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 ASC 

History of Australian Sport Series: Part 15

By Greg Hartung AO

Down and Dirty in 1987

In addition to political changes — or perhaps as a consequence of them — the election year 1987 provided no respite for the Commission.  Liberal MP, Peter Reith — who was now the Opposition spokesperson on Sport, Recreation and Tourism — became a strong opponent of the ASC.

The Liberal Party was well and truly in the anti-ASC camp channelling the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) agenda.

If the 1983 “birth” of the Interim Commission, and later the legislated Australian Sports Commission, was difficult, the remainder of the decade was going to get a whole lot harder.  

During the 1987 campaign, the Labor government strongly defended its record in government since 1983.  But this was never going to be enough to placate the entrenched opposition by CAS or Labor’s political opponents.  It was to become a campaign in which sport found a voice and got “down and dirty” in the political mud.

Fear and loathing on the trail

In addition to promoting the ASC’s considerable record of success since 1984, the Sport Minister, John Brown, went into the campaign promising a substantial improvement in funding for national sports through the ASC’s core Sports Development Program.  It was a solid foundation for a campaign built on past performance and future promise.  It drew considerable support from national sporting organisations — but not from CAS.

The Brown argument failed to impress the Confederation leadership which fell in behind Reith in supporting the dissolution of the ASC and foreshadowing a greater role for CAS itself.

As the election campaign unfolded, the very public and hostile approach by CAS drew serious criticism from within its own membership.  A number of sports resolved to leave the Confederation and wrote directly to Reith and to the Opposition Leader, John Howard, expressing support for the role of the Commission and distancing themselves from the Confederation and the Federal Opposition’s negative campaign.

Despite the threat of collateral damage, the CAS leadership would not soften its campaign tactics. 

A bare knuckle fight

Two sporting organisations – Indoor Soccer (Futsal) and Weightlifting – took to the streets in a bid to express their opposition to the CAS campaign and in support of the ASC.  In an unprecedented and overt political campaign, the sports retaliated by opposing the re-election of Reith in his Victorian electorate of Flinders. Representatives of the sports, dressed in their respective national team tracksuits, felt strongly enough about national sports policy to make their protests heard at polling booths in the electorate.

Ultimately the actions by the sports were not successful in unseating Reith, but it demonstrated the depth of feeling and the disillusionment among CAS members and the concern by sports with the Opposition’s sports policy.

Liberal Party promises to abolish the ASC

Reith was as defiant as the CAS leadership. In a media statement released during the launch of the Liberal Party’s sport policy on 4 June 1987, he claimed, inter alia, that the Australian Sports Commission had done nothing to benefit Australian sport.  (Ref 1)This, and other statements in a similar vein by Reith, prompted the Commission to take preliminary legal advice on the grounds that it believed the statements were defamatory.  The ASC Chief Executive, Greg Hartung, was reported in the Canberra Times (5 July 1987) that the advice received was that Reith’s comments accompanying the policy statement was “defamatory and indefensible” regarding the ASC and its executive. Reith subsequently moderated his remarks and legal action was averted. (Ref 2)

Reith had maintained that since 1985, when the ASC was formalised in legislation, it had “done nothing to promote sport, but has soaked up funds that could otherwise have been directed toward sports in need. Elimination of the ASC is part of the Liberal Party’s rationalisation of government.” (Ref 2)

While rejecting outright any value in retaining the Commission, Reith, however, declared the Liberal Party’s support for CAS, along with the Australian Institute of Sport and the Sports Aid Foundation.

The policy lacked detail, a feature highlighted and criticised by John Hourigan, Sports Editor of the Canberra Times, in a report on 5 June 1987.  It was clear the Liberal Party expected government, under its watch, to play a lesser role in sport policy than had been the case in the Hawke government.  It saw the control and financial support of sport to be primarily the responsibility of national sporting organisations and the private sector: “The role of the Federal Government is primarily to support Australia’s participation in international sporting activities and in assisting with the promotion of excellence by individual sportsmen and women, teams and national sporting organisations.” (Ref 2)  

CAS to be front and centre

The policy duly elevated the Confederation to a central role: “The next Liberal Government will support the Confederation of Australian Sport as the main umbrella organisation for national sporting organisations, and its advice will be sought on sporting matters.”  CAS would have been pleased that it had at least one side of politics ready to back its position but, unfortunately for CAS, the partisan campaign did not produce the results it had hoped for. With sport alarmed at the bitterness of the push against the ASC, the campaign backfired. (Ref 3)

Serious dislocation in the sport lobby

In addition to the sports which took direct action at the polling booths on election day, several more let their views be heard through media and in correspondence with CAS and the Opposition. 

