Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Following politics in even the most basic way in Australia leads inexorably to existential despair. Certain questions spring to mind: ‘How can supposedly intelligent people (ie politicians) say and do such stupid things, things that are so obviously contrary to common sense, not to mention democratic principles?’ ‘Why is the mismanagement of government functions like public transport now routine?’
Just one example is the Formula One Grand Prix that the good town of Melbourne ‘hosts’ in March each year - coming up soon, on 26-29 March. This year the state of Victoria is paying Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone about $47 million for the privilege. The exact figure is secret despite the fact that it’s taxpayers’ money, but The Age newspaper did some foraging and produced the estimation. This year, because of the drying up of sponsorship due to the recession, the entire cost of hosting the Grand Prix is estimated to be $50 million!
The Auditor-General’s report on the 2007 Grand Prix found that, after benefits to business and tourism were taken into account and issues such as traffic jams and noise were factored in, there was a net loss to Victoria of somewhere between $800,000 and $13.4 million.
The venue for Melbourne’s Grand Prix was determined with an outrageous disregard for community rights and sentiment. It’s held at the Albert Park Reserve, only about 3 kilometres from the CBD, one of the few Grand Prix events to be held in an inner city location.
According to the Save Albert Park group, Albert Park is the only major area of open space in the municipality of Port Phillip; it’s certainly the largest. It includes more than 20 grounds for various field sports and hosts a golf club, as well as tennis and bowling clubs.
For four months of the year, the most popular months weather-wise, key roads are closed leading to traffic delays and use of the park is disrupted by preparations for the Grand Prix, which turns parts of the park into a huge construction site complete with the coming and going of trucks. And during the race, residents have to put up with blocked-off streets, traffic disruptions and the constant high-pitched whine of the dangerously loud cars.
The carbon footprint of the event is also high.
Port Phillip’s local council is against the race. But the park is under the jurisdiction of the state government. And in July 2008 the government announced a new deal that would keep the race in Melbourne until at least 2015.
When the race first came to Melbourne in 1996 under the previous Liberal (right-wing) government, many Melburnians were outraged when the venue chosen by the dictatorial Jeff Kennett was the Albert Park. (Kennett’s crash-through style would eventually give rise to the neologism to be 'Jeffed’).
Facilities and roughly 1000 trees were demolished with over 400 trees felled on one day alone (funds were provided for replacement facilities but sportsgrounds are unusable for months at a time). Concerned citizens protested in front of bulldozers, and at one point were forcibly moved by police.
Holding the Grand Prix in the park would have been illegal. To make it possible, the Liberal government passed the Australian Grand Prix Act 1994, to the outrage of lawyers’ associations, civil liberties and environmental groups. The scope of this Act is simply extraordinary.
Among other things, it removes the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court from the operations of the Act, and gives the Australian Grand Prix Corporation total control of the park – it can cordon off any area it wants, demolish any building, close roads and cut down trees at will.
The wily Labor Party, which as the opposition had initially supported the Save Albert Park group, kept the race as part of its major events program when it came to power in 1999.
According to the state government, the benefits to local businesses of hosting the Grand Prix make the huge cost worthwhile, but the figures it uses to back this are considered dodgy by some. The National Institute of Economic and Industry Research calculated the net benefit of the 2005 race to be $174.8 million. But the methodology used by the NIER has been challenged by some economists.
Meanwhile attendance numbers have been dropping since the race started, with what appears to be a very slight increase last year over the 2007 figure (although the AGPC figures are highly dodgy and include the free tickets they throw around to boost the numbers). Meanwhile there is an avoidance factor -- many local residents go away for the Grand Prix event, taking their business with them, and some protesters claim that hotel reservations actually drop during the weekend the race is run.
Such is Ecclestone’s power that the Melbourne Grand Prix is the equivalent of someone knocking on your front door and saying: ‘I’d like to run a foot race around your loungeroom, and you’ll have to throw out your lounge suite – is that OK? Oh, and by the way, you’re going to have to pay me really big money’.
This is just one example of the corroding of democracy under governments of all stripes in the last 15 years or so, at both state and federal level. The other glaring one on the state level is Melbourne’s appalling public transport. The government outsources the running of public transport to private companies, in particular Connex (trains) and Yarra Trams (trams). Again, the supposedly Labor Government continued the privatisation that the previous government had started, despite admitting recently that it actually saves no money!
Public transport’s never been good in Melbourne but things got worse when petrol prices rose and people wanted to cut their greenhouse emissions. They crowded onto the inadequate train system in droves and now widespread train cancellations, commuters being left stranded for hours on platforms and being squashed into overcrowded trains are the norm.
But this actually suits the government. It doesn’t have to do anything or take responsibility: it simply blames Connex for the problems. Connex plays the part of whipping boy and in return gleefully shovels away its huge profits and sends them back to France.
In future posts I’ll look at why such ridiculous government decisions are becoming the norm, and some possible solutions.