Minister for Sport
Born in: Chippendale, Sydney
Home Town: Sydney
Mark Arbib is undoubtedly more well-known for helping knife a prime minister rather than throwing his weight around in sporting change rooms.
Publicly, he's the sports minister, but some would say he's more so a faceless man. A party apparatchik, who's been rewarded for factional loyalty with a cushy front bench possie.
The ALP powerbroker recently made his way to No.3 on our list of Top Ten Political Fixers, so scoring a spot in the Sport Top Ten makes two lists for this backroom specialist. It's a surprising result for a bloke whose career one veteran Labor powerbroker recently said should be "totally f-cked".
But counting numbers and organising coups is what Arbib does in his spare time. Because by day he's paid to help decide which sporting bodies get what cash, how much punters can bet and what high-performance drugs are illegal. And he's got some fans in the establishment.
"Arbib is very well regarded as sports minister," former CEO of the International Cricket Council Malcolm Speed tells The Power Index.
"He is very energetic and follows up on his commitments and pushes projects through the system. He has a very good understanding of the key issues surrounding sport."
And Arbib seems to have taken a shine to pulling on this particular portfolio's team colours. He recently told an audience he was an "unapologetic supporter of elite sport" since taking up the role last year and that it is "part of the fabric of our nation".
But those inside the ALP might disagree with that sentiment. Labor heavies all seem to agree he is focused on one thing and one thing only – and it's not his portfolio.
"Arbib has no beliefs, he stands for nothing except power," a Labor insider recently told The Power Index.
"I've known him for a decade and I've never heard him express a view about history, philosophy, international affairs or anything political apart from tactics."
Dr James Connor, a senior lecturer at the school of business at UNSW in Canberra, says the sporting fraternity is waiting to see if Arbib takes action on the key issues surrounding sport.
Connor is currently researching match-fixing in sport and in the past has looked in to doping and Olympics funding.
"His work so far is not overly obvious to those of us who are watching sport, we're awaiting his changes," Connor tells The Power Index.
Nevertheless, Arbib's day job brings with it plenty of opportunities to be powerful. Including helping decide which sports are getting richer and which ones are getting poorer.
Funding has been one of the key battlegrounds in sport recently, particularly in those sports where public attention is low outside the Olympic cycle (and thus government cash ever-important).
Last year, Arbib's predecessor, Kate Ellis, increased federal government funding of elite and grassroots sport to $1.2 billion over the next four years.
Popular sports, such as AFL, rugby league and cricket, have long argued that funding should be allocated according to participation and popularity. They want a bigger slice of the action for drawing the biggest crowds. And they might have a point.
According to the 2009 Crawford Report into the administration of sport, $60 million of funding gets ploughed in to Olympic sports by the Australian Sports Commission each year (the commission, while a statutory body, answers to Arbib).
That equates to a cost of about $15 million per gold medal, a hefty price to pay for something the Crawford Report said showed "no evidence" of any influence on sports participation.
But Arbib maintains that medals are one of the best ways of getting kids off the couch.
He's promised to keep on funding the less-popular Olympic sports (including $2.5 million for something called the "Green and Gold Project"), a smart move as the nation's sporting imagination turns to the medal daises of next year's London Games.
But Connor says bodies such as the ASC have been accused of being too focused on elite-level sport in the past. He reckons this is partly because funding success in elite sport is so easy to measure.
“There is a critique out there that is questioning why this money is going in to elite sport at all,” he says.
“They’re asking: ‘Why isn’t it going to the grassroots? ‘Why isn’t it going to keeping ovals green so people can actually use them?’. Instead of throwing what is, in many ways, an obnoxious amount of money at Olympic sports to pick gold medal winners.”
Then there are the bookies, another powerful set of vested interests Arbib has lined up for a hip-and-shoulder. Sports gambling has become a controversial money spinner for the major codes in recent years and has attracted increasingly negative publicity as a result.
More than $2.95 billion was spent on sports wagering last year (not including horseracing), according to the Australian Racing Board. And with punting options on the rise, along with the increasing pervasiveness of sports gambling advertising, critics argue the losses will soon be much higher. And Arbib knows it.
“Sporting organisations need to think carefully before accepting sponsorship from gambling companies,” he told Fairfax recently.
The major leagues are on board with putting the brakes on some exotic bets for now, but any further support may depend on how much they are set to lose when (or perhaps “if”) any restrictions are brought in.
Arbib also says he’s concerned that an increased culture of gambling may foster the potential for match-fixing. It’s an issue that is already a weeping sore for administrators around the world. If it festers locally, it would be dire for local sport.
“People stop watching, they start doubting the results and that's a big problem,” he told the ABC earlier this month. “We want to make sure that doesn't come here in this country.”
Just this year there have been investigations in the NRL over the integrity of results, as well as several players and officials being banned for betting on the AFL. That’s without mentioning cricket, a sport long tainted with the stench of corruption.
“Arbib has jumped on the international bandwagon being led by FIFA and the IOC when it comes to match fixing” says James Connor from UNSW. “On the one hand it’s a good sign, but there’s a bit of scuttlebutt around that those looking into this don’t really know what they’re doing.”
Arbib is hoping to have a policy next year that will lead to a united crackdown on corruption, such as the one that saw convicted match-fixer Ryan Tandy recently given a lifetime ban by the NRL. But it’s not something Connor is confident Arbib’s new efforts will counter.
And don’t forget the drugs. It may seem like a losing battle, but Arbib has thrown the government’s support behind more efforts to try and curb high-level doping. But, as Connor tells The Power Index, there is a lot of work to be done in looking at doping in all sport, not just at the elite level.
The Power Index wishes Arbib luck on this point, because he’s going to need it.