The stadium wars: how did we get here?

30Jul2015. Sydney:?????? Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015Day 1 – Session 3 – Moderator The Hon. Stuart Ayres MP, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Major Events, Minister for Sport, NSW Government. Photo Michele Mossop/Boao Forum. Minister for WestConnex Stuart Ayres talks to the media at the WestConnex M4 operations centre on July 6, 2017, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Munoz/Fairfax Media)
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Twenty months ago, Mike Baird returned to Sydney from a weeklong trip to Israel and was immediately called on to broker a peace. In geopolitical terms, the furore that had erupted in the then premier’s absence may not have been worth a column inch. But the Sydney headlines were blaring.

Somehow, Baird’s government was in crisis over $1.6 billion it was promising for Sydney stadiums. Baird’s Sports Minister, Stuart Ayres, was accused of lying by some of the state’s most powerful clubs. Those clubs said they would fight a stadium the government was promising to build for their benefit. What should have been a good news story had become a debacle. The situation needed fixing. And Baird fixed it – or so it seemed.

The day after Baird’s return, sources told the Herald, he “hauled Ayres into his office” to discuss the matter. Ayres was seen exiting “with his tail between his legs.” Within days, Baird announced a new policy that completely undercut Ayres’ public arguments.

Twenty months later Baird’s successor, Gladys Berejiklian, is in a similar sort of bother. Baird’s solution to the crisis that had reached a crescendo in his absence was, in the words of one adviser, to “follow the politics and the policy.” That meant disappointing the powerful Sydney Cricket & Sports Ground Trust and its desire to build a new stadium to replace the 30-year-old Sydney Football Stadium, known as Allianz.

It also meant promising a substantial rebuild of the former Olympic stadium in Sydney’s west, known as ANZ. When Baird announced this arrangement on April 14, 2016, the headlines went away. The sporting clubs and the codes were happy. The “stadium wars”, it appeared, had been resolved.

Last month Berejiklian – and her cabinet – overturned both decisions. The Premier said the SCG Trust would have a new $700 million rectangular stadium, with construction to start next year. And rather than refurbish ANZ Stadium at Olympic Park, to bring seats closer to the field, the government would demolish ANZ for an entirely new stadium.

These decisions not only pushed out the cost of spending from $1.6 billion to about $2.5 billion. They reignited the controversy. An online petition opposed to the funding soared above 100,000 signatures in a couple of days. Labor is energised. Opposition Leader Luke Foley has spent the past fortnight standing outside school after school in marginal electorate after marginal electorate, pointing out that every dollar spent demolishing stadiums is one not spent replacing demountable classrooms. It’s a simple argument government MPs fear may dog them until election day, 2019.

So what happened? The grievances

“The Trust exists to serve the glory of sport.” This is the refrain that Rodney Cavalier, the former chairman of the SCG Trust, would use to begin his annual message to members. But it was a perennial frustration for the Trust, established in 1876 to manage lands on which a cricket ground for British soldiers had been reserved, that not everyone agreed on how best to serve the glory.

In recent years, two grievances have periodically animated senior Trust members: first, the unwillingness of governments to allow it to expand its footprint beyond its pocket of Moore Park and Paddington so as to better enable it to hold events and raise revenue; and second, the development and existence of a rival sporting base in Sydney at Homebush Bay.

In the 1990s, the Trust tried, and failed to win the bid to manage what became ANZ Stadium at Olympic Park. By the 2000s, it was left to lament the absorption at Olympic Park of so much of the state’s financial interest in sport. “The profound sadness was that, in spending more than any other state on a single event that hosts sports otherwise without a popular following, NSW had facilities in the wrong part of its capital city,” Cavalier wrote in the Trust’s 2012 annual report. In other cities, governments were concentrating sporting facilities in their central business districts. But in Sydney, the spending was 25 kilometres away. “The consequence is that, in 2012, NSW is the sick man of Australian sport,” Cavalier wrote. “That assessment is not open to objective dispute.”

