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

History of Australian Sport Policy Series: Part 20

By Greg Hartung   AO

The Merger

As forced marriages go, the “merger” of the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport in 1988 produced a reasonable administrative outcome, albeit not a lot of love. It was described as a merger of the two agencies but it effectively made the AIS a program within the Commission and identified in the ASC’s legislation. Until the merger the AIS had functioned with a considerable degree of independence — initially under its own company structure and from 1986 under its own enabling legislation. This independence, despite its perceived flaws, helped earn the AIS its enviable reputation as world class. 

The merger enabled the government to have greater control over the activities of the Institute while also laying claim to making the overall sports bureaucracy more streamlined and efficient. The bloated bureaucracy argument was one where the federal Coalition Parties had scored points against the government during the 1987 federal election campaign. The new legislative and management design addressed that perception.

In addition to the rationalisation of the two agencies, the government finally moved to deal with the lingering confusion and tension caused by the worst features of the division of functions between the Department and the Commission by transferring a number of residual departmental functions to the Commission.  However, the Department still maintained a Sport Branch which retained a significant role and influence and provided direct policy input to the Minister.    

Whether the merger was a good idea or not, or in the long-term interests of Australian sport in general and the AIS in particular, is an open question. The transition did not run smoothly and the Commission and Institute proved to be uncomfortable bedfellows.  The Institute had a singular focus on athlete performance and results; the Commission’s scope through its funding and programs was broader and covered the spectrum of the Australian sports system, from support for high performance athletes to a range of programs designed to improve sports participation and inclusion. 

The relationship between the two bodies was not advanced by the government’s decision to retain two separate Boards which would continue to function independently of each other.  Like the division of functions confusion with the Department beforehand, this bifurcated structure in a single entity served to add fuel to the tension between the two agencies and their respective Boards.  In effect, the government’s effort to solve the problem of dual organisations went part of the way. The problem was to continue for more than 12 months before it was finally resolved with the appointment of a single Board.  But even then, at the operational level with different sets of priorities, the relationship between the role of the Commission and that of Institute was a tense one with the perception that the Commission was largely an extension of the public service — effectively a Government Department under another name — while the AIS was an organisation at the “sharp” elite end of sport whose success was founded on, and defined by, measurable results in competition.

Despite the clumsy structural arrangements, senior management at both the Commission and the AIS were determined to ensure that the momentum of both entities, evident through the early 1980s, would continue. The Opposition may have had some basis for its criticism of the government with respect to the growth and overlap bureaucracy and the number of Boards it had established, but it was on much less solid ground when attacking the work of the Commission itself and its record of achievement since in its first period as a full statutory authority from 1985. Nor had it anticipated the approval and goodwill that the ASC and AIS programs had generated with national sporting organisations which provided a powerful counterbalance to the negativity surrounding the untidy administrative arrangements.

Commission’s challenging beginning    

There was no denying that the ASC was born into conflict.  This series of papers has discussed the prolonged opposition from the Coalition Parties and the incessant sniping of CAS during its formative years.  The ‘division of functions’ issue was a significant distraction and kept the Commission and the Department in a constant arm wrestle over ‘territory’.  Tensions were even developing with the AIS.  Then there was the House of Representatives report into Sport and Recreation chaired by Labor’s Leo McLeay which gave a very lukewarm analysis of the role of the Commission and questioned whether it was a necessary addition to Australia’s sports organisational architecture at all. (Ref 1) Holding the idea together was Minister Brown with the backing of Prime Minister Hawke.  But even Brown kept his options open and failed to fully back his Commission over the division of functions dispute.  And finally, the Commission executive with a staff of 20 had the organisational challenge of servicing an ever-growing Board which, at its height, had reached 22 Commissioners. This was to be followed in 1988 by the merger with the AIS resulting in an awkward unity structure but with two separate Boards. Fortunately, this cumbersome arrangement was eventually resolved with the formalisation of the merger in one piece of legislation with the passing of the 1989 Australian Sports Commission Act.

Record of Achievement

The ASC had its backers among those who really counted — the national sporting organisations – helped, no doubt, by increased government investment in both programs and funding.   

With the early challenges acting as a powerful incentive to succeed, the Commission worked hard to get “runs on the board”. 

It had developed its own comprehensive strategic plan as a priority – one of the first Commonwealth authorities to do so – and had commenced a requirement for all sporting organisations to provide development plans.  In administration, sports were provided with financial assistance for the employment of either full or part time executive directors.  By 1986-87 some 44 full-time executive directors received some assistance at a total cost to the Commission of $1.3 million.  This initiative, along with the emphasis on planning and strategy and Commission leadership and advice in such matters as taxation, insurance and travel, gave a significant lift to the professionalisation of sport which until now had been largely amateur and volunteer based.

The ASC maintained a practice of transparency with its client group through the public disclosure of its own plans and introduced the practice of six-monthly national workshops with Executive Directors and Presidents of all sports aimed at receiving feedback directly from sport about what was needed from the ASC for them to succeed.  The process underpinned the ASC-NSO relationship and cultivated the sense that the government’s peak agency and its client group working in a genuinely collaborative relationship. It was led by the ASC and driven by sport.

ASC milestones   

Athlete Support

In elite athlete assistance, the Commission established the Sports Talent Encouragement Plan (STEP), a new initiative targeting direct support to athletes.  The funding available was relatively modest, but by 1987 the Commission was able to invest $600,000 in 12 months to assist 174 athletes and 15 teams.  It partnered with the AIS and the Victorian Government to establish a national Table Tennis Academy in Melbourne with the Table Tennis Association.  For the first time, this brought together for the sport, the facilities, coaching and sports science expertise in a co-ordinated elite training program.


