Then there were two: Sport diplomacy panel in limbo as positions left vacant by Wong

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Foreign Minister Penny Wong appears to have quietly wound down a sports diplomacy council, set up by her Coalition predecessor, that featured former Olympians and other high-profile athletes on its board.

The Sports Diplomacy Advisory Council, established by former Liberal foreign minister Marise Payne in 2020, was designed to advise the federal government on its strategy to build sporting ties with Pacific neighbours as a way of enhancing national security and building influence in the region.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy during an event to launch Australia’s international development policy in August.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The 13-member council’s board included cycling great and Olympic gold medallist Anna Meares, Hockeyroo and Olympian Danielle Roche, Paralympic champion Curtis McGrath, former AFL star Gavin Wanganeen and former Wallabies player Joe Roff, as well as several sporting administrators and an Asia-Pacific expert.

However, all but two positions are now vacant, including the chair and deputy chair roles, after the terms of 10 members expired in December 2022. The two remaining members, appointed this year, are senior government bureaucrats.

One former council member, who requested anonymity to speak frankly without risk of jeopardising future government roles, said the council had met three times a year until the change of federal government in May 2022, after which point it did not meet at all.

Olympic cycling champion Anna Meares served on the Coalition-appointed Sports Diplomacy Advisory Council. She is now Chef de Mission of the Paris 2024 Australian Olympic team.Credit: Getty

“We had momentum and we were looking at structures and how we could influence sport diplomacy. Then the government changed and we were waiting for Minister Wong to revitalise and give it a kick and get it going again. And it never did,” they said.

“I haven’t even been informed my term finished.”

The former board member said they and other members had attempted to contact the government to find out whether they would be reappointed or whether the council would be abolished, but did not receive a response.

Wong’s office did not respond to a series of questions from this masthead about the future of the council. But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said all council positions were for fixed terms and that nobody’s term was ended without notification.

The spokesperson confirmed the council had been paused and that no new appointments were being made, pending a review into the Coalition-era Sports Diplomacy 2030 strategy. The 2019 strategy requires a review every four years.

“In that review, the department will consider the appropriate implementation mechanism, currently an advisory council, for the revised strategy,” the spokesperson said.

“The review will ensure that the strategy makes the most of our potential to use sport to advance Australia’s contemporary interests – and that any consultative body has the right focus and composition to help deliver for Australia.”

At a Senate estimates hearing in June, department officials confirmed information had been provided to Wong regarding options for new members and that they were awaiting her response.

Coalition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said Labor should explain “why it has axed some of Australia’s leading international affairs experts and sports stars from helping our country build the strongest possible relations”.

“Just days from the commencement of the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands, it is clear that Labor’s abandonment of this council means we have lost key opportunities for engagement,” he said.

Under the former Morrison government, China made strategic inroads into the Pacific, including signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands that was widely criticised as exposing Australia’s diplomatic efforts as flat-footed. Wong has since ramped up Australia’s lobbying efforts in the region, visiting all 17 Pacific Island Forum member countries in her first year as foreign minister.

But China has sustained close ties with the Solomon Islands, and bankrolled the construction of the $74 million sporting stadium for the Pacific Games, which starts on November 19. Thousands of athletes from across the region are expected to attend.

Australia committed $17 million in funding for the games, and has dispatched a further 100 Australian Federal Police to assist with security.

The federal government did not respond directly to questions on whether it had missed a chance to boost sports ties at the games, but pointed to other initiatives where it was pursuing sport diplomacy.

This included Australia’s support for a team from Papua New Guinea to join the NRL competition, which was reiterated at the Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting attended by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy in the Cook Islands last week.

“The government is also using sporting events like the Women’s World Cup and the Australian Open to strengthen our standing in the region and beyond,” a spokesperson said.

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