It Comes in Threes! The ASC Confronts more Road Blocks to Secure Its Role as the Peak Federal Sports Agency

…the ASC overcomes early setbacks

History of Australian Sport Policy Series: Part 19

By Greg Hartung AO

It was never going to be an easy road for the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) to establish itself, but no-one could have foreseen the depth and scope of the challenges waiting for the Commission when the detailed concept was first mooted in 1983.

With the Liberal-National Party Coalition opposed to its very existence, the legislative processes were difficult to navigate. Had the LNP been successful in their efforts, it would have spelled the end of the Commission before it really began.  In addition, the acrimonious and protracted public spat with the Confederation of Australian Sport was never far from the surface and divided the sports community at a time when government and the ASC were looking for cohesion and collaboration.   

The struggle to assert its functional responsibilities – effectively its real job – would take the Commission’s challenges to another level and would test the resilience of the ASC Board and management.  The “turf war” over perceived roles between the Commission and the Department would dominate this important relationship for more than three years from 1984. It reached the point in October 1986 with the Shadow Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Peter White, calling for a review and a rationalisation of responsibilities.

“You either have a Department running the show or a Commission. If you have both the inevitable result will be confusion, duplication and inefficiency,” White said (Ref 1)

“If the Commission is expected to be dominant then the Department should be reduced to a number of officers sufficient only to service the Minister’s needs. 

“Examination is also required as to the relationship between the Australian Sports Commission, the Sports Aid Foundation and the Australian Institute of Sport.”

A radical thought

The Confederation of Australian Sport bought into the public confusion of roles between the Commission and the Department.  Through its journal “Sport Report” CAS brought the issue to the surface of debate in its edition of 11 March 1986: (Ref 2)

“….the durability of the arrangement whereby the Australian Sports Commission and the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism operate in tandem is under question by many.  In striving to minimise the complications which beset us, it may well be beneficial when thinking of sporting organisations and structures to think rational, not radical.”

Confusion reigns

While the Federal Opposition brought to public attention the confusion between the Department’s role and that of the ASC, it actually understated the lengthy and difficult journey travelled by the two bodies.  The Commission understandably saw itself as the key government agency with clearly documented responsibilities as spelled out in legislation and which had secured its mandate at the 1983 election. While promoting the Commission, the government was still intent on maintaining the sport role within the Department.  It was the equivalent of having a foot in both camps, thus exacerbating an already fraught relationship.

It was as tedious as it was confusing. The Minister, with Cabinet endorsement, assigned matters relating to sport to the operational responsibility of the Commission while the Department was to have responsibility for all matters where other levels of government or other government agencies were involved.  It sounded simple enough but, unfortunately, not every element of sport or recreation fell conveniently or exclusively into either camp. It was a recipe for confusion and argument with the Commission endeavouring to assert is legislative role, the Department trying to preserve its program function and with a Minister in the middle trying to keep both sides happy.    

Frustration – the first order of business

The frustrating dispute over how the Commonwealth sport functions were to be divided between the ASC and the Department as initially referenced in Part 18 of this series, continued from 1984 through to 1986. The demarcation issue delivered early examples of confusion of which there were several.

The Department and the Commission differed on which organisation should be responsible for representing the Commonwealth with respect to international sporting events conducted in Australia.  The Commission expected that its role would encompass sports events; the Department argued to the Minister that world championships would be handled within the Department.  The Department also argued that the administration of grants to sport and recreational organisations should be split with the Department handling grants to recreational bodies, some of which also delivered sports programs, while the Commission would deal with sports grants only. The Commission appealed to the Minister maintaining that it was not a satisfactory outcome to require sporting bodies to deal with two separate federal government authorities when seeking assistance. 

The National Committee on Sport and Recreation for Disabled (NCSRD) provided the main organisational interface with government for the sport and recreation for people with disabilities and provided advice to government on the dispersal of funds.  However, under the division of functions being debated, it was proposed that the Commission be responsible for disability sport only and that the recreational component remain with the Department with consideration being given to reconstitute the Committee to look after recreation only.  It meant the NCSRD would report to both the Commission and the Department. 

In all there were more than 70 specific program areas which were divided between the Department and Commission including the many where either the Commission or Department had a “joint” or “secondary” role.

In October 1984, Minister Brown wrote to all national sporting and recreation organisations explaining the administration of the various elements of the Federal sport and recreation program delivery and the reasons for the split and included a list giving the detailed breakdown. He said that broadly the Commission would be responsible for a range of programs and functions, including sports development, athlete development, talent identification and the initiation of a Foundation to promote private sector sponsorship of sport. 