The Australian Coaching Council (ACC) was transferred from Melbourne to Canberra along with the Commission funded National Coaching Accreditation Scheme (NCAS).  The ACC was one of the most important and successful organisations providing leadership and status to the coaching sector. The NCAS provided a national registrar of qualified coaches in Australia and encouraged learning and development among coaches. 

The Commission recognised that coaching was central to the Australian sports system and through the ACC and NCAS professional coaching was encouraged at all levels. Despite the profile and success of the Council, it was disappointingly wound up by the Commission several years later. But for a period, the ACC provided a valued service to national sport and, like the AIS, was a model regarded as best practice by other nations. 

Coaching was at the core of Commission interest and policy and funding.  In 1986-87, the ASC invested more than $800,000 supporting some 29 National Coaching Director positions in sport.  It also supported a number of coaching development projects with national sporting bodies and staged the first seminar for elite coaches at the AIS in December 1986. 

Through the ACC, the Commission introduced the Aussie Sports Level “0” coaching program, augmenting the higher coaching qualifications, to provide a basic level of training for coaches to improve the quality of coaching at the community level and, particularly, in schools.    The highly regarded “Sports Coach” magazine was promoted and financially supported to become a key communication vehicle for sport coaches across all disciplines.


The conviction that competition, along with coaching, drives performance was a fundamental principle shared by the ASC and the AIS. The Commission recognised this at the outset and provided support for teams to travel to competition and backed the hosting of international events in Australia.   Financial assistance was provided to Australia’s Olympic and Commonwealth Games teams and direct assistance to sports to assist teams travelling overseas for competition. And in 1986-87 some 18 international events were staged in Australia, to increase Australian athletes’ exposure to world class competition. At the same time, work was beginning on a concept of a network of regional games across Australia.

Children’s Sport

A major children’s sport initiative – Aussie Sports – was conceived and developed during the first three years of the Commission’s operation.  This was a ground-breaking program designed to introduce children to sport using modified rules. By 1987 some 14000 schools and 60,000 children were involved in the formal Aussie Sports program.  And thousands more children were using the modified equipment outside the formal Aussie Sports program structure.

Research and Development  

The Commission introduced and Applied Sports Research Program which was used to identify specific problems within sport.  It connected sports with the sports research community to find practical solutions to sport specific needs.  In 1986/87 28 individual projects were supported by the Commission.  A National Sports Research Co-ordinator was engaged with the responsibility of bringing sports science and research directly into alignment with the needs of sports.  The co-ordinator worked closely with national coaching directors who were employed by most sports with the financial support of the Commission.  This was the commencement of a range of individual projects to assist coaches, technical officials and referees as well as more general programs such as initiatives to improve safety in sport.

Priority was given to the national program on drugs in sport.  This was a period before the creation of the specialist drugs in sport agency.  The Commission focussed not only on education and prevention but also on increased and more effective testing programs within sports.  At the time it was regarded as a world leading approach to dealing with the growing drugs in sport problem. 

While focussed on the present, the Commission also commenced research into the role of sport in Australian society. It produced a significant research document “Sport, Towards 2000” in 1987 highlighting the contribution of sport to the national economy and community development.

Equity and Access

From September 1984 till November 1987, the Commission showed, in a relatively short space of time, its commitment to a broad approach to sports development. Among the projects, it:

  • Established a Task Force for women’s sport, which in turn developed a national policy on women in sport, held seminars on media and sponsorship skills in women’s sport and provided assistance to three sports to improve their promotional skills;
  • Established a Women’s Sport Promotion Unit in 1987 with an initial budget of $50,000 to proceed with the Task Force initiatives and further implement recommendations from the Working Group on Women in Sport;
  • Provided secretariat and research support and financial assistance to the Working Group on Women in Sport whose final report “Women, Sport and the Media” was tabled in Federal Parliament in May 1985;
  • Provided financial support to the VII World Veteran’s Athletics Games in Melbourne in November 1987;
  • Published and circulated a discussion paper on veteran’s sport, urging associations to ensure their programs catered for this group.

Australian Sports Aid Foundation

The Commission during its first three years, established and operated the Sports Aid Foundation as a private company.  By 1987 approximately 61 organisations had joined the Approved Organisations Register.

 For the first time, it secured tax deductibility for general sports donations and the Foundation raised in excess of $2 million in the first 12 months of its establishment.

The Commission, through the Foundation, assisted in the appeals of many national sporting organisations (17 in 1986-87) and the special appeals for Commonwealth and Olympic Games teams.

Management and Operations

The Commission wrote and published its first strategic plan and developed an evaluation program to ensure that all ASC programs were subject to formal evaluations.

It conducted an extensive publishing program covering both ASC activities and programs and issued of particular concern and interest to sporting associations. In the four years since it was established in September 1984, the ASC produced a large “library” of some 26 publications and a series of newsletters covering the full spectrum of its activities, including advice to sporting organisations on such matters as research, insurance, Aussie Sports, legal liability and team management.

Record of achievement

Despite the challenging headwinds outlined in this and preceding papers, the Commission had engineered and delivered a substantial ‘body of work’ for Australian sport. The positive results of this record would be seen in the years and decades ahead with the growth of Australian sport system from top to bottom. Further discussion about the ASC’s role in the national debate about a sports lottery and the creation of a Sports Aid Foundation will be canvassed in future Papers.


  1. The way we p(l)ay: Commonwealth assistance for sport and recreation / report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, November 1983, Canberra : Australian Government Publishing Service, 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 21 – The Idea of an Australian National Sports Lottery Has a Long – and Disappointing – History …but History has Proved No Impediment to Old Arguments in the Quest for the Non-government Dollar

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