But the Trust, whose board is invariably stocked with grandees of business, politics, sport and media, has always kept pushing. In 2010 it made a strong effort for Kristina Keneally’s Labor government to hand it parts of Moore Park that were under the management of the neighbouring Centennial and Moore Park Trust. After spirited local opposition – “Do we really need more car parks for the SCG?”,asked the Member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull – the plan was defeated.

The Trust did, however, secure a victory in 2012. At the New Year’s Test, then prime minister Julia Gillard and premier Barry O’Farrell announced their governments would contribute $50 million and $86 million to a major upgrade of parts of the SCG, since completed. By the middle of 2012, the Trust was emboldened to have another crack at expansion. The outline of a “master plan” it released in 2012, still available on the Trust’s website, includes a redeveloped Allianz stadium, a “public plaza” between the SCG and Allianz, and underground car parks on the western side of Anzac Parade – not SCG Trust land.

The $38 million Tibby Cotter Bridge over Anzac Parade. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Subsequent events seem to demonstrate the Trust has continued to work to aspects of this master plan. Take the “Tibby” Cotter bridge. Early in 2014, then premier Barry O’Farrell committed to building a $25 million pedestrian walkway across Anzac Parade, linking the western side of Moore Park to the SCG and Allianz Stadium. The strange thing, however, was that the bridge would not be built in the most trafficked walking route between the stadiums and Central Station. The rapid construction of the bridge, it emerged, had been a personal demand of O’Farrell. Finding the money for the bridge required raiding funds ear-marked for western Sydney roads, and the auditor-general attributed the eventual blow-out in cost to $38 million largely to the premier’s rush. The bridge remains lightly used on event days, while Ayres has since appointed O’Farrell to the Trust. The bridge would certainly come into its own if ever a car park were built on its western end.

Meanwhile, the state government was intimating it would make money available for stadium upgrades. A 2012 report by former sports minister Graham Annesley indicated that future public funding should be concentrated on stadiums at Moore Park and Olympic Park, rather than suburban grounds. Yet Annesley’s report failed to select which area should receive first dibs. By 2015, O’Farrell’s successor Baird had commissioned another report – chaired by former Liberal leader John Brogden – to help answer this question. When the Brogden report was finally released in late 2015 it noted the significant investment in other capital cities in new or upgraded stadiums. It also recommended resolving the competition between the SCG Trust and Olympic Park through the creation of a new entity to take control of Sydney sports stadiums. This recommendation has never been acted upon.

In September 2015, Baird, standing alongside Ayres, announced the stadium policy, which broadly followed the funding priorities of the Brogden report. The highest priority was a new 30,000 seat stadium at Parramatta, now under construction. The second priority was a new 55,000 seat stadium to replace Allianz Stadium at Moore Park. The third was an upgrade to ANZ Stadium to bring the seating closer.

Construction has started on the new stadium at Parramatta.

But the Cabinet decision that seemed to commit to a 55,000 seat stadium at Moore Park contained two crucial caveats. Construction of that stadium was contingent on agreements being signed with sporting clubs to ensure enough fixtures were played at the stadiums to justify the spending. And a new stadium at Moore Park needed to be built on SCG Trust land; Baird would not repeat Keneally’s flirtation with handing the Trust sections of surrounding parkland.

Both caveats proved immediately problematic. When they were canvassed for their views, rugby league clubs said they would prefer the money spent at ANZ Stadium. This was in recognition of a couple of geographic facts that differentiates Sydney from, say, Melbourne and Adelaide: Moore Park is not really in Sydney’s CBD, while most sporting teams see their demographic future further west. Football Federation Australia boss David Gallop also said last month that his organisation would prioritise spending at ANZ over Moore Park.

