By Greg Blood
Prime Minister Malcom Fraser in late 1978 transferred the sport function to the Dept of Home Affairs under Minister Bob Ellicott. Fraser told Ellicott to “do something about sport” after Australia’s poor performances at the 1976 Olympics and 1978 Commonwealth Games. Greg Hartung in reviewing Ellicott’s period as minister stated he “left a significant legacy as one of Australia’s most effective Ministers for Sport.”
In 2013, I was privileged to interview Robert “Bob” Ellicott AC KC at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and this provided great insights into the formal establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport on 26 January 1981. Ref 1
Prior to entering Parliament in 1974 as the Member for Wentworth, Ellicott was the Solicitor-General of Australia from 1969 to 1973. He was the Attorney-General in Fraser Government from 1975 to 1977 but resigned over a dispute with Fraser over a legal fees payment. In the third Fraser Ministry, he was appointed the Minister for the Capital Territory and Home Affairs in 1977. This dual ministerial appointment became important in establishing the AIS.
On 5 December 1978, Ellicott became responsible for sport function after it was added to the Home Affairs portfolio. Ellicott became the fifth Fraser Minister responsible for sport in three years. Fraser desperately needed as Ellicott “do something about sport”. Ellicott in his interview stated he had only two years to make a difference as there was a federal election due in late 1980.
Ellicott brought to the sport function an interest in sporting heroes and the pursuit of excellence. In my interview with Ellicott, he discussed the importance of Bradman in growing up in Moree and Cobar area during the Great Depression. He also noted the heroics of Adrian Quist and John Bromwich winning the Davis Cup in 1939 – the first time as Australia had won in its own right – previous victories had been under Australasia. In many ways, Ellicott witnessed the golden era of Australian sport in the 1950’s.
In becoming Minister responsible for sport, senior departmental sport officials Graham Dempster and Paul Brettell, brought to Ellicott’s attention the Bloomfield and Coles reports undertaken by the Whitlam Government under Minister Frank Stewart. In digesting these reports and other advice, John Daly in his book Quest for Excellence stated that “Bob Ellicott favoured the emulation model rather community recreation centres – the creation of national heroes and heroines who could inspire others to imitate them’”. Ref 2 It as this view that led him on the path of establishing the AIS.
Whilst visiting China in 1979 as part of his arts responsibility, he witnessed the operation of a sports training centre. This further cemented the importance of a national institute of sport. On 25 January 1980, Ellicott announced “In deciding to set up the Institute the Government has recognised that, if young Australians are to have an opportunity to pursue their interest in sport to a high level, Australia would need to give potential top class sports men and women access to specialised coaching programs while, at the same time, allowing them to pursue their studies“. Ref 3
Ellicott’s view in establishing the AIS was that it was not a gold medal factory – it was about the pursuit of excellence and medals can be the consequence of this pursuit.
The task in quickly establishing the AIS was made easier as he was the Minister for Capital Territory responsible land management in Canberra and the National Capital Development Commission. Despite objections from state ministers, Ellicott decided Canberra was the best location for the AIS and at the time National Gallery of Australia and the High Court of Australia buildings were being constructed in Canberra under his direction.
An example, of Ellicott’s government ‘smarts’ was that he had the power to approve funding under $2 million without Cabinet approval – so he proceeded with the construction of the National Indoor Sports Centre (now AIS Arena) as it was budgeted at $1.8m. The final cost was $5.8 million – this final cost may not have been approved as the Fraser Government was under budgetary restraints. Ellicott and Fraser withstood the advice from Treasury along the way as they did not what the construction of sports facilities in Canberra.
A significant decision made by Ellicott was to appoint Don Talbot as the first AIS Director. In his interview, he noted that Talbot turned down the swimming head coach position. But in July 1980, Ellicott unhappy with recommendations for the AIS Director talked Talbot in taking up this critical position. For Ellicott, Talbot had three important qualities – an Australian, understood Australian sport and had international experience in the pursuit of excellence.
Ellicott was also responsible for selecting the eight original sports – athletics, swimming, basketball, tennis, men’s football, netball, gymnastics and weightlifting. He noted that gymnastics and weightlifting were contentious selections. Ellicott selected gymnastics as it had a close relationship with the arts in particular dance. Ellicott was patron of Gymnastics Australia from 1986 to 2015.
