The New Australian Sports Commission Hits the Ground Running with Landmark Programs to Develop Australian Sport in the 1980’s

…and answers its detractors with real results

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 18

By Greg Hartung AO

The 1980’s policy scorecard

Despite the challenges posed internally and externally, the emerging Australian Sports Commission (ASC) made considerable progress spearheaded by a new national flagship program “Aussie Sports”, a modified rules program designed to encourage children to become involved in sport. In addition to the development of a series of resource materials for distribution to schools across the country, the Commission embarked on a major lobbying program of its own to convince States and Territories to sign on to the program.  

It required 18 months of persuasion but ultimately the program was embraced Australia wide and by 1988 some 1,300 primary schools had enrolled in the program.  School children were playing sports such as ‘Kanga Cricket’ and ‘T Ball’ along with sports such as Basketball and Golf using modified rules.  It was successful in introducing thousands of children to sport through what was the first national children’s sport program in Australian primary schools. 

Breaking New Ground

From its first meeting convened in Sydney on Friday, 26 October 1984, the Sports Commission set itself an ambitious program, albeit on a modest operating budget of less than $1 million.  For the Commission it was a case of “bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell”.  The inaugural meeting was held pending the passage of legislation and its authority was based on the formal Government announcement on 13 September 1984 that the Commission would commence operations as an office within the Department. But, for all operational purposes, the ASC was independent of the host Department. 

The Commission hit the ground running.  However, undermining the optimism surrounding the advent of the first national statutory authority for sport, was the emerging confusion about conflicting responsibilities between the Commission and the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism.

Regardless of confusion about roles and responsibilities, the ASC’s work was fuelled by an abundant energy and a sense of purpose. There was a Sports Aid Foundation to establish; a Children in Sport program to get underway; there were policy matters to develop and promote within government, such as the development of tax averaging for professional sportspeople enabling them to average tax over a number of years to compensate for short sports careers. The Minister had asked the Commission to review the administration of Swimming and there were immediate programs to run such as the provision of funding support to national sporting organisations and nationally and internationally ranked high-performance athletes.  This would come through a new national program, the Sports Talent Encouragement Plan (STEP).  There was more than enough to occupy a staff of 20 working with an austere program budget.

The Commission was keen to expand the regional games concept around Australia.  The Commission plan – though never fully realised – was to develop new regional multi-sport events and co-ordinate existing events to maximise promotion, grass roots participation and sponsorship opportunities. 

The early meetings of the Commission considered proposals focussing on the needs of long neglected areas, including support for disabled athletes, indigenous Australians and improving opportunities for women and girls to be engaged in sport and recreation.   The ASC provided increased funding to the Australian Coaching Council (ACC) and to sport science and medicine.  The ACC had its original base at the Confederation of Australian Sport’s (CAS) offices in Jolimont in Melbourne. It was transferred to the ASC in Canberra along with a national sports science research program.  Both programs found a home within the ASC with increased support and innovation. 

Results mattered

The difficult relationship between CAS and the ASC reached its lowest ebb during 1987 and, particularly, during the federal election campaign that year.  Despite the rancour — including persistent demands that the ASC be abolished — the Commission was getting some well-deserved runs on the board and significant credits from its primary “client” group, National Sporting Organisations.  

In addition to the new programs, funding to sport had increased. The central Commission program – the Sports Development Program – was able to increase baseline funding to assist National Sporting Organisations to subsidise salaries for Executive Officers and Coaching Directors, as well as assistance toward national team costs, including travel.  This program was the mainstay program for scores of national associations.

For the first time, visible emphasis was being placed on promoting sport for women. A special unit was established within the Commission to oversee this process chaired by Margaret Pewtress, then President of the All Australian Netball Federation.

On relocation to Canberra, the Australian Coaching Council was elevated in status and funding in order to meet the need to expand coaching accreditation across all sports. The ASC was moving fast to influence growth and development in sport across the Australian system.


While the majority of National Sporting Organisations valued the ASC leadership and determination to engage more constructively with sport, not everyone was a fan.                            

Compounding the challenges presented by the ASC’s opponents in CAS, along with its critics in the Parliamentary Liberal Party Opposition, the ASC faced headwinds from within the bureaucracy.

At the centre of the looming tension between the ASC and the Department were the legitimate but competing roles and responsibilities. The Department of Sport Recreation and Tourism had itself been assigned a range of program responsibilities which mirrored those of the ASC.  Bureaucratic harmony was not enhanced with the government’s decision to re-locate several departmental responsibilities and programs – as well as their budgets and some staff — to the ASC.  This did not create the most productive of circumstances for either the ASC or the Department to operate.

At the centre of the Department/Commission tensions were the cumbersome and often illogical “division of functions” construct which was developed to provide some rationalisation and clarity to the respective roles and determine which organisation would have primary responsibility for what function.  The inevitable confusion served to highlight that the government had not fully thought through the practical and operational difficulties created by overlapping agencies.

Differences over territory even extended to the relationship between the Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).  The AIS rightly always saw itself as the sharp edge of the sporting pyramid – performance and results – and the Commission (and the Department) as the bureaucratic base slowing things down.  While the AIS was somewhat dismissive of the Commission (a “bunch of bureaucrats”), it regarded itself, for good reason, as the hard-edged agency that produced our national champions. Despite differences of view and perceptions about roles, relevancy and priority, the relationship was well managed for the most part and certainly was not in the same league as the suspicion that emerged later between the ASC and the Department.  There was the odd territory dispute over support for high performance athletes which the AIS saw as its exclusive domain — but that was the extent of it, at least until 1987 when the government decided to merge the AIS with the Commission.  That decision would prove to be a game changer, though many would argue not for the better.  Whether or not this “merger” would be a net positive for sport it was to have far reaching effects on the delivery of sports programs, policy and funding from Canberra.

