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

History of Australian Sport Series: Part 14

By Greg Hartung AO

CAS mobilises opposition to the ASC

The Commission emerged from its interim status and effectively became an autonomous body from September 1984, albeit still operating within the offices of the Department pending the successful passage of its own legislation through Parliament.  It was a sort of organisational half way house. The legislation formally passed through the legislative stages of Parliament to establish the Commission as a statutory authority in May 1985. 

Through this period, the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) was somewhat a chameleon organisation. It had the extraordinary capacity to simultaneously both condemn and flatter. 

CAS had endeavoured to mobilise its membership to join it in criticising the pending ASC legislation.  It wrote to members on 18 April 1984 and again on 10 May to obtain feedback. CAS subsequently concluded that some 69 percent of respondents wanted the Confederation to register concern about aspects of the Sports Commission Bill and process.

It had written also to all members of Parliament complaining loudly and unambiguously about the imminent arrival of the Commission and calling for its scrapping. 

Without a hint of embarrassment, in May 1985 — just after the government had successfully steered the ASC legislation through Parliament — CAS wrote to the Minister, John Brown, congratulating him and the Commission on having Parliament pass the legislation. The CAS President, Les Martyn, told the Minister CAS looked to the future with confidence.  He wrote to the Chair of the Commission, Ted Harris, in similar vein. Martyn explained that CAS would now fully support the Commission for the future development of sport.

Just weeks later, in June 1985, CAS wrote to MPs complimenting the government on raising the position of sport – both in terms of money available to sport and in profile.

Campaign falls flat

Despite the bitterness of the campaign mounted against it, the ASC legislation was passed.  The ASC then set about to recalibrate its relationship with the Confederation.  ASC Chief Executive, Greg Hartung, wrote to Garry Daly, the Executive Director of the Confederation, on 17 July 1985 advising of the decision to relocate two key positions and programs, funded by the ASC, from the Confederation in Melbourne to the AIS campus in Canberra.  These positions covered the work of the Australian Coaching Council and the National Sports Research Program. While funded by the ASC the positions had been based at the CAS headquarters in Jolimont in Melbourne. The ASC maintained that the roles needed to be brought within the Commission to achieve maximum effectiveness and efficiencies. The CAS saw this decision as an attack on its own role and place in sport.      

A second issue was a request from the Commission to all sports, including CAS, requiring the production of five-year development plans, the production of which would be an important element for consideration of any future funding.  CAS had sought exemption from the requirement only to be advised in October 1985 that its request had been denied and that, as a recipient of Commission funding, the Confederation would be required to comply. Relations deteriorated further later when the ASC withdrew funding for CAS operations on the grounds that it was a lobbying or advocacy groups which received funds from members for that purpose. 

These decisions by the Commission ensured that the relationship with the Confederation would remain challenging.                 

CAS: the upside and the downside

While it may be concluded that CAS showed many limitations in how it executed its agenda, it was an undeniable success is making “sport” a political policy issue. 

In this respect alone its contribution to the Australian sports system was important and worthwhile.  CAS often failed to differentiate between its own organisational interests and those of the wider sporting community.  It saw the arrival on the scene of the Australian Sports Commission as a threat to itself, and did not share the government’s view that the ASC was an opportunity to advance the cause of sport as political policy. 

Despite the often bluntness of its lobbying methodology and the frequent contradictory perspectives it espoused, as well as the divisiveness it caused within its own ranks, CAS was an organisation which during the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s could not be ignored. 

It never set out to be universally loved; it wanted to push an unapologetic and long overdue sport agenda. It generated political debate; it forced politicians to “think” about sport as legitimate policy, some for the first time. And, most importantly, it provided a peak industry body as a reference point for politicians.

The ’in-your-face’ style was not to everyone’s taste and led, eventually, to an erosion of the CAS membership base and a diminution of its political influence. However, at its peak, CAS was impossible to ignore.

Cracks in CAS support

While CAS led the charge against the ASC, it was not without its own internal problems.  The responses from sport toward its political tactics was mixed.  The 1984 Parliamentary report “The Way We P(l)ay” into sport funding had heard evidence from across the sports spectrum revealing considerable doubts about CAS. (Ref 1)The report expressed reservations about the emerging Sports Commission but it was similarly dubious about CAS.

