the Commission had been given the responsibility of co-ordinating “our national sports effort and advising the government on the best use of available resources.” (Ref 5)

Brown was confident of the passage of the legislation. There was no apparent “Plan B” should the Parliament reject the eventual legislation which it very nearly did. 

The Opposition, which had previously indicated that it may not oppose the Bill, changed tack at the eleventh hour. I received a late-night phone call from a senior front bench Liberal member advising me the evening before the Bill was introduced to Parliament in May 1985 that the Opposition would be voting against it.  He said it was on the grounds that the LNP was opposed, as a matter of overarching policy, to the creation of any new “qangos” (quasi autonomous statutory bodies).  The ASC fell into that category. The support of the minor Party, the Australian Democrats, ensured that a Plan B was not needed.       

Government sport performance credentials

After success at the polls in 1983, Brown had a positive story to tell voters. Total sports funding had soared in the Hawke government’s first which went a long way to allaying any concerns among national sporting organisations.  In a progress report toward the end of his first term, Brown highlighted the impressive jump in funding, as well as the decision to establish a separate Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism in addition to the Australian Sports Commission.  

In the 1984 campaign, Brown confirmed the government’s intention to introduce legislation to formalise the Sports Commission as a Statutory Authority. He announced that the government had chosen 21 Commissioners to comprise the first overly large ASC Board chaired by Ted Harris, then the chief executive of oil company, Ampol Ltd.  Members included Herb Elliott (Deputy Chair), Bruce MacDonald (Secretary of the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism), Mike Fitzpatrick (AFL), Roy Masters (Rugby League), John Newman (Karate), Mark Tonelli (Swimming), Colin Hayes (Horse Racing), Phil Coles (Australian Olympic Federation), Glynis Nunn (Athletics), Grant Kenny (Life Saving), Vicki Cardwell (Squash), Ray Lindwall (Cricket), Pat Clohessy (Athletics), Neale Fraser (Tennis), Alan Bond (Businessman), Betty Cuthbert (Athletics), Wendy Pritchard (Hockey), Andrew Lederer (Businessman), Jim Yates (Bowls), Margaret Pewtress (Netball).

At Labor’s sport policy launch on 23 November 1984, Brown cited among the Government’s achievements in its first term, the substantial increase in funding ($14 million up to $54 million) and pointed to funding increases to national sporting organisations for administration and coaching and for the Olympic team.  (Ref 5)The objectives of the government were to encourage the development of excellence; support participation in sport and recreation regardless of economic circumstances, ability or level of aspiration; and to encourage Australians to value and adopt a healthy, active lifestyle.

Brown highlighted the broad brush of the policy record including funding to support sport and recreation for the disabled; introduction of modified rules for junior sport; a new sports science and research program; a new national standard sports facilities program; the appointment of a working group on women and sport and the introduction of five new sports to the Australian Institute of Sport: Hockey in Perth, Diving and Squash in Brisbane, Rowing and Water Polo in Canberra.

ASC wins a narrow victory in 1985…

The Bill to formally create the ASC was not introduced to Parliament until 9 May 1985. It was subsequently passed although its passage was by no means assured.  It was only with the support of the Australian Democrat Senator from Western Australia, Jack Evans, in his final Parliamentary speech before retirement that the Bill was eventually passed and proclaimed by the Governor General on 1 July 1985.

…But detractors line up

Senator Evans described the passage of the legislation as “a red-letter day” for Australian sport.  But this was a view not shared by all.  (Ref 6)The Coalition Parties were heavily influenced by the Confederation in opposing the legislation.  The Confederation’s campaign against the ASC continued unabated leading up to the passage of the legislation and beyond. Among the Coalition’s concerns was its perception of a lack of enthusiasm within the world of sport and the prospect of Ministerial interference and control of a future Commission. 

The Shadow Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Charles Blunt, opposed the Bill on several fronts; he channelled much of the negative comments made by CAS. Blunt’s case was based on a conclusion that not only was the independence of sporting organisations threatened by the ASC legislation, but also that the government’s intent was to exert ministerial control over any independence of the ASC itself.

Blunt declared in a media statement on 6 May 1985: “We do not believe Australian sport should be subject to the control of a QUANGO, in turn controlled by the Minister, nor that the Commission should be required to operate with the ‘sports policy’ of the Government of the day. (Ref 6)

“The Australian Sports Commission will have no autonomy.  The Minister will control its policies and practices.  He will control its distribution of funds.  He will control appointments to the Commission.

“The Coalition believes Australian sport should be able to determine its own future.” (Ref 6)

Blunt highlighted that only two of the government- appointed Commissioners, effectively the Board of the ASC, held an office within a national sporting organisation.

Brown’s second reading speech to the Bill did little to allay these negative concerns: “The Government is anxious to ensure that the Commission operates within the framework of overall government objectives and policies which will guide the strategic plan to be prepared by the Commission for consideration by the Minister. 