The establishment of the AIS was against the backdrop of the Fraser Government siding on the side of the United States in the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Ellicott was given the task of visiting many Western countries in early 1980 to argue the case for a boycott. In his interview, Ellicott quipped that he thought Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock should have been allocated this task. Ellicott was also required to lobby the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) and relevant national sports organisations to boycott the Moscow Games. Fraser Government allowed the AOF and national sports organisations to decide whether to attend or not – history shows there was division within sports and athletes but Australia did send a reduced team.
Besides the establishment of the AIS, Ellicott ensured the sport branch in the Dept of Home Affairs became more active in policy development and programs to assist sport. These included: Ref 4
- providing financial assistance to the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) (now University of Canberra) to establish a Sports Studies course.
- support for the National Coaching Accreditation Scheme operated by newly formed Australian Coaching Council.
- new funding program to support world ranked athletes – the National Athlete Award Scheme (NAAS). The first recipient being Moscow gold medallist Michelle Ford.
- the development of the proposal for a National Sports Lottery.
- a three-year $25 million international sports facilities development program on a dollar- for-dollar basis with State Governments.
Ellicott resigned from Parliament on 17 February 1981 shortly after the official opening of the AIS as he was appointed a judge on the Federal Court of Australia. In his interview, he had some regrets on not staying on longer as Minister to assist Talbot – they had developed a good working relationship and brought many ideas into fruition. Talbot subsequently struggled to work with four ministers for sport.
After his parliamentary career, he was a Court of Arbitration or Sport arbiter. He maintained an active interest in the AIS and gymnastics, In 2016, Ellicott concerned with the future of the AIS in Canberra stated ‘Whatever happens in Rio, it is vital for the future of elite sport in Australia that the AIS regain its position as a centre of excellence. In its heyday, the AIS was the beating heart of Australian elite sport and to go there was to see elite athletes pursuing excellence in an exhilarating environment with first-class facilities, including a laboratory of sports science the equal of any in the world.” Ref 5
Ellicott was responsible for sport for only 2 years and 74 days. Hartung stated that “His appointment was pivotal in bringing traditionalists within the coalition parties to understand the value and importance of establishing some government intervention and ownership of the direction taken by sport and recreation in Australia. A former Attorney General and Cabinet Minister (and later to be a Federal Court Judge) Ellicott was highly regarded as a person of integrity and carried significant personal authority with him into the portfolio. Ellicott was a game changer – he was determined to make a difference.” Ref 6
Ellicott’s contribution to the development of sport has been recognised through several significant awards –
- 1986 – Life Member of the Australian Institute of Sport
- 2004 – Australia and New Zealand Sports Law Association Contribution to Sport
- 2006 – Australian Olympic Committee’s Olympic Order of Merit for his role in establishing the AIS
- 2016 – Sport Australia Hall of Fame General Member
- 2017 – Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to the Parliament of Australia, particularly as Attorney-General, to legal practice and innovative policy development, to advancements in global trade law, and to the international arbitration of sporting disputes.
1986 AIS Life Member Induction – Prof John Bloomfield (AIS Chair), Kevan Gosper (Inaugural AIS Chair), Minister John Brown (Minister for Sport), Bob Ellicott (Inaugural AIS – Minister for Sport) Credit: National Sport Information Centre
- An audience with the Hon Bob Ellicott QC – interview with Greg Blood, Australian Institute of Sport, 9 April 2013 (available online)
- John Daly, Quest for Excellence: the Australian Institute of Sport story, Canberra, AGPS, 1981
- Robert Ellicott, National Sports Training Institute to Open in 1981, Dept of Home Affairs Media Release, 25 January
- Greg Hartung, The ‘Ideas Factory’ of Australian Sport: the emergence of the Confederation of Australian Sport, Australian Sport Reflections, 10 October 2021
- Roy Masters, AIS must ‘regain position as a centre of excellence, Sydney Morning Herald, The, 24 February 2016
- Greg Hartung, The ‘nitty gritty’ years from Kevin Newman to Bob Ellicott: Australia Sport Policy 1975-1980, Australian Sport Reflections, 20 September 2021
Further biographical information