“A number of national and state sporting organisations including the Australian Soccer Federation, the Australian Ladies Golf Union and the Western Australian Sports Federation questioned the role of such large organisations as CAS,” the report revealed.  “It was suggested that umbrella organisations adopted or were prone to ‘empire building’ or a ‘big business’ approach which ignored the wishes of members or the ‘grass roots’ participants in sport and that there was a danger that smaller, low-profile sports would be discriminated against.”  (Ref 1 p.17)

The Western Australian Sports Federation (WASF) – the peak representative sport organisation in WA – highlighted some of the deep suspicions about CAS. In its submission, WASF maintained that CAS had assumed a role outside its original objective and accused government of abetting such a role.

“It has been allowed to do so by virtue of the vacuum that exists in the organisation and structure of the present sports model,” WASF told the Committee.

“It would not have been in a position to do so without substantial direct and indirect Federal Government support which by legitimising that organisation enabled it to attract substantial sponsorship.

“The Confederation purports to speak for all sports people but its connections, particularly the State Association level, are rather tenuous.”

According to WASF, CAS was “inexorably” working toward a position where it was in control of sport at the national level as opposed to servicing sport as a forum for national sports to exchange ideas and for CAS to act as a lobby group to government on behalf of sport.

“To a large degree the CAS operates as a closed environment and through its interlocking circles of committees there is a conformity of opinions and values which are not necessarily representative of either State or National Associations.  The CAS declines to deal with the former and the majority of the latter are necessarily involved mostly in their own immediate problems with little time to examine closely CAS,” WASF submitted. “This situation is reinforced by what would appear to be a process of self-perpetuating directorships.  This type of administration is generally known as an oligarchy and one distinguishing characteristic of oligarchies is expansionary policies and strategies.” (Ref 1)

WASF left no doubt where it stood. But CAS was well advanced in entrenching itself as the “voice” for sport, particularly at the national level.  CAS leapt to its own defence claiming its role in sport was “vital” and could be enhanced further but for time consuming fund-raising activities. The Executive Director of CAS, Garry Daly highlighted the fact that CAS had 121 national sporting associations affiliated with it and state sporting associations form the national organisations.  He said it was difficult to see how the CAS connections could be described as “tenuous”.

CAS claims credit and gets defensive

The arrival of the Australian Sports Commission had introduced a new “dog to the fight”. 

CAS felt the Commission was intruding on its business and territory – territory that it had fought hard to claim since its establishment in 1976.

CAS was not reticent to claim credit for a number of initiatives introduced or progressed by the Federal Government. In 1976, the budget allocation to sport and recreation was approximately $5 million of which none was directed to the Sports Development Program. CAS claimed that by 1983/1984, the budget had increased to more than $33 million with $6.4 million of that amount directed to the Sports Development Program.

CAS highlighted its budgetary success in a communication to all sporting organisations entitled: ‘has Australian sport gained from the existence of the Confederation of Australian Sport’.  It laid out the CAS success record, starting with the increased funding for sport: “Much of this improvement is directly attributed to the persistent and effective lobbying activities of the Confederation and is particularly evidenced by the grants now available to the so-called lower profile sports.”  

It claimed credit for much of the Labor Government’s sport policy and for defending the sponsorship rights of sporting organisations against the anti-smoking campaign. In a libertarian stance, CAS reminded sports that it had been in “the forefront of the battle to preserve the rights of sport to manage its own affairs by deciding on whether to accept or reject sponsorship from any lawful source.  We have attracted some criticism from those who tend to confuse the ‘smoking versus health’ issue which is a total community exercise with the basic premise of sport’s rights to make its own decisions.”. 

In its letter to sports CAS declared that since 1976, the number of projects undertaken by sport or for sport had been “mindboggling”.  It referred to:

  1. The introduction in 1980 of the Sport Australia Awards by CAS;
  2. The development of the National Coaching Accreditation Scheme and ultimately the creation of the Australian Coaching Council in 1978;
  3. The creation of CAS Insurances to provide special insurance cover for sportspeople;
  4. The development of a children in sport policy;
  5. A proposal for a national sports lottery followed by a proposal for a national sports aid foundation;
  6. A proposal for an Australia Games.