The difficulty presented by the requirement to build on SCG Trust land, meanwhile, was that it removed the ability to build a new stadium while the existing one remained standing; the tenants at Allianz – the Sydney Roosters, Sydney FC, and the Waratahs – would need to find other grounds for three to four years while the stadium was built. The double speak

Stuart Ayres was making conflicting statements about where the stadium should be built. Photo: Michele Mossop

The SCG Trust, however, appeared simply to ignore the requirement that a Moore Park stadium be built on SCG Trust land. In late January 2016, the chief executive of the Centennial and Moore Park Trust, Kim Ellis, reported to his chairman Tony Ryan and other advisers about a meeting with his counterpart at the SCG, Jamie Barkley. “Little of this was achieved at the meeting,” wrote Ellis in an email to Ryan and other organisers of the Moore Park plan, since obtained by the Herald.

Ellis did, however, learn something of the Trust’s plans for the area. “The 55,000-65,000 seat stadium will not fit on the [SCG Trust] land and they are proceeding with plans that have the stadium taking up surrounding [Centennial Park Trust] land within Moore Park East and in the vicinity of Kippax Lake,” wrote Ellis. The SCG Trust’s arguments for taking up more land, Ellis reported, were based on “access and circulation space ??? required under emerging security standards for sports facilities,” he wrote.

“They used the recent terrorist activity in Paris as an example,” Ellis wrote. “This security issue is likely to become a cornerstone in their case for taking [Centennial Park] land.”

The next week, Ellis reported on a second meeting he had with the consultants working on the SCG Trust’s master plan. “At the completion of construction [of a new stadium partly outside SCG land] Allianz would be demolished and become parking for members and others,” Ellis wrote. “Land surrounding the new stadium and on the now vacant Allianz site would be open space including large areas for elite training, sports tenants and members facilities.”

The plans described by Ellis also included the “removal of Driver Avenue”, support for parking on the west of Anzac Parade (justifying the bridge), and new training space for elite teams such as the Waratahs and Roosters.

It was, in other words, an emboldened version of the 2012 master plan, with a refurbished Allianz Stadium swapped for a completely new facility. “Our concern is that the focus on ‘big thinking collaborative ideas’ and ‘more parkland’ are marketing terminology for the creation of a massive sports complex in the northern part of Moore Park,” wrote Ellis. “It also looks like this is a $1bn (+) investment, without taking in to account the cost of new car parking and traffic improvements.”

The SCG Trust’s plans, which were in direct contradiction to the cabinet requirement that the stadium be built on SCG Trust land, were circulated to relevant sporting clubs. Ayres, meanwhile, was making conflicting statements about where the stadium should be built: “Our intention is to build in the SCG sports ground land,” Ayres told the Herald on February 10, 2016. The same day, however, he had seemed to endorse the SCG Trust’s unreleased plan for a stadium partly outside the Trust land: “If you move the stadium, for instance, the space where the existing stadium is can be redeveloped as open recreational green space,” Ayres told the ABC.

Allianz Stadium at Moore Park, on SCG Trust land. Photo: Narelle Spangher, Lumapixel

Eventually, the clubs called out the double-speak. “Stuart Ayres and the Trust gave us those assurances and the quid pro quo was that we would support a new stadium,” Waratahs chairman Roger Davis said of a stadium being built outside the SCG Trust land. “We’ve been cheated on and someone has pulled the rug out from that undertaking.”

Davis made that comment – accusing Ayres of lying – on April 11, 2016. It was the same week Baird returned from Israel.

At one stage, it appeared as if the Trust may have taken out two birds with the one stone. A new 65,000 seat stadium on Moore Park land would have both expanded the Trust’s geographic footprint, while also significantly undermining the viability and usefulness of ANZ Stadium at Olympic Park.

But on April 14, after having earlier hauled Ayres in, Baird announced the government’s decision to prioritise the refurbishment of ANZ over the following three years, with Allianz coming after that.

In return for the refurbishment of ANZ, the NRL promised to ensure the grand final remained in Sydney for 20 years once that stadium was upgraded. It was a chastening defeat for Ayres who only days earlier had ruled out a more modest refurbishment of Allianz. Yet Ayres kept his job. And Baird would, in the year, leave his. The unravelling

Infrastructure NSW put the cost of a redevelopment at ANZ Stadium at between $1.4 and $1.6 billion, government sources say. Photo: Anna Kucera

“When we left in January this issue wasn’t an issue,” says one Baird confidante. But it would not be long before Baird’s stadium resolution began to unravel.