Gordon Duffus, who was President of the Australian Volleyball Federation (AVF), in a letter published in the Canberra Times on 7 June 1987 ridiculed Reith’s claims about the work of the Commission:

“To state that the ASC has done nothing to promote sport is an insult to the dedicated staff at the Commission and to the sports federation,” Duffus wrote – and went on to list many of the early successes of the ASC.

“In consultation with many Australian sporting federations, the ASC has amongst other things established the Aussie Sports program (the first national sports program for children), continued work in the area of drugs in sport, strengthened the position of the coaching council, developed a strategic development program for sport in Australia via many publications which has not been achieved in the past. 

“In addition, the ASC has maintained an extremely close liaison with sports and been keen to co-operate and advise wherever possible. 

“The Australian Volleyball Federation has maintained close contact with the ASC and supported several of its programs, and hence is outraged by the accusation that the Commission (and hence the AVF) has failed to advance sport in Australia.” He said he found the Confederation’s support of the Liberal policy “disappointing and curious”.

Duffus: ”The Confederation has not always enjoyed the support of all sporting organisations in Australia and its prompt comments about the Liberal sports policy may not reflect the feelings of the majority of its members.”  (Ref 4)

No retreat by Reith

If sport was expecting a moderating tone from Reith they were to be disappointed.  He hit back with his own letter published in the Canberra Times on 25 June 1987 declaring that the Opposition’s sport policy was “a well-balanced document”.  (Ref 5)

He defended the policy promise to abolish the ASC “for the simple reason that bureaucratic duplication of sports administration by the Federal Government has increased considerably and needs to be stopped. That has been admitted by the Sports Commission itself”.

Reith underscored his position with a statement that the cost of administration, as a percentage of the sports budget, had grown from seven percent to 11 percent. “This means that money that could otherwise have gone to sport has been diverted to administration,” he said.

While the ASC would be abandoned under a Liberal government, Reith promised to maintain the Australian Institute of Sport and provide financial support for national sporting organisations and funding for sports facilities.   

Not all bad

This was a period in Australian sport history where at least political parties developed and promulgated a sport policy — and it encouraged a healthy debate.  And while the Confederation, through its partisan and aggressive lobbying approach sparked division among its ranks, it was a period when sporting leaders across the board were prepared to speak up in support of their interests. 

It has been a long time in Australian sport since we have witnessed this kind of robust and spirited public argument about sport policy, either for or against.  Perhaps with contemporary sport organisations there is a more cautious approach and a reluctance to “bite the hand that feeds”. 

Duffus was one such leader who showed no reluctance to distance his sport from both CAS and the Liberal Opposition: “It is important that all sports realise the potential dangers inherent in the Liberal Party’s sports policy.  The Australian Volleyball Federation, for one, condemns the general thrust of the policy as a cheap attempt to opt out of direct sports funding.”

Table Tennis joins the fight    

The Australian Table Tennis Association (ATTA) was another sport which took up the fight.  The ATTA issued an open letter to all major newspapers on 15 June 1987.  It described Reith’s policy as “a policy against sport”.  The ATTA said the policy advocated:

  • The abolition of the Australian Sports Commission
  • The abolition of the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism
  • The creation of unspecified bodies responsible for advising on sports grants
  • The greater dilution of the Australian Institute of Sport resources
  • The “privatisation” of sport funding
  • No specific financial commitment to existing programs, indeed no specific financial commitment to anything

“It is time that both the major parties recognised that sport is an integral part of the Australian culture and it, like any other legitimate vital industry deserves Government consideration and support. 

“A long term, ongoing and planned investment in sport would have a greater impact on public health and public health expenditure than any other measure. Unfortunately, the Liberal Party policy seems to be a cop out and would, in fact, lower the status of sport to total insignificance.”  (Ref 6)

Even allowing for the hyperbole, the responses from sports, such as the ATTA and the AVF, showed a willingness by individual sports to engage in a political fight to protect the advances made to sport funding and programs brought about by the ASC.

The ATTA defended the work of the Commission against Reith’s criticisms….

“……Programs implemented by the Commission e.g. Aussie Sports, Sports Aid Foundation, Drugs in Sport, the Sports Talent Encouragement Program (STEP, women in sport, strategic planning, have been specific, cost effective and finely tuned to sports’ needs.”  (Ref 6)

The Confederation had failed to read the mood of its membership base and was paying a price for its partisan approach. 

ATTA: “We would also like to publicly advise that we do not support the Confederation of Australian Sport in its statement of general support for the Liberal Policy. 

