Sport and Federal Politics – Importance of Relationship Building by National Sports Organisations

By Greg Blood

With a new Federal Parliament under way, it is important that national sports organisations educate and lobby existing and new Parliamentarians regarding their sport and its needs. It is not enough to just work with the Federal Government’s primary sport agency – Australian Sports Commission.

The 47th Federal Parliament commenced on 26 July 2022. Besides the ceremonial aspects, there were several sporting events held in the grounds of Parliament House with touch football (State of origin), football and tennis being played by politicians from all parties.

The change in Federal Government has led to a new Sport Minister – Anika Wells and Shadow Minister – Anne Rushton and Greens spokesperson Lydia Thorpe. Wells and Rushton did not have a responsibility for sport in the last Parliament – so there is plenty of room for their education.

There are now three Parliamentarians with national sport representation – Senator David Pocock (Wallaby Captain), Zali Steggall (Olympic skiing bronze medallist) and Dan Repacholi (five-time Olympian shooter and Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist). They bring an understanding of the Australian sport system, particularly high-performance sport.

The 2022 Federal Election led to new Labor Government and 43 new Parliamentarians (35 House of Representatives members and 8 Senators). This means that there are potentially 43 Parliamentarians who need to be educated by national sports organisations on the Federal Government’s role in funding and support of sport through the Australian Sports Commission, international events, community programs in areas such as health, inclusion and international relations, broadcasting, gambling, integrity (national redress scheme) and facility development. Who knows –one of these new Parliamentarians might be a future Sport Minister or Shadow Minister?

The 46th Federal Parliament was consumed by the sports rorts affair – this has led to community distrust in the decision making in relation to sports facility grants.

There appears to be two main ways that national sports organisations educate and lobby Federal politicians – Parliamentary Friendship Groups and employment of government relationship staff.

Parliamentary Friendship Groups
These groups exist for a Parliamentary term and are now formally recognised by the Presiding Officers. There are guidelines for establishing a Group and this includes a membership of at least 10 current sitting senators and members. With a new Parliament underway, previous Groups need to re-establish particularly as many of the convenors are no longer in Parliament.

There were 131 Parliamentary Friendship Groups for the previous (46th) Parliament (2019-2022)– this included 12 Sports Groups:
• Parliamentary Friends of Australian Basketball
• Parliamentary Friends of Cricket
• Parliamentary Friends of Cycling
• Parliamentary Friends of Football (soccer)
• Parliamentary Friends of Golf
• Parliamentary Friends of Netball
• Parliamentary Friends of the Olympic Movement In Australia
• Parliamentary Friends of Rugby League
• Parliamentary Friends of Rugby Union
• Parliamentary Friends of Running
• Parliamentary Friends of Shooting
• Parliamentary Friends of Surf Life Saving

From this list you will see most major sports listed – except Australian football, tennis, swimming and motor sport.

Professional sports do have a lobby group- Coalition of Major Professional & Participation Sports (COMPASS) that makes numerous submissions to the Government. The Confederation of Australian Sport still exists but its impact has greatly declined since the mid 1990’s.

The omission of the Paralympic movement from the above list is interesting from my perspective as it was one of the first organisations to establish a Parliamentary Friends Group. I was advised that COVID made it difficult for this Group to be established during the 46th Parliament. COVID restrictions in 2020 and 2021 made it difficult for Parliamentary Friends Groups to organise events.

In my work with past Paralympics Australia President Greg Hartung, I became aware of the work that had been undertaken to establish a Parliamentary Friendship Group. In the lead up to the Sydney Paralympic Games, the Australian Paralympic Committee (now Paralympics Australia) through its President Greg Hartung established an informal Parliamentary Friends of Paralympians that supported Australian Paralympic athletes through a fund-raising bicycle ride from Canberra to Sydney and a celebration dinner with many team members after the Games. Before the Sydney Paralympic Games, Paralympic athletes received limited Federal Government funding and media exposure.

In 2005, Hartung, who has extensive understanding of Parliament and lobbying, raised the idea of a “Friends of Paralympians Group” with Sport Minister Rod Kemp. In 2006, the inaugural Parliamentary Friends of Paralympics was established with Senator Michael Ronaldson (Coalition) as Chair and Kate Lundy (Labor) as Co Chairs. The Patrons were Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley. Lundy went onto become Sport Minister under the Gillard Government. Sixty-eight Parliamentarians joined the first group. A regular Newsletter was distributed to members, outlining the Australian Paralympic movement’s achievements and programs.

Establishing a Parliamentary Friends Group involves a degree of effort by a national sports organisation in terms of identifying suitable Parliamentarians as convenors, regular supply of information and the organisation of events. This may be an easy task for well-resourced national sports organisations but may be onerous for small to middle sports organisations.

It is difficult to determine whether these Groups assist national sports organisations obtain more resources or recognition from the Federal Government but they do provide a vehicle for regular communication with Federal Parliamentarians.

Friends Groups also exist in some State Parliaments.

Government Relations Staff
A recent review of major sports organisations annual reports indicates that most major national sports organisations employ government relations staff. For example –

  • AFL – Executive General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Government and Communications
  • NRL – General Manager, Government Partnerships
  • Cricket – Head of Government Relations & Infrastructure
  • Football – Senior Government Relations Manager
  • Paralympics Australia – General Manager, Government b& Stakeholder Engagement
  • Tennis – Head of Government and Stakeholder Relations

These organisations have the financial resources to support dedicated staff for activities such as organising events, networking and preparation of grant Federal applications.

Middle to smaller organisations often have to rely upon stretched Chairs and Chief Executive Officers to liaise with Federal Parliamentarians.
The benefits of liaising with Federal Parliamentarians may lead to –

  • Federal Government support for major international sporting events in Australia i.e., FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup (2018), UCI World Road Championships (2022), FIFA Women’s World Cup (2023), World Netball Cup (2027), Men’s Rugby World Cup (2027) and Women’s Rugby World Cup (2029)
  • Support for major and community facility development particularly around election time. I compiled a list of Labor and Coalition facility commitments during the 2022 Federal Election.
  • Support for social, inclusion and health programs utilising sporting organisations resourced by the Federal Government.

It is often said that sport and politics should not mix. But evidence points that they are linked in many ways as Parliamentarians see the benefits of being associated with community, Olympic/Paralympic and professional sport. Interestingly, the new Sport Minister Wells helped to establish the Chermside Parkrun in Brisbane prior to being elected the Member for Lilley in 2019. Former Prime Minister Morrison realised the benefits of being associated with sport through his Governments funding of a community sport facility grants scheme in the lead up to the 2019 Federal Election. It may have helped Morrison to be elected in 2019 but it led to a great deal of bad press due to supposed pork barrelling.

In the 47th Parliament, I will be closely looking at how national sports organisations build relationships with Federal Parliamentarians.

Postscript – two Federal Parliamentarians have become Chairs of national sports organisations in recent years: . Chris Schacht, Volleyball Australia (1997-2013) and Mark Arbib, Athletics Australia (2015-2021).

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