CAS claimed the kudos for all of these initiatives, at least to the extent that it was CAS through its persistent lobbying, which forced the hand of Government to take on the various concepts and transform them into operational programs.  To some extent – despite the hyperbole and self- promotion – CAS was correct.

Creative tension gets results

The decades of the 70s to 90s were a period of friction and dissent – but they were also years of significant growth and success. Sport was no longer a political outlier but was now a “player” on the political scene. Sport policy was formed and debated; organisations were challenged and the federal funding base grew. 

CAS, as an umbrella group for sport, was not the only player in this dynamic but it was a key player.  There may have been metaphorical blood on the floor, but sports also saw money in the bank.  And part of the reason for this was the energy invested by CAS. The period proved that sport in Australia, particularly at the national level, flourished best when represented as an industry group touching the lives of millions of Australians and, therefore, deserving of a fair slice of taxpayer funding. 

The CAS history demonstrated that, despite its at times abrasive approach, Australian sport — large and small — flourished when there was an active, articulate voice at the centre of political power and influence.

an to lose its shine in the late 1990s and beyond as its organisational influence slowly went into decline.         

CAS and the Opposition – Convenient Allies

The constant stream of communication from CAS to Coalition MPs was having an impact, although according to John Brown it was simply a manifestation of the Opposition’s “anti-sport stand”. (Ref 2)  He said the Opposition had been mis-informed.  “When the Hawke Government came to office in March 1983 assistance to sport was a niggardly $14 million but now it has been expanded under our administration to $54 million,” claimed Brown. “The Sports Commission has been welcomed with open arms by the bulk of Australia’s sporting organisations and umbrella groups as a long overdue reform….” (Ref 2)

Brown was able to refer to the apparent contradiction between the Opposition’s policy, as articulated by Blunt, and the views expressed just eight months early by Blunt’s predecessor as Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation, Peter Fisher.

In a statement issued on 13 September 1984 after the announcement of the established of the Commission, Fisher declared the Opposition’s qualified support for the new organisation.  But Brown was not entirely correct in his interpretation of Fisher’s view. 

While acknowledging the calibre and expertise of people appointed to the Commission, Fisher raised two central conditional issues which were central to the Opposition’s support: (1) the Commission must be autonomous, approachable and free of government intervention, and (2) it was essential that the ASC have a policy and planning role and not be involved in an administrative or funding function which should remain with the Department. (Ref 3)

The Liberal National Opposition had shifted from conditional support of the ASC to outright opposition. 

The Opposition would refer to both issues raised by Fisher in the lead up to the 1987 federal election abetted, again, by the anti-Commission campaign waged by CAS. The second of the issues — debate over the relationship and role sharing between the Department and the Commission — was to become a major source of internal bureaucratic conflict.

Peter White and Opposition attack increasing bureaucracy

In November 1986, the new Shadow Minister for Sport Recreation and Tourism, Peter White, maintained the pressure — armed with the Government’s own statistics showing the growth in the sports bureaucracy.  “There has been an undoubted growth in bureaucracy in the last three years,” White said. “In 1983 within the Department and the Institute of Sport there were five officers at Class 11 level or above. By 1986, at the Department, the Institute and the Commission there were 23 at Class 11 level or above.  This is a massive increase in three years…While Commonwealth funding has approximately doubled since 1983, senior staff costs have quadrupled.” (Ref 4)

According to White there had been an unwarranted increase in the number of Boards and Board memberships.  “There are now 39 Board members sitting on three Government appointed Authorities and 29 of these have been appointed since 1983,” he said (Ref 4) “One Board with limited members could and should be doing the job.  There are 10 on the Board of the Australian Institute of Sport, seven on the Board of the Sports Aid Foundation and 22 on the Board of the Australian Sports Commission. The Australian Sports Commission with a small Board would be sufficient.”

White declared that bureaucracy was the “growth industry” in Australian sport and this contributed to the growing tensions between the host Department of Sport Recreation and Tourism and the newly minted Australian Sports Commission.