“These provisions make it clear that the Commission will remain directly responsible to the Government. 

“Together with the provision to allow the Minister to issue directions to the Commission, they will ensure a due and proper degree of ministerial overview and responsibility.” (Ref 7).  This comment was highlighted by Opposition MPs and issued as a reason to oppose the Bill.  The legislation allowed for the Minister to give directions to the Commission but they needed to be in writing and had to be recorded in the Commission’s annual report. 

Arguments against the ASC

Blunt, the National Party member for Richmond in NSW, led the Parliamentary opposition. He sought direct input, and backing, from sporting organisations in a personal memorandum sent to all national executive directors of sports on 13 May 1985.  As well as declaring that he was “amazed” that the Interim Committee report had not been released to allow for debate and discussion prior to the introduction of the legislation, Blunt summarised the Opposition’s fundamental objections:

1: There is no provision for direct representation for National Sports Organisations on the Commission (All members of the Commission are appointed by the Minister);

2:  The Commission has no autonomy or financial independence.  Its programs and the funds it allocates, are entirely controlled by the Minister.  (The same control applies to private donations to the Sports Aid Foundation);

3:  The Government intends to give the donations to the Australian Sports Aid Foundation tax deductibility status without extending this status to other private sport foundations or national sport organisations.”

In presenting his objections and seeking feedback from sport, Blunt provided excerpts from the draft Bill to underscore his concerns.

Minister Brown avoided several requests during 1984 to publicly release the ICASC report but refused to do so until 1985. Brown gave no official reason for the delay.  However, there was well founded anxiety within government ranks about the criticism the report might attract from CAS. And there was tension about the internal debate over the division of responsibilities between the Commission and his Department.  This secretive approach was seen as provocative and played into the CAS lobbying position and reinforced the Federal Opposition’s wrong conclusion that the intent of the government, through the ASC, was to exert control over independent national sporting organisations. This view was central to the Liberal/National opposition to the ASC legislation.

Contrary to the criticism, Brown was a strong supporter of the autonomy of sporting organisations and firm in his view that the ASC was establish to work with and collaborate with sport, not dominate. 

ASC gets some powerful backers

During Parliamentary debate, Blunt’s assertion that the Commission legislation was strongly opposed by sport was challenged by Democrat Senator, Jack Evans, who tabled persuasive correspondence from the President of the National Football League, A.J. Aylett, and the Executive Director of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, Colin McDonald.  (Ref 8)

Aylett had written directly to the President of CAS, Mr Les Martyn, in response to the Confederation’s questionnaire to all sports highlighting concerns about the ASC Bill and seeking support from sport to convince the government that a separate sport advisory committee to government, structured around CAS, should be implemented. 

Aylett: “We believe that the Confederation and the Sports Commission should have two very important but distinctly different roles.

“The NFL is most appreciative of the Confederation’s initiatives and achievements and fully supports it as the organisation to represent the interests of national sporting organisations.  However, we strongly support the concept of the Australian Sports Commission with its independent membership being responsible for policy and allocation in respect of federal government funding.

“As with every statutory authority, there will be some shortcomings.  Certainly, I was disappointed at the large membership of the Commission……However, I am satisfied that the establishment of the ASC is a most progressive innovation…Having been a member of the past Sports Advisory Council, which I found to be ineffective and at times parochial, I personally support the advent of the ASC and do not agree that a separate advisory committee is necessary. The NFL does not conform to the view that the Commission should be representative of national associations as this would again lead to parochialism and sectional lobbying….”.

McDonald in his correspondence to the Minister, on behalf of Tennis, and which was tabled by Evans was suspicious of the position taken by CAS to influence the Parliamentary vote…I wish to make it clear that the LTAA in fact is not in opposition to the Bill and indeed specifically declined to answer a questionnaire circulated by the Confederation of Australian Sport dealing with it.  This was done because it was felt that the questionnaire was loaded and we certainly did not wish to appear to be party to providing material for opposition use.”

Internal challenges          

Aside from the external conflict, the ASC experienced internal challenges. The size of the ASC Board at 21 was greater than the full complement of the ASC’s initial staff.  Greg Hartung, was appointed the Chief Executive under the terms of the legislation. Commissioners were assigned to several Committees at the ASC’s first meeting in October 1984.

In a decision which was to add to the tensions with the host Department, the ASC took responsibility for the core Sports Development Program (SDP) which was, until then, under the administrative control of the Department.  The SDP was a $7 million program through which financial assistance was provided direct to national sporting organisations for such things as administration, development programs, coaching and travel.  The Department was further diluted of its sports functions with the transference to the ASC of the Sports Science Research Program.

