Sports Australia splashed out $14 million on consultants in past year

11 December 2018 5 min. read

Public spending on consulting work has again come under fire in Australia, after news emerged that Sport Australia has spent $14 million on external contractors in the past 12 months. The revelation comes after the Government’s sport commission declined to spend $50,000 on Australia's synchronised swimming program, among a number of notable cuts less than two years ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Sport Australia is the operating brand name of the Australian Sports Commission, a Commonwealth entity within the Australian Government’s Department of Health Portfolio. While a mission statement on Sport Australia’s website declares it exists for “getting more Australians participating and excelling in sport”, the organisation recently announced a raft of stringent cuts to the funding of a range of sports. This included the slashing of all funding to the Olympic synchronised swimming program, table tennis and men's soccer, all of which was axed because Sports Australia reportedly thought it was a poor investment.

Since those cuts were announced, Australian paper The Courier-Mail has also revealed that athletics, gymnastics, sailing and volleyball have been told that their funding levels would be cut significantly before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The organisation also hit a Paralympic program with cuts, but refused to name the sport. Reportedly the money is set to be re-routed to sports already cash-rich sports such as football and rugby, and critics have suggested that this narrowing of focus will prevent greater diversity among Australians taking up sport and physical activity.

Sports Australia splashed out $14 million on consultants in past year

At the same time, the sporting body has had accusations of hypocrisy levelled at it, in light of its spending record on consulting work. While it decided that a reported $50,000 investment for Australia's synchronised swimming program was unaffordable, Sport Australia has spent some $14 million on consultants in the past year. This represents a massive rise on the previous year, ballooning by almost $6 million, while consulting staff also on projects racked up more than $2.5 million on air-fares and hotel bills.

Traditionally, proponents of consulting spending defend it in terms of its capacity to save money in the long-term, while at the same time no doubt citing the comparison of a $50,000 isolated spend to an organisational bill of $14 million as contrasting apples with oranges. However, reports in the Australian press revealed that one consultant involved in the specific funding cut of $50,000 for the synchronised swimming program was paid $280,000 – more than five times the amount ‘saved’. At the same time, Athletics Australia has been told it will lose 20% of its funding in the year leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, leaving it with a $6 million shortfall – the same amount which consulting fees increased by in the last year.

Athletics Australia president Mark Arbib said of the news, "This announcement is the worst possible news for our athletes, less than two years out from Tokyo… We want them to focus on their training and competition instead of worrying about where the money's going to come from. The crazy thing is that only seven months ago Australians were celebrating our athletics team as they topped the medals table at the Commonwealth Games ... so this decision does not make any sense."

Stopping the medals

Another heavily critical leading sports executive pulled no punches in their assessment to the press. Making stark reference to the incumbent Prime Minister’s hard-line stance on asylum seekers as Immigration Minister, they said, “It was all right for Scott Morrison to say 'stop the boats' but why does he want to stop the medals?” They added, "It's just not fair. We've got a Prime Minister who likes to arm wrestle with and skol beers at Australian cricket games but then cuts funds to the poor sports of Australia.”

The Australian Olympic Committee meanwhile said the timing of the cuts was disastrous with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics so close. AOPC Chief Executive Matt Carroll said, "It would be naive to think high-performance athletes can enjoy their best preparation when there is financial pressure on coaching, pro-grams, competitions and rising costs.”

While it comes under fire, however, Sports Australia has doubled down, instead defending its controversial budgeting. A spokesman said, "Sport Australia uses consultants to lead specialist work in areas across the business including high performance, participation and building sport sector capability.”

The furore comes after Australia’s Federal Government came under recent pressure for having underestimated its consulting spend by billions. While it claims this has enabled it to shed 15,000 jobs from the public service, this ‘saving’ has in turn been reinvested and more so, with Australia subsequently doubling its private sector spend. Amid the public ire this provoked, this also prompted the country’s Labor party to say it would rein in the use of consultants and contractors and give projects to public servants where possible, if it wins the next election.