White: “There is…the matter of duplication between the Department and the Australian Sports Commission and the Institute of Sport, as well a lack of clear-cut responsibilities between these bodies.”

While the arrangements made for the functional and program arrangements between the Department and the ASC were weak and clumsy at best, the Government had the strength on its side with the combination of the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and the Minister, John Brown. In the public opinion race, the Hawke/Brown team had a head start.

The long period from the 1983 beginnings of the Sport Commission debate through two federal elections till 1986 had been characterised by a government determined to gets its way with sport policy, despite the political opposition reinforced by CAS.  Hawke had promised a Statutory Authority with a broad charter to raise funds from the private sector for sport through a Foundation and to have overall responsibility for the delivery of government sport policy.  This had become non-negotiable.  

Not the end of it

The acrimony surrounding the Interim Sports Commission and now the contested passage through Parliament of the ASC legislation had left the sports community divided.  CAS had failed to recruit enough politicians to vote against the Bill.  The Chair of the Commission, Ted Harris, a no-nonsense businessman, took the opportunity to tackle head on the Commission’s opponents and to provide more insight into the plans and operations of the Commission.  And he did so in the most direct way possible: in a keynote address to the Annual General Meeting of the Confederation held in Melbourne on 11 December 1985. 

Harris told the assembled heads of National Sporting Associations that the Commission would ensure “proper accountability” of where money was being spent in sport and for what results.  He said “umbrella organisations” such as CAS were of major importance in the sporting future of Australia. He said “it is exasperating to listen to some of the rubbish that has been spoken, thankfully by a very small minority, involving such phrases as: ‘the Commission will wish to take over sport in Australia’; ‘the Commission will grab all of the money whether through a Sports Aid Foundation or through government or through the private sector.’

“This sort of talk is arrant nonsense. Quite apart from the fact that none of this alleged power grab has ever been contemplated by the Commission, the legal constitution of the Commission itself and the legal status of bodies such as yours (CAS), the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF), State Governments makes such plainly impossible.

“Not only does the Commission have no desire to, as it were, ‘take over sport’, it clearly doesn’t have the competence to do so.”

In a veiled reference to the on-going struggle between the Commission and the Department of Sport and Recreation over their respective functions, Harris expressed the ASC’s own concerns about the size of the sport bureaucracy. “The mere fact that we have Commonwealth and State Government Departments proliferating all over the place is in itself sufficient evidence of the point.  This duplication is bad enough but what ultimately will make it intolerable is the seemingly obsessive desire on the part of many of the duplicators to run in different directions.”  He promised that the Commission would take a lead in attacking the “utter wastefulness and extravagance that so obviously emerges from fragmented, disunited effort.  I am by no means confident that there will be any quick cures for this ‘disease’ in the short term.” (Ref 5)

Harris was correct.  There was to be no quick fix as the ASC prepared to navigate further hurdles.


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, Anti sports stand by opposition, Media Release Minister for Sport , Recreation and Tourism, 18 April 1985

3. Peter Fisher, Supports of a federal body to provide independent advice to government, Media Release Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation, 13 September 1984.

4. Peter White, Minister for Sport Endorses Criticism of his Government and his Department, Media Release Shadow Minister for Sport, 10 November 1986

5. Ted Harris, Keynote address to the Annual General Meeting of the Confederation held in Melbourne on 11 December 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 15 – Another Attempt to Kill Off the Australian Sports Commission: the 1987 Federal Election Campaign Unfolds as a Sport “Slugfest” Between Supporters and Opponents of the

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

4 responses to “The Australian Sports Commission finishes on top… for now: The ASC survives sustained attack to become a Statutory Authority”

  1. […] While Reith carried the political load for the sport policy strategy, responsibility for the Coalition’s approach to sport is directly shared with his two immediate predecessors as Shadow Ministers, Charles Blunt and Peter White. Blunt held the National Party seat of Richmond in NSW and was later to become leader of the Nationals. White, was the Liberal Party Member for McPherson in Queensland. Reith continued the narrative they started. Their contribution to the sport policy debate was addressed in my previous essay, Paper 14.  […]

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