“The Confederation has never enjoyed the complete confidence of national sporting organisations and the Confederation’s endorsement of the Liberal policy seems to indicate a greater ignorance of sports’ needs and aspirations than that revealed by the Liberal policy against sport.”  (Ref 6)

Concern deepens

The ATTA, through its Chief Executive, John Ostermeyer, wrote directly to the CAS Executive Director, Garry Daly, on 15 June 1987 expressing the sports “deep concern” at the Confederation’s support of the Liberal policy which he described as “so general that it is virtually meaningless.”  He said the policy contained numerous well-meaning motherhood statements and platitudes: “…the policy is full of such words as ‘assist’, ‘encourage’, ‘support’, ‘consultation’ etc which sound good, but mean nothing”.

Similar correspondence was sent to several federal politicians and copied to CAS, the Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport. 

Ostermeyer had argued in correspondence with Reith that if an independent survey of sport was undertaken it would show that CAS no longer enjoyed the confidence of the majority of members.

The peak organisation for Australian Football, the National Football League of Australia (NFL), equally opposed the Liberal policy.  Its General Manager, Ed Biggs, wrote to all Federal MPs and received some 32 responses many of which express concern and disappointment at the Liberal policy approach.

Back to the drawing board

The push back from disaffected sporting organisations did ultimately resonate with the Liberal MPs. Following the election loss, several Liberal MPs promised that the sport policy they took to the election would be reviewed. 

David Jull, the Liberal member for the Queensland seat of Fadden who was later to become a successful Minister in a future Liberal government, was critical of his own Party’s approach to sport.  He was unambiguous in his frank reply to Biggs (17 August 1987): “…you have my complete support in terms of your attitude towards the Liberal Party’s policy on sport, especially that dealing with the Sports Commission. 

“I was not entirely happy with the final policy which was not the original policy I and others had agreed with prior to the election.  I have expressed my concern to the leadership and intend to also express my objections at the post-election Party meetings….

“Be rest assured that I will do whatever I can to make sure that such a short-sighted move does not form part of any future Liberal policy.” (Ref 7)

Winter of discontent

While Reith retained his seat, the winter federal election of 11 July 1987 proved to be a winter of discontent for the Liberal Party — and CAS.

The Liberal Party failed to win the election and, in the process, the Confederation’s reputation and effectiveness among its membership deteriorated further. Labor was returned for a third consecutive term.

Reith’s tenure as shadow sports minister was short-lived.   He was appointed to the position on 1 May 1987, prior to election, but was promoted out of the role post-election to become Shadow Attorney General on 14 August. It was left to his successor, John Sharp, to repair relations with sport.  

Reith picks up Blunt and White legacy

It would be rare, if ever, that sport would be an issue to swing a federal election outcome.  There were many issues which determined the 1987 result.  But, at the very least, sport made its presence felt, bringing to a head the years of heated and divisive debate over the future direction of Australian sport. It was this election more than any other which had most to say about that direction.   

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

Unfortunately for the Coalition, none were able to successfully prosecute their case against the ASC.

Big bureaucracy argument

The growth in agencies and the number of public servants engaged in the delivery of sport policy had become a sensitive issued for the government and Reith during his short stewardship of the shadow sports portfolio had highlighted this potential vulnerability in the government’s approach.  

As discussed in the preceding paper in this series, it was the same argument mounted by Reith’s predecessor, Peter White when, as Shadow minister for Sport in November 1986, he attacked the government on the growth of the sports bureaucracy and oversighting boards.  This was also the position held by Charles Blunt when he was Shadow Minister in 1985.

Despite the case made, the three Shadow ministers failed to sufficiently isolate and target this as an issue, and expand on it, to get any major cut-through – perhaps because it was overwhelmed by the broad-based nature of the anti-ASC agenda pushed by CAS and adopted by the Coalition. 

It was an criticism not lost on the Commission itself and those who worked within in.  The number of Commissioners grew to 22 with staffing numbers around the same.  One of the government’s appointed Commissioners was Perth businessman, Alan Bond, who led the Australian syndicate to successfully challenge for the America’s Cup in September 1983.  The Cup was a highpoint of Bond’s career and he was at the centre of the euphoric celebrations to follow.  The Government appointed him to the Board of the Commission only for him to resign after a few meetings.  Bond wrote to the Minister, John Brown, in early 1985 complaining that the size of the ASC Board had become too cumbersome and progress too slow.  He gracefully tendered his resignation.

Three government authorities   

Peter White had highlighted the growth in the number of public servants working in the sports portfolio since the election of the Hawke government in 1983.  “While Commonwealth funding has approximately doubled since 1983, senior staff costs have quadrupled,” White said in a statement issued in 10 November 1986. “There has also been an unwarranted increase in the number of Boards and Board members.” (Ref 8)

Controlling sport

For Blunt, it was his task to convince his parliamentary colleagues that there was a real and potential danger to the emergence of the ASC as the principal sports agency of the Federal Government – and hence the need to take a promise to the election to dismantle it.

Blunt warned of the potential for political control of the Sports Commission, and through the Commission for political control over sport.

