HOW WILL THE NEW NATIONAL SPORTS PLAN IMPACT EQUESTRIAN SPORTS?

Last week, the federal Minister for Sport, The Hon Senator Bridget McKenzie, outlined the future of Australian sport when she launched the new National Sports Plan, Sport 2030 in Canberra.

With the Australian Sports Commission’s (ASC) financial contribution making up 45% of Equestrian Australia’s (EA) funding, the equestrian community should be asking ourselves if the changes detailed in the plan will have a significant impact on the health of our sport.

If you haven’t had the chance to troll through the 71-page report, here are the key takeaways of the plan…literally, straight from the horse’s mouth.

  1. An official redefinition of sport to include recreational activities.
  2. A movement towards grass-roots participation and reform of the national high-performance objectives.
  3. A drive to modernise sporting organisations, administration, and funding, in addition to a revamp of the AIS.

The most notable change, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) has been renamed Sports Australia. However, the equestrian community desperately needs this to be more than just a name change. We need the ‘rebranding’ of this institution to bring with it new and extraordinary powers if our sport can be resuscitated.

From the perspective of member protection campaigners, like Stop Bullying In Equestrian Sports (SBIES), the report offers us very little. While Sport 2030 does make reference to mental health programs if offers no commitment to specifically tackle the serious issue of bullying in sport, which we know is endemic.

On the upside, Sport 2030 does appear to promise more glorious spending on grass-roots sport. Who wouldn’t support more grass-roots programs, greater social equality and participation?

For the equestrian community, however, the great divide between grass-roots equestrians and their high-performance comrades hasn’t come about from a lack of will, participation or infrastructure. It is due to poor management of the governing bodies, lack of transparency and pretty much zero consultation with grass-roots members…who desperately WANT to be consulted.

The grass-roots foundation of our sport is actually quite healthy, it is our relationship with the governing body that is not. There are plenty of ‘everyday’ equestrians regularly saddling up, but they have been walking away from the state branches in droves. It is estimated there are a mere 18, 500 EA-branch members remaining, Australia-wide.

If our sport is to thrive, the equestrian community needs administrators that are capable of unifying all equestrian participants, possibly even those who don’t currently don’t fall under the arm of EA and its state branches. Certainly, those former EA members who have already opted-out need to be encouraged back in.

The new focus on “recreation” and grass-roots sport in Sport 2030 is reminiscent of the jovial 1970s national fitness campaign, Life Be In It, but without the benefit and humour of ‘Norm’ (a cartoon character created to symbolise beer-willing, TV-watching slobs of the era).

Government campaigns have been trying to motivate us to get off the sofa for over 40 years while the nation has become flabbier and fatter.

Perhaps an emphasis on providing sporting clubs with initiatives like marketing support, volunteer training and membership concessions would better address the problem of declining sports participation? Initiatives such as these would greatly benefit the ailing equestrian sector and struggling governance and highly disenfranchised membership base.

After the long-term collateral damage of the ASC’s Winning Edge program – which gave equestrian sports carte blanche to wield power as it wished, so long as won world medals – grass-roots desperately needs encouragement and reinvigoration but it really, really needs administrative support.

The international benchmarking of Australia’s Olympic medal targets have now been abandoned by the ASC (sorry, Sports Australia) and hopefully, this will give equestrian sports the breathing space it needs to reflect and ultimately reform its inner toxicity.

The new-and-improved Sports Australia program talks of greater regulation for anti-doping, anti-match-fixing and other big concepts that have seen Australian sport lose much of its reputation as a nation of good sports. That’s great, but if you want to get the foundation right, you need to get the day-to-day operation right too.

It can no longer be denied that equestrian sports are in crisis with so many issues across the board, the last of which is the lack of enforcement of the Member Protection Policies (which, on paper, are actually a thing to behold).

This, coupled with the many pitfalls and gaps of the incorporated associations acts that underpin the legal foundation of sporting clubs and organisations, means there is a lot of space for sporting organisations to behave badly…and very little recourse for negatively-impacted individuals.

Human nature is such that people rarely do what they aren’t MADE to do. That’s why there is legislation and law enforcement across all tiers of government, imposing small things like parking fines to life-time criminal sentencing. The big stick of consequence is never far away for those choosing to ignore or stretch the rules.

One SBIES follower recently tested the integrity of the EA member protection process all the way to the top, the federal Minister for Sport, only to discover that the information provided by EA to the Hon Bridget McKenzie did not match the follower’s well-documented version of events. Where do you go from there? The short answer is nowhere. The long answer is that there is actually no higher authority for arbitration, mediation or regulation….just a lot of deflecting, shoulder-shrugging and referral back down the line (usually where the complaint originated).

Centre Alliance Senator, Rex Patrick, a champion of the anti-bullying cause in elite sport recently asked questions of the ASC in the federal Senate and its response to his questions are truly shocking.

One of the questions from the South Australian Senator was “Can the ASC please provide the process for dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment, including the involvement of the relevant sporting organisation”.

The ASC response was as follows: “The ASC is not a regulatory body and does not handle complaints related to the operation of sporting organisations, clubs or associations.”

Just to get this straight, once taxpayer’s money has left the ASC building and been handed over to sporting bodies, the ASC has no powers to ensure that the money is spent appropriately or that the sport is governed in accordance with ASC standards. They are essentially a ‘toothless tiger’ dolling out millions of dollars’ worth of grants and funding without enforceable terms and conditions.

The ASC’s latest review of EA’s governance conveys that the body is still “working towards” adopting the ASC’s mandatory governance principles. How can it be possible that a sport can be consistently non-compliant and still receive ANY federal government funding? There is currently no incentive for EA to address its toxic culture or outdated governance structure.

Ironically, EA and the state branches appear to be compliant with Federation Equestre Internationale regulations and policies. So why not with the ASC governance principles? Perhaps it is because the FEI makes it their business to dish out consequences to our elite athletes if they and our governing body are non-complaint. With the ASC, there is no-one even watching.

Unless the new Sports Australia is bestowed with powers that give it the capacity to penalise sports that are non-compliant with so-called mandatory governance principles, then the rot will continue within EA and the reform process will continue to stall.

Another element of the Sports 2030 plan which should be concerning for equestrian enthusiasts is funding. In this new era, sports will be required to broaden their funding base and become less reliant on government support.

This model will potentially spell disaster for equestrian sports. With a tarnished reputation, elitist image and fractured community sentiment, we are poorly placed to lure big-ticket sponsorship and become self-sufficient.

Equestrian athletes are largely invisible in the mainstream media, making involvement in the sport an unattractive proposition for most corporate sponsors. With government funding drying up, Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) funding likely to be withdrawn after the Paris Games and membership numbers continuing to dwindle…where will the money come from to manage and promote equestrian sports?

For any anyone who has been a part of a failed rebranding exercise in the workplace, it’s hard not to be cynical. Sport 2030 provides plenty of platitudes but very little detail on the execution of the plan.

EA is yet to release a statement on Sport 2030, but we are very concerned that it completely misses the mark for the equestrian world. We would love to hear your thoughts on how this plan will affect the health and future of our sport?

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