In early February, less than a month after Baird’s resignation, the Herald’s sports team reported that the SCG Trust had “reignited its bid for a new stadium at Moore Park” with a more modest 40,000 seat proposal.

By May, The Daily Telegraph was reporting speculation Ayres would use “any blowout in cost” in the ANZ Stadium redevelopment to revert to the Trust’s original idea of a new stadium at Moore Park. By June, the same reporter reported the ANZ redevelopment had blown out from $750-odd million to as high as $1.7 billion.

Government sources have since confirmed that Infrastructure NSW put the cost of a redevelopment at ANZ at $1.45 billion or $1.6 billion with a roof. The government, however, has refused to release any information about these costings, or any details about the brief given to Infrastructure NSW.

Nevertheless, the risk of a cost blow-out at ANZ was always the weakest element of Baird’s eventual resolution. In committing the government to upgrading ANZ, within the $1.6 billion ear-marked for stadiums, Baird was offering an implicit endorsement of a plan derived under the stadium’s then private owners to upgrade facilities at a cost of $780 million.

But the owners had experience working for them. The engineer Ed Obiala had overseen the original construction of the stadium in the 1990s, and has since worked on the London 2012 Olympics, and ran the bid for the Opera House reconstruction. “It’s a beautiful stadium and with the proposed changes, new building materials and IT technologies, it will evolve into one of the world’s great modern stadiums for an exciting new era of sport and entertainment in NSW,” Obiala is quoted as saying about the $780 million upgrade, which the government now says is not possible.

Ed Obiala during construction of Olympic Stadium, now ANZ, in 1998. Photo: Sylvia Vincent

“If we tried to renovate that stadium, literally move all the seats closer, it would cost us more to do that then to knock the stadium down and rebuild it,” Ayres told the ABC this week. It was on this basis that Berejiklian last month committed to a $1.25 billion new stadium. She boasted that the deal secured a 25-year agreement with the NRL to host the grand final in Sydney – thus removing the risk that the grand final would slip interstate in the early 2040s when Baird’s 20-year commitment expired.

The other element to the change of heart is the apparent acceptance by government that Allianz Stadium is in urgent need of repair. The decision to cut Allianz out of the funding in April 2016 also prompted a re-examination of safety issues at the 30-year-old stadium. The government quickly found itself in possession of alarming reports that the stadium, without major work, faced closure by the end of 2019. According to sources, the analysis showed Allianz required at least $140 million “just to keep the doors open” for three years beyond 2019, and then a further $360 million to bring it to full compliance. (The government has also refused to release this analysis).

On one telling, this left the government facing a choice between spending $500 million to patch up the stadium, or $705 million on a new one. Nevertheless, Foley decries the decision to start work at the new stadium at Moore Park, which Labor says is not necessary, prior to the 2019 election as “smart alec” timing. If Labor were to win government, it would be a brave decision to leave Moore Park a pile of rubble. Further, the failure to release the analysis means scepticism about the government’s claims will continue. What scrutiny, say, has been applied to the safety standards at shabbier suburban grounds? On what basis is Town Hall station allowed to keep functioning?

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has endorsed a $705 million new stadium. Photo: AAP

It is also hard to escape the conclusion that Berejiklian’s inherent political caution, particularly in relation to powerful media voices, may have contributed to the policy change. Alan Jones will soon record his 30th year on the SCG Trust. Berejiklian’s relationship with Jones did not get off to a good start, when the ageing shock jock declared in January she lacked the skills to become Premier as she and others jockeyed for position following Baird’s resignation.

The relationship has since improved. But it is the need to keep Jones on-side that is most often cited as the trigger for the policy change. When Ayres this week tweeted that the government was spending $200 billion on health and education in the next five years compared to $2 billion on stadiums, Mike Baird’s former social media boss Tony Story responded: “Keeping Alan Jones happy: Priceless.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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