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More bread and circuses, but this time Perth misses out

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 19 December 2013


A few months ago I wrote a piece on the decision of the ACT Government to build a great covered sports stadium to the edge of Canberra's CBD. The historic point of my little essay was that governments have been doing such things for a long time, possibly ever since there were city governments. It was a Roman poet, Juvenal, who said that all his fellow-citizens were interested in was 'bread and circuses', and the Circus Maximus in Rome could seat 150,000, which is more than half again as big as the MCG.

The Greeks built amphitheatres (as did the Romans) for dramatic entertainment, and you can see them all over Southern Europe and Asia Minor. The one at Leptis Magna, in what is now Libya, could seat around 10,000 in the audience, and the actors could be heard by all. I've stood on the stage and had a go at orating to the far back seats. I'm not sure how well I was heard.

Back to present-day Australia. There is a story that the WACA, where as I write the Poms did a great job of defying the colonials on the last day of the Third Test, until Nathan Lyon managed to get Ben Stokes caught, will no longer be the site of Test matches. Why not? It seems that the queues for water and toilets are too long - facilities are not up to the mark.

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Part of the problem is that there will only be four Test matches in 2014/15, and one of the standard six venues has to miss out. Hobart only gets a Test match every now and then, and of the others Adelaide has been redeveloped at the cost of half a billion dollars, while Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne seem to have stranglehold on the eastern side matches.

The WACA administrators had planned to do their own half-a-billion renewal, but to do so they needed to sell land for expensive apartments, and they needed early commitments that did not eventuate. So they have canned the proposal. In any case, the development would not have been completed in time, and there is another big stadium being built in Perth, for a billion or so, with seating of 60,000 and capacity to enlarge if necessary. It will be ready for the 2018 AFL season. Will it also host cricket? There is a 'cricket user group' and there is talk of a drop-in pitch, so I guess so.

No doubt Adelaide sees itself as having acted in time, and the Adelaide story provides more evidence of the continuing interest of Australian governments in big entertainment venues (they are now considered as essential infrastructure). Five years ago the SA Cricket Association announced that it would remodel the western stand and widen the playing surface in order to make the venue a possible option for AFL, and even for international soccer and rugby. SACA would find $45 million, and the Commonwealth and SA Governments would each contribute $25 million.

Two years after that decision an election bidding war developed, with the Opposition Liberals declaring that they would provide Adelaide with a new stadium with a closable roof. Labor, in power, countered with an upgrade of the whole of Adelaide Oval. What we saw in the recent Adelaide Test is the partly completed outcome, able to seat 50,000 people, with four out of five under cover. It will be fully completed by this time next year.

What has it all cost? The initial agreement was that it would cost $450 million, and the then Premier, Mike Rann, said that there would not be a penny more. Well, his Treasurer later announced that the final cost would be $535 million, which is about $500 per resident of the city, and was quite a lot more.

Why do our government do this? Only a small proportion of the city's population will go to either a Test or an AFL game. Those who do will benefit, no doubt about it. But what of the other million or so? I guess the standard answer from governments is that televised sport draws attention to the city. Perth will miss out for a few years until perhaps 2018. Another standard answer would be that we are a sporting nation, and that every capital city has to have major sporting venues that are of world standard. WA Premier Colin Barnett has defended the Perth stadium project by saying that it is what you'd expect for a 'world-class city'. It's only a billion, after all.

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The cricket in Perth was played in extreme heat, and drinks breaks were frequent, as they should have been. But it would seem to me that more toilets and drinking water could be provided quickly and at a reasonable cost. I like watching cricket, and enjoyed playing it. But I do think that there are more important pieces of infrastructure needed by city populations. Sporting stadiums attract a lot of attention, and governments like to be seen to be doing big things, even if at the beginning it is mostly talk - and they might not be in power at all when the venture is finished!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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