When it comes to sport, Australia is the last remnant of the old Eastern Bloc. Just as the Soviet Union and its satellites, in particular East Germany, poured millions of dollars into state-run elite sports facilities, so today the Australian Government keeps the Australian Institute of Sport alive, courtesy of the taxpayer.
Where other nations, such as the US and Europe, rely on funding private or state-run general educational institutions to turn out their elite athletes, no politician in Australia would dare suggest abolishing the AIS.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the AIS is steeped in the good old Eastern Bloc tradition. After all, the AIS was a creature that grew from the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth after Australia’s dismal performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics when it failed to win a single gold medal.
With the Eastern Europeans dominating the track and the pool in the 1970s - two areas of endeavour where Australia had traditionally done well - it was decided to follow a winning formula. The AIS began its life in Canberra in 1981 with eight programs.
Today it has grown into a behemoth, offering scholarships to 700 athletes each year in 35 separate programs covering 26 sports. The AIS, according to its website, today employs “about 75 coaches to help these athletes achieve their goals”.
And the cost of all this central planning to the Australian taxpayer? About $110 million in 2005-06.
In fact, funding for the AIS is a bit like funding for defence - it rarely gets a savaging from the Canberra Treasury and finance departments.
When the Howard Government, on its election in 1996, took every sharp implement it could find to cut into the Federal budget to reduce a $10 billion deficit, the AIS, like defence, was spared the worst of it.
Sports Minister Warwick Smith merely had to remind his colleagues that the Atlanta Olympics were on that year and that was that. While pensioners, heath workers, business and farmers all felt the brunt of what was regarded as a seriously tough budget that year, the Australian Institute of Sport got off very lightly indeed.
It had to find general efficiencies to make some savings but Mr Smith was able to announce on Budget night that the 1996-97 budget included “$35.5m for continuation of the 'Maintain the Momentum' program which expands the Australian Sports Commission's funding in the areas of athlete support, coaching, domestic and international competition, talent identification and development, sports science and medicine, participation and administrative support”.
The statist approach to the AIS is in stark contrast to the revolution that arts funding in Australia has undergone since 1996. Under the Howard Government, there has been a move to grow the private philanthropic movement in Australia and to wean operas companies, orchestras, theatres companies and visual artists off the public purse. The tax system has been adjusted to encourage the establishment of private foundations to fund the arts.
Besides the obvious philosophical reason that conservative governments like to privatise charity these days, and that they have a tendency to regard the arts as “elitist”, one of the other key drivers behind the encouragement of greater private funding of the arts is that long term, the pressures on the Federal budget from a declining and ageing population will squeeze out spending on areas such as the arts.