Bureaucratic arm-wrestle

For the Commission, the early years were to become a baptism of fire.  In order to do its job, as tasked by the government and formalised in legislation — it was unavoidably pitched against the wishes of CAS, the combative sports peak industry body, the host Department, the AIS to a degree, and, eventually, half the Parliament which opposed its enabling legislation.  If the external tensions were not enough, the Government set up some internal operational hurdles with a Board of some 21 members and a staff of 20 – a scenario which guaranteed some unique challenges.

It was a difficult birth for the nation’s first statutory authority responsible for delivering sports policy and programs in Australia. Despite the challenges and outright opposition, those responsible for shaping the Commission never doubted the importance of this fundamental change to the Australian sports landscape and the benefits it would bring. 

The ASC in the 1980s elevated sport as a serious policy responsibility of the federal government and, by example and extension, the various State and Territory governments.  It brought about change and challenged the status quo and policy boundaries.  Even with resources, both financial and human, in short supply, the ASC laid the foundations for policy and programs which in various forms remain essentially the same today.  

Division of Functions: A foot in both camps

The role, function and objectives of the Commission were defined in its 1985 legislation.  While the Act gave the ASC a comprehensive over-arching role in the delivery of government sport programs, this did not prevent an extraordinary and confusing struggle for “territory” with the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism.  The Department compiled a lengthy list of respective responsibilities, including those where the Commission had a “primary responsibility” with the Department having a “secondary role”.   Such is the stuff of bureaucratic arm wrestling.  The argument surrounding this issue was so protracted it became a serious distraction for the new organisation. It was a major issue during the formative years of the Commission.

The Department was of the view that this was the will of the Minister – to empower the new Commission with clear rights and responsibilities but to also require the Department to play a major role in sport delivery within the same ambit. The Government was keen to get the Commission underway, but at the same time ensure the continuing functional role and authority of the Department. It proved difficult to have it both ways. The challenges began in earnest in 1984, early in the life of the ASC, and were still going strong three years later, no doubt adding fuel to the anti-Commission lobbying by CAS.

CAS gets the news

The Secretary of the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Bruce MacDonald, explained the complicated state of affairs this way in an address to the Confederation of Australian Sport annual meeting in Melbourne on 10 December 1986:

“The Department has responsibility for recreation and fitness policies and programs; the development of sport and recreation facilities; consultation and joint action with the States/Territories on sport, recreation and fitness matters; provision of advice to the Minister on the Australian Institute of Sport’s activities; and responsibility for certain assistance programs for people with disabilities.  The Department also provides advice to the Minister on certain sports-related policy matters such as sporting exchanges and foreign policy. 

“The Commission, on the other hand, is responsible for a range of sports programs, including sports development, athletes, development, talent identification and the operation of the Australian Sports Aid Foundation.” (Ref 1)

It became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the functional separation between the government’s main sport agencies with the responsibilities afforded the Commission through legislation. As an example, the Department maintained it had responsibility for programs for people with disabilities, yet the ASC had been given primary responsibility for “disabled sport” with the Department having a secondary role.  There was no clear explanation of what that “secondary role” entailed.  The inevitable outcome was unnecessary confusion and competition.

It was not only the legislation that was explicit in its description of the scope of the Commission’s role and purpose: there was also the express policy narrative of both the Minister and Prime Minister over preceding years. 

The then Opposition Leader, Bob Hawke, at the launch of the Labor Party’s Sport and Recreation policy in February 1983 said: “we propose that establishment of a National Sports Commission to oversee the provision of Federal assistance to sport at every level.”   (Ref 2)

And later in a speech to the Sports Writers Association on 29 July 1983, the Prime Minister said: “The Commission will be an important contribution to the development of sport in Australia and will not merely seek to duplicate functions already ably carried out by other bodies.  It will have as its main task co-ordinating the national effort in sport and recreation and will replace, eventually, the existing Sports Advisory Council.  The Commission will work with all levels of Government and with sporting and recreation organisations.  The new Commission will be able to respond to issues that emerge in sport and recreation because it will be a flexible body with a large degree of autonomy.”   (Ref  3)

There was enough in these remarks to give the newly minted Commission both confidence and concern.  It had a responsible wide-ranging brief, but was it being handicapped in its ability to deliver on that brief? The government proceeded with the establishment of the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism with its own wide expectations of responsibility and had affirmed its intention to strengthen the Australian Institute of Sport and ensure that its facilities and accommodation were of a high order in order to support Australia’s elite athletes. 

In some respect it was like having a “bob each way”.  It was like getting the Commission off and running but with the handbrake still on. Whatever that rationale, it provided the source of continuing uncertainty and dispute. The circumstances were made the more interesting because the Hawke Government showed more interest and engagement in sport policy perhaps than any before or after. Hawke himself had been an active sportsperson in his youth and was often a physical presence at various high-profile sports events.  A popular example was his excitement at Australia’s America’s Cup sailing victory in 1983 which was televised to every living room across the country. “Any boss who sacked a worker for not showing up today is a bum!”  Hawke declared.  No one could doubt his passion and intent, nor that of his Sports Minister, John Brown.  But for the ASC and its leadership, the real devil was in the detail which will be explored further in this Series on the evolution of Australian sport policy.


1. Bruce MacDonald, Speech to Confederation of Australian Sport annual meeting in Melbourne on 10 December 1986. (Held in Hartung Collection at National Library of Australia).

2. Bob Hawke,  ALP Sport and Recreation Policy Launch, 28 February 1983.

3. Bob Hawke, Speech to the Australian Sports Writers Association annual diner, 29 July 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 19 – It Comes in Threes! The ASC Confronts more Road Blocks to Secure Its Role as the Peak Federal Sports Agency

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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