“Already the Commission has been used to exercise control Australian sport,” Blunt maintained.

“The Commission has taken over the Kidssport program, initially developed by the Confederation of Australian Sport, and has subverted the Confederation’s representation on the National Coaching Council.

“The potential also exists for control of industry contributions to Australian sport through the Sports Aid Foundation, which the Government intends to establish under the auspices of the Commission as a vehicle for co-ordinating industry sponsorship of sport.” 

Blunt warned that the creation of the ASC was a deeply cynical public relations exercise designed to enhance perceptions of the Labor Government.  He said: “A review of the way the Labor Government has so successfully used sport to promote its image, and the image of the Prime Minister in particular, explains Labor’s determination to establish total and continuing control over sport in this country.  The expansion of the Sports Commission is its means of achieving this!

“Labor’s intentions in this area become more apparent when one realises that the Prime Minister has also conferred on Mr Brown, the Sports Minister, responsibility for all the Government’s other, less disguised, propaganda machines.  The National Media Liaison Service and the Ministerial Media Group both come under the direct control of the Minister.  The Minister is also Chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Government Advertising, and through his Department he now controls the Information Co-ordination Branch, an innocuous sounding propaganda unit which overseas Government media campaigns and commissions research on various Government initiatives.

“It should therefore be realised that the debate about the establishment of the Sports Commission as a statutory authority is not simply about the Government seeking to control Australian sport by making it subject to a pliant and manipulable bureaucracy, but about its wish to use sport as a vehicle for promoting and perpetuating popular images of itself.” (Ref 9)

The “merger”

Come the 1987 election, the ASC had the benefit of an effective and impressive three years of pioneering work behind it.  Its record of achievement proved to be its best defence. But, by any definition, it was a struggle.

While Reith mis-judged the response from sport to the Liberal Party’s sport policy and placed too much confidence in the reputation, and ultimately strength, of the Confederation, his inflated bureaucracy argument gained some traction.  This partly contributed to the government’s decision in 1988 to bring the Institute under the umbrella of the Sports Commission which will be discussed in future Papers. It was described as a “merger” but it effectively made the Institute a program within the responsibility of the Commission, albeit with its own Director.

CAS bruised and battered

While the Coalition Parties consistently opposed the ASC from its legislation through to the 1987 election, its policy position did not survive long beyond the 1987 campaign.  This perhaps reflects the changing nature of CAS itself and its policy priorities as much as the Liberal-National Party position.

For CAS, 1987 was a tough year all round.  Not only did it not get the coalition election victory and changes it was hoping for, it was facing a tougher financial environment and growing dissent among its membership.  The CAS General Manager, Bill Mattes, wrote to members on 10 September 1987 detailing a formal resolution of a chastened Board of Directors. 

“This Board notes with regret that despite rapid action to correct the misconceptions arising from the sequence of media releases at the time of the Federal election, the relationship between the Confederation and the various Government instrumentalities involved in sport remains impaired. Therefore, management is directed to produce a confidential report covering all aspects of this morning’s discussions as a prerequisite to the development of strategies to ensure the objectives of the Confederation and its member Associations continue to be attained.” (Ref 10).

Not over yet!

CAS had again over-reached in its campaign and had taken some heavy hits in the battle for ascendency, especially from disaffected members. While it was seriously chastened after the 1987 campaign, it was by no means finished. It survived to fight another day as we will consider in forthcoming Papers in this series


  1. Liberal Party of Australia, Sport in Australia (1987 election policy)
  2. John Hourigan, Liberal policy draws legal advice on Reith, Canberra Times  5 June 1987
  3. Confederation of Australian Sport, The Confederation of Australian Sport supports Liberal Party sports policy, 4 June 1987
  4. Gordon Duffus, Liberal Policy A Disaster – Letter to the Editor, Canberra Times, 4 June 1987
  5. Peter Reith, Misrepresentation of policy – Letter to the Editor, Canberra Times, 25 June 1987
  6. Australian Table Tennis Association, Letter, 15 June 1987 (Greg Hartung’s Collection at National Library of Australia)
  7. David Jull, Letter to Ed Biggs , 17 August 1987 (Greg Hartung’s Collection at National Library of Australia)
  8. Peter White, Minister for Sport Endorses Criticism of his Government and his Department, Media Release Shadow Minister for Sport, 10 November 1986
  9. Charles Blunt, Memorandum to Coalition Members (Greg Hartung’s Collection at National Library of Australia)
  10. Confederation of Australian Sport, Circular to CAS Members, 10 September 1987. (Greg Hartung’s Collection at National Library of Australia)

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 16 – The Confederation of Australian Sport Licks Its Wounds After Its Disastrous Brawl with the Australian Sports Commission in 1987 …. It Was To
Be a Long Road Back for CAS

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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