Despite what the media says, John Howard was not a supporter of sport

Mar 21, 2021

I manage a wry smile every time I see John Howards’ name mentioned as a ‘cricket tragic’ or as a supporter of sport. The Hawke Government introduced in excess of 10 pieces of legislation in the Parliament in the 1980s. The word sport had not been included in one piece of legislation that had been introduced into the Parliament in the 100 odd years since Federation.  In almost every case the Howard opposition opposed the Hawke legislation and as the Minister involved Ihad to deal with the Democrats in the Senate to get our legislation passed.

One of the most pertinent acts which John Howard opposed was that which provided tax averaging over 5 years on the earnings of every professional sportsman and woman. In the mid-’80s the Packer Cricket Circus provided for the first time huge earnings for elite cricketers. So the legislation was timely. Have modern cricketers forgotten as they earn their millions of dollars including good years and bad years with injuries etc. that the man who is revered as a self-confessed cricket tragic voted against this bill on the grounds that it was a ‘cost to the revenue’? They may not recognize this fact but I will never forget it.

The racing industry in Australia as a result of the Hawke Government’s legislation now is prospering and is one of the nation’s biggest industries. Thoroughbred, greyhound and harness racing now pay no income tax. The thoroughbred studs which now are a huge and successful venture achieved greatness because of the laws Hawke sponsored. These included the removal of import duty, sales tax and the introduction of generous depreciation on all the stud mares and stallions.

Despite Andrew Peacock, the Deputy Leader’s enthusiasm for this Bill, Howard’s misguided hate of gambling forced me again to get the Democrats onside to pass the legislation. The huge improvement and prosperity of the thoroughbred studs in Australia can be clearly laid at the foot of the Hawke governments’ involvement in sport generally and this one in particular.

I note with cynical interest that John Howard was a leading speaker at a big symposium on sport in recent days. Never did a Prime Minister do more to halt an advancement in sport than the Hawke government produced compared to John Winston Howard. How he could put himself forward as a sports ambassador is beyond my comprehension. It’s time the truth was told. Sydney Cricket Ground Trust please take note.

Despite the lack of support from the Howard Opposition, the Hawke Government  transformed the way in which sport was organized and financed in the ’80s. Federal government funding revolutionized the provision of facilities for both sporting participants and spectators.

Every sport was allotted government funding through the newly formed Sports Commission whose members acted on a voluntary basis. For the first time ever contributions to sport were made tax free. Prior to the formation of the Sports Aid Foundation (SAF) chaired by Nicholas Whitlam, sport was the only community area where contributions could be made without a tax benefit. Red Cross, RSPCA, Legacy and some hundreds of worthy bodies had tax deductibility.  Sport – nil.  Even contributions to the Australian Olympic team did not receive a tax deduction.

Under Hawke every donation to sport which lacked tax deduction could be made to the SAF – a tax-deductible body – and transferred tax free to whichever sport was named in the contribution . Now I notice tax-free deductions to sport made through the SIF attract a commission of something in excess of 5%. What a pity.

To encourage excellence in our high ranking sports we acted quickly. The Australian Institute of Sport was established and completed. It was recognized in its time as the best of its kind in the world. The AIS trained the top athletes in every high ranking sport in the absence of similar bodies in the States. The AIS set a model which was copied all around the world.

Unlike the present government’s tax rort in sporting grants, compare the first sporting grants under the Hawke administration.  As the Minister, I was given $32 million to improve the paucity of sporting facilities all around Australia. I made a deal with every State government except Queensland (Bjlke refused to deal with the socialists from the south) so we dealt with the Brisbane City Council. The $32 million became $64million as it transpired.

The first improvement was the Chandler Institute in Queensland, then the transformation of the Brindible Stand at the WACA.  The Hockey Institute was funded in Perth and the Cricket Institute was established in Adelaide. A new cycle velodrome was built in Adelaide as the headquarters of Australian cycling. In Victoria, a new gliding facility was built in Benalla.  A new cycling velodrome was built in Launceston. Sydney gained the Sports Institute at Homebush. This became the first decent sporting facility built in Sydney in 100 years with the exception of the North Sydney Olympic pool which was built in 1938 for the British Empire Games.

What a contrast; $32 million became $64 million by a simple arrangement with the States which made of course auditing of the money very simple. Unfortunately, after I left the ministry another $32 million was given to my successor to do similarly. As it turned out her complicated system corrupted the original plan. The Minister involved when Hawke discovered a distorted plan for distribution was sacked on the spot. Honesty was everything with Bob Hawke.

Compare that with the recent sports rorts under the existing government. Enquiries by the Auditor General were established. There was a very clear intervention by the Prime Minister to rort these grants in a very unfair fashion favouring conservative seats. Sad to relate, despite the guilt of the Prime Minister’s office and the deplorable actions of the Minister involved, she is still there. I might ask a question. How guilty do you have to be to be sacked in this government?

I am so proud to have served in a Hawke Government where honesty was everything. I think the only scandal that surrounded the Hawke government was the failure of my dear friend Mick Young to declare a Paddington Bear in his luggage.

History will show that the Hawke government absolutely led the world in sports administration. One of the pieces of legislation which I should mention was the ‘Olympic Insignia Bill’. Samaranch, President of the IOC had been wanting any one of the 200 Olympic Nations to do likewise. Australia, under Hawke, acted. This legislation gave the Australian Olympic Committee total ownership of the Olympic Rings and Motto. The revenue gained by the AOC from this legislation has helped it become financially secure and independent of government funding. That piece of legislation together with the AIS made Australia the recognized leader in the world of sporting administration.

Samaranch made a special trip to Australia and invested me as a Minister with an Olympic Order. I joined Fraser, Landy, Cuthbert, Elliot and  Patching as the only Australians to be so honoured. The award was really to the Australian Government for its leadership of sport. Shortly afterwards, the President of the US academy of sport travelled to Australia and presented me with an award as the Sporting Administrator of the world. Again, an award to the Hawke government. I just happened to be the lucky recipient.

Strangely, my fellow recipients that year were Roger Bannister and Pele. I sometimes cringe at the comparison.

All these things indicated that the Hawke government, despite no support by the opposition under John Howard achieved sporting excellence well beyond what should be expected from this county remote from most of the world’s great sporting nations.

I rest my case.  Hawke should be considered the greatest government supporter of sport in Australia’s history.  It’s a pity some other politicians who parade themselves around as sporting idols don’t have sufficient personal modesty to back off!

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