“In future, both my Department and the Commission will provide me with policy advice on sport,” the Minister’s memo to sports said.  “As well as the external contacts and administrative expertise of both organisations, the Department will bring Federal/State experience to bear while the Commission will be able to draw on the opinions of a wide cross section of Australian sport.”  Brown said his Department would have an expanded role in the development of recreation and fitness policies. (Ref 3)

He also explained that the Department would cover the development of national standard sports facilities, advice on the Australian Institute of Sport’s activities and assistance programs for the disabled. He added: “Officers of both organisations will give you every assistance needed should you be unclear about respective roles.  Once the settling-in period which is associated with such organisational changes has passed, I am sure you will find that the Commonwealth Government’s capacity to effectively assist sport and recreation development in Australia has been significantly enhanced.”

No real clarity

Unfortunately, the demarcation which optimistically was designed to appease both sides, became an unworkable administrative construction which failed to deliver the hoped-for peace and harmony, nor the clarity, which sporting organisations sought. It did, however, provide ample ammunition to the Commission’s opponents that such a body was not necessary in the first place and the functional split had resulted in bureaucratic overlap and waste.  This fed into the anti-Commission narrative of the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) and underpinned the criticism coming from Brown’s political opponents in Canberra.  The debate showed no sign of abating through 1985 as the Commission legislation passed through Parliament.

The terms of the legislation sat uneasily against the reality.  The Bill, eventually passed by Parliament, made it clear that the ASC was to have wide ranging authority something which was not reflected in the complicated alignment of functions which was underway.

The legislation had defined the Commission’s charter in its legislation, viz:

  1. To provide leadership in the development of Australia’s performance in international sport;
  2. To increase the level of participation in sport by all Australians;
  3. To advise the Minister in relation to the promotion and development of sport;
  4. To co-ordinate activities in Australia for the promotion and development of sport;
  5. To consult and co-operate with appropriate authorities of the Commonwealth, of the States and of the Territories, and with other organisations, associations and persons, on matters related to its activities.

Moreover, the Report of the Interim Committee for the Australian Sports Commission (ICASC) which was the foundation report upon which the ASC was designed, had been clear that it did not believe that functions and responsibilities was to be the subject of a shared arrangement between the Department and the Commission.  The ICASC report had concluded: (Ref 4)

 “The Interim Committee examined the possibility of dividing the major functions and responsibilities of sports policy developed between the ASC and the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism.  However, it came to the view that such a separation would be both unwieldy and unhelpful for the most efficient management of sport in Australia.

“The Interim Committee considers also that any divisions of responsibility for the development, funding and evaluation of sports programs between the Department and the ASC will not only weaken the capacity of either organisation to do the best possible job but, more importantly, undermines any chance of meeting the Government’s objectives for sport.”

There was increasing uneasiness among the Commissioners appointed to the Board of the ASC about the extent of their roles and responsibilities in the face of the continuing functional arguments. They were clearly of the view that the Commission was not just an advisory body but had been given, through its legislative charter, the direct responsibility for all Commonwealth sports development programs. What was now being framed as the operating boundaries with the Department was compromising the ASC’s capacity to fulfill its role.

The duplication of functions had become a significant public negative for the ASC by 1985 and was drawing attention away from its early program achievements with sport. The Federal Opposition and was increasingly being questioned externally by sporting organisations. Legislation left no doubt as to the role and functions of the ASC which was also supported separately by earlier government statements. A media release by the Minister announcing the proposed Sports Commission on 13 September 1983 quoted the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, in foreshadowing the role of the Commission: “The 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.”  Brown added: “the establishment of the Commission will provide an added focus for sports development, coaching, research and information activities.  This will generate increased opportunities for involvement in sport and recreation, not only at the high-performance level, but down to the participation for fun at community level.” (Ref 5) This was in 1983; by 1985 the situation had changed.  

Review: one agency too many

The need for change and resolution to the confusion was no secret. Sport was struggling to understand why there needed to be two agencies broadly involved in the delivery of similar programs.

In a review conducted in January 1986, the ASC highlighted some of the specific areas of confusion and anomaly in a proposal to rationalise the division of functions between the ASC and the Department.

  • Similar functions had been assigned to both organisations – for example, the ASC was responsible for funding and liaising with all national sporting organisations.  However, if any of those organisations required advice on sports cultural exchanges it was required to consult with the Department which, in turn, needed to consult with the ASC to obtain relevant information. 
  • Similarly, both the Department and the Commission were responsible for certain sports events.  The Department’s role centred on those events where there was a need for inter-government discussions.  However, the legislation made this a specific function of the Commission.  The Commission provided the financial assistance for most major sporting events, including international championships;
  • The Commission was responsible for establishing the junior sport development program ‘Aussie Sports’, yet the Department retained responsibility for sport and education;
  • Despite its legislative authority, the functional split gave the Commission no role or responsibility in such areas as facilities, bids and funding for events such as the Olympic Games and liaison with the Australian Institute of Sport.

