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Swimming Australia avoids expulsion from World Aquatics after members vote for reform

Swimming Australia has averted a governance crisis after its member associations voted to accept constitutional reform at a special general meeting on Friday.

Swimming Australia’s voting members polled 8-1 in favour of adopting a new constitution, which meets the governance requirements of World Aquatics (AQUA) and the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), and had the support of the Swimming Australia board.

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Crucially, the resounding vote means Swimming Australia has avoided the threat of expulsion from the sport’s global governing body.

The new constitution, which aims to be more representative and inclusive while giving athletes and coaches more of a voice, will come into effect after next Wednesday’s annual general meeting.

“Swimming Australia’s new constitution introduces a range of reforms aimed at delivering a more stable overall environment for the sport and better outcomes from the grassroots and community level through to high-performance,” a Swimming Australia statement read.

It will also create an athletes’ commission which will nominate candidates to the Swimming Australia board as athlete director. The number of members entitled to vote will be increased while a formal role of vice-president will be introduced. The proportion of votes that a director needs to be appointed president will also be increased.

SA’s board had urged its nine members – comprising the seven state organisations, the Australian Swimmers Association, and the coaches and teachers’ association – to adopt the amendments amid threats of expulsion from World Aquatics (AQUA) if the proposals were not adopted.

As a member federation of AQUA, Swimming Australia’s corporate governance must comply with the constitution and rules of World Aquatics. Had the proposal failed to pass on Friday, AQUA could have suspended or expelled Swimming Australia. AQUA could even have established a stabilisation committee, which would effectively have seen it take control of the federation and run the sport in Australia.

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The development is the latest in a long saga of governance and leadership challenges the sport has faced in recent years.

Amid a high turnover of board members, Swimming Australia has cycled through four different chief executives since 2017. Eugenie Buckley stepped down after just 18 months earlier this year, and Steve Newman is now in the position in an interim role.

The besieged organisation has also been forced to address a toxic culture within the sport after a bombshell independent review.

It also lost a major source of funding in September 2021 when Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting Swimmers Support Scheme, which had made a significant financial contribution to the sport over many years, was ended.

Rinehart was reportedly unhappy over a number of late payments made to athletes, and subsequently requested access to accounting records, which she was denied. A request for a seat on the Swimming Australia board for her company Hancock Prospecting was also rejected amid concerns over her influence as a sponsor.

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Swimming Australia was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying “during the re-negotiation process it was clear a number of Hancock Prospecting’s terms, including the mandating of board and executive positions, were not capable of acceptance”.

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Rinehart was reported as saying that she did not “think it is an unusual or unfair expectation for any sponsor of sports to be sure its funds are going to the athletes and if applicable for agreed purposes” and that a “voiceless observer” was “hardly an interference with the board”.

Since the 2021 split, Rinehart has continued to fund close to 100 swimmers by channelling money through Swimming Queensland, one of Swimming Australia’s member associations.

Swimming Australia will receive more than $14m in federal government funding in 2023-24, the vast majority for high performance.

Australia’s swimmers enjoyed a record medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and topped the medal table at this year’s world championships in July. Hopes are high for another big haul at next year’s Olympics, and Australian athletes have been assured the disruption at governance level will not affect them at global events.

Josephine Sukkar, the Australian Sports Commission chair, said the ASC would continue to work with swimmers and coaches ahead of the Games in Paris and ensure preparations were not affected.

“Change of this nature is never easy and was done with the future generation of Australian swimmers in mind,” Sukkar said. “The changes to Swimming Australia’s constitution provides athletes with an unprecedented voice at the board table to ensure current and future swimmers can enjoy swimming in a safe and supported environment.”