These programs alone would not be sufficiently of an argument for the establishment of the ASC; it had already been demonstrated that they could be capably managed through the Departmental structure. With the ICASC report still not publicly available, Brown justified the creation of the Commission on the grounds that it would be better placed to consult with sporting organisations through its highly credentialled 21-member Board and it would have the capacity through the Sports Aid Foundation to work commercially to increase private sector funding for sport. This latter argument was critical in mounting the case in favour of a Commission.  This argument has become questionable since the operational and funding separation of the Foundation from the Commission which has since occurred, particularly since 2017.

Harris defends the ASC

The inaugural Chair of the Commission, Ted Harris, answered the Commission’s critics directly in an address to the Annual General Meeting of CAS in December 1985.  He distilled the role of the Commission to three core functions:

  1. To provide leadership in development of Australia’s performance in sport at the elite level;
  2. To assist in giving the average Australian the opportunity of participating in sport;
  3. To stimulate a stronger flow of funding from the private sector – not to enable a reduction in government funding but rather to provide a stronger government and private sector cash flow;
  4. To ensure that taxpayers money given to sport is spent wisely and well.

The period up to and including the passage of the ASC legislation established the grounds for debate. 

While the Australian Sports Commission Act was a watershed moment in Australian sport policy — made possible with the vote of the Australian Democrats — it did not herald the end of the challenges for the fledgling statutory body. 

There would be tumultuous years ahead leading to the 1987 federal election to be covered in future papers in this Series.   

ASC Chronology

In summary, the chronology of events and announcements leading to the creation of the Australian Sports Commission were:

1982/1983: Development of Labor’s sports policy including the creation of a “National Sports Commission” as a central element of that policy to provide a more co-ordinated approach to sports development in Australia; 

5 March 1983: Election win by the ALP with Bob Hawke as Leader;

13 September 1983: Announcement by Sports Minister, John Brown, of the Interim Committee for the Australian Sports Commission (ICASC)– its membership and reference to return with a report on how a fully-fledged Commission would operate. Between September 1983 and March 1984, the ICASC consulted with the sporting community at all levels and undertook research, including an examination of international models, as part of its investigations;

16 March 1984:  The formal report of the ICASC is presented to the Minister with clear recommendations on the role, function and structure of the proposed Commission. The Minister decided not to release the report or immediately table it in Parliament;

13 September 1984: Exactly one year after the establishment of the ICASSC, the Prime Minister and the Minister, in a joint statement, announcement the formation of the full ASC and the names of 21 Commissioners and senior executive appointments. It ended the tenure of the Interim Committee and allowed the Commission to commence operations with Cabinet and Government approval.  Legislation enshrining the ASC as a statutory body would follow. The ASC held a brief preliminary meeting on the same day to coincide with the announcement;

From September 1984 until the completion of the legislative process in July 1985, the ASC functioned as an office within the Federal Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism.  However, for all practical purposes, the ASC operated with the authority of Government as an autonomous organisation reporting directly to the Minister;

26 October 1984:  The first full and formal meeting of the ASC was held in Sydney with a wide-ranging agenda.  Full reports of the discussions and outcomes were provided to the Minister and to all national sport and recreation organisations;

23 November 1984: Major pre-election sport policy announced by Prime Minister and Minister for the Federal election to be held on 1 December 1984.  This included the promise that the ASC Legislation would be introduced the following year under a Labor Government;

9 May 1985:  Legislation was introduced into Parliament to establish the Commission as a Commonwealth Statutory Authority, but was opposed by the Opposition Coalition parties;  

31 May 1985:  With the support of the Australian Democrats, the Labor government the Australian Sports Commission was passed by the Senate and the Commission was proclaimed as a Statutory Authority by the Governor-General on 1 July 1985;

1985:  The 1984 ICASC report was finally printed in 1985 and later in the year tabled without controversy by the Minister following the passage of the legislation.


1. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure. The way we p ( l ) ay : Commonwealth assistance for sport and recreation : report, 1983.

2. John Brown, Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism Press Release, Proposed Australian Sports Commission, 13 September 1983

3. Australian Sports Commission Interim Committee. Report to the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, March 1984. Canberra, AGPS, 1985.

4. Joint Statement by the Prime Minister Hawke and the Hon. J. J. Brown, Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, 13 September 1984.

5. Prime Minister Hawke, Address to Sports Function, Eastern Suburbs Rugby League Club, 23 November 1984.

6. Jack Evans, Second Reading – Australian Sports Commission Bill 1985, 31 May 1985

7. Charles Blunt, Shadow Minister for Sport, Opposition opposes Bill to control Australian sport, 16 May 1985

7. John Brown, Second Reading – Australian Sports Commission Bill 1985, 9 May 1985.

8. Jack Evans, Second Reading – Australian Sports Commission Bill – tabled letters from National Football League and Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, 31 May 1985

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 14 – The Australian Sports Commission finishes on top… for now: The ASC survives sustained attack to become a Statutory Authority

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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