The Commission argued that all of the above led to duplication and a poor use of resources. It was now more than 12 months since the passage of the ASC legislation and when the original functional split was defined. 

The ASC had put the position that it must be allowed to give effect to its legislative charter. This included all matters relating to foreign policy, immigration and cultural exchanges as they effect sport.  The Commission’s enabling legislation explicitly provided it with the power to conduct activities both in consultation with States and Territories and overseas.  In any event, the ASC already had been engaged with State and Territory Government Departments with respect to the Aussie Sports program. 

The Commission also argued it had no meaningful input into the National Committee on Sport and Recreation for the Disabled (NCSRD), a body established to make recommendations to government on grants to organisations providing sport and recreational programs for people with a disability.  This was despite the fact that most of the funding to this sector was for sports programs and was provided through the Commission’s budget. A Commissioner, John Newman, who had specific responsibilities for disabled sport, had — with the Minister’s agreement — been appointed to the NCSRD but the primary liaison and secretariat role was still vested with the Department.

Election intervenes

Despite the logic of the argument and the increasing pressure and public criticism from sport, no administrative changes would be made to resolve the situation. It meant that the somewhat inefficient arrangement would continue, as it turned out, through to the election in July 1987.  It added fuel to the negativity promulgated about the Commission by the Confederation of Australian Sport and, eventually, the Federal Opposition culminating in the promise by the Opposition to abolish the Commission were they to be successful at the election.  The Opposition could point to the artificial alignment of functions to underscore its view that the ASC was one government agency too many and was not needed.

There was to be no quick fix before the election which resulted in the return of the Hawke Labor government. The protracted arm wrestle over territory, while frustrating to the protagonists involved, did little to dent the popularity of John Brown as Minister for Sport who enjoyed considerable support within sport and from the passionate sport lover, Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Their deep engagement with sport could not be confected. The political Opposition was simply no match against this powerful duo when it came to sport policy and their personal connection to sport. 

Despite his bureaucratic challenges, Brown became one of Australia’s longest serving and most successful Sports Ministers.

Era comes to an end

Brown retained his portfolio until the 1987 election and afterwards became a Cabinet Minister with increased responsibilities as Minister for Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories. By that stage, Brown’s Departmental Secretary, Bruce MacDonald, had been moved to a senior position in the Data Protection Agency and was replaced by Stuart Hamilton.

Brown’s elevation to a larger portfolio was short-lived.  He resigned as a Minister some six months later, in January 1988, over allegations he had mislead the House with respect to the issuing of tenders for the Australian Pavilion at Expo 88 on the Tourism side of his portfolio.

This was the circuit breaker over the division of functions stand-off. By then – after years of frustration and wasted effort — debate came to an end when Brown was succeeded by the ALP heavyweight, Senator Graham Richardson as Minister. 

While Brown’s departure afforded the opportunity for a fresh start, it was also a moment of considerable regret within the world of sport.  He was a champion of sport and equally passionate about the performances of Australia’s athletes and Teams.  And through his broad ranging sport policy originally delivered during the 1983 Federal election, Brown showed he was committed to providing opportunities for all to enjoy and participate in sport at the level of their choice or ability.  This is why he promoted the Sports Commission as a core piece of government architecture in the first place. 

Brown was never going to be a Ministerial seat warmer. He was a “hands on” Minister with a packed agenda and he wanted to leave his mark. Brown saw that the Arts had the Australia Council; he wanted sport to have the same status on the political stage.  He knew the political pulling power of sport if it was in the hands of a Minister and Government which understood and appreciated its historical role in Australian society. He was a champion of the cause of ‘sport for all’. 

Brown left a positive legacy and one which he continued after he left politics with the establishment of the John Brown Foundation which for decades raised funds from business and provided grants to deserving artists and athletes, including Paralympic athletes. But rational organisational structure was not his strong suit! Despite the speed bumps and road blocks, Brown’s prized Australian Sports Commission has survived and remains at the centre of the delivery of the federal government’s sport policy framework.


  1. Peter White, Shadow Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Department of Sport Being Examined, 3 October 1986
  2. “Sport Report” 11 March 1986
  3. John Brown, Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Letter to national sports organisations, October 1984. ( (Held in Hartung Collection at National Library of Australia).
  4.  Australian Sports Commission Interim Committee. Report to the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, March 1984. Canberra, AGPS, 1985.
  5. John Brown, Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Proposed Australian Sports Commission, 13 September 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-)

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

Part 20 – A Forced Marriage – the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute Of Sport Tie The Knot

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