Slings and Arrows: Crows court a Park Lands showdown

As plans to replace the Adelaide Aquatic Centre with training facilities for the Adelaide Crows gain momentum, the eternal battle between public and private use of the Park Lands looks poised to go off the deep end.

High Stakes Takeover

Adelaide’s inner-city families are in for intriguing manoeuvres as takeover plans for their popular park lands-based Adelaide Aquatic Centre move into top gear. Although there have been hints about ‘preliminary talks’, few realise that there have been advanced city council backroom negotiations for some time. It’s particularly sensitive because the proponent is not an alternative community recreation sector agency. Instead it’s the Adelaide Football Club Ltd, which desires the centre building site and at least one adjacent park lands oval to establish a new permanent administration headquarters and training base, a quick jog from Adelaide Oval. Crows managers are now finalising a business and master plan for the site. The potential replacement of a popular, publicly-funded recreation facility by a private sport club seeking new lessee control over the building site, its big car park and adjacent open space would establish a new low in park lands management history. In the park lands’ recent history, only the 2011 privatisation of Adelaide Oval by a board unaccountable to the city, city ratepayers or state taxpayers comes close to this audacious bid.

In early April, as the national election campaign began, the federal Liberals pledged $15m towards the club’s $60m concept. A request for state funding, perhaps under arrangements similar to the $42m loan extended to the Adelaide Oval’s Stadium Management Authority to build its new hotel, will be a strong temptation.

The Crows’ concept won’t aim to replicate the existing multiple-pool leisure and all-ages exercise facility, used by thousands of families, local primary schools and statewide swim-training groups. Instead, a much reduced swimming facility may be offered, but only as a compromise to soften a likely Liberal Adelaide state electorate backlash as city and North Adelaide ward, as well as northern and north-eastern Labor electorate communities, learn of a redevelopment period during which there may be no pool access at all. Moreover, future public access to any replacement swimming facility would depend on Crows’ future profit and loss indulgence after it obtained a long-term lease of the park lands site.

Creative narrative legitimacy

Park lands site takeovers of this magnitude traditionally seek to draw on a creative policy and procedural narrative to justify what is fundamentally a privatisation under lease of a public asset on public land. Such procedure quietly emerged in March 2017 in the form of a new city council ‘Unique Proposals’ policy, during the term of Lord Mayor Martin Haese. It aimed to “foster an environment where there is greater collaboration with local individuals and organisations who can offer unique, innovative ideas and solutions to help realise [council’s] 2016–2020 strategic plan”. It also aimed to “…give confidence to innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and the community that the proposals they submit will be considered in a consistent, transparent and lawful manner to deliver the highest standards of public value … this approach will ensure that the intellectual property and best interests of the proponents are protected.” This has been the policy cover under which council administrators have legitimised their encouragement of the Crows’ commercial bid. In July 2017, the policy was updated and renamed as an ‘Unsolicited Proposals’ policy, with guidelines. It said: “A proponent should demonstrate how its proposal provides an economic, social, cultural or environmental outcome for the council.” It will be difficult for Crows management to do this, given that the takeover of the centre and surrounding open space would be socially, culturally and environmentally catastrophic for local communities. But a takeover would be greatly to the benefit of council administrators who wish to rid themselves of a long-term loss-making asset.

The July 2017 policy revision also added that the Adelaide Park Lands Authority (APLA) must scrutinise any proposal. But two months ago (March 2019), in an unprecedented move, the state government suddenly bullied the council into agreeing to immediately remove most of its preferred APLA board members, replacing them with a majority of government-preferred nominees. The timing was telling, putting a new Authority board in place in time for release of a Crows’ master plan, which the new APLA members will be less likely to resist as might have the former elected members. If the Crows pass that scrutiny, they’ll demand the longest lease period possible (42 years under the Park Lands Act), or potentially longer if state parliament agrees. Lease fees would be generously low, and might attract a council discount. Such details are rarely indicated at the tabling of draft master plans, but would be vital to a Crows business plan, public access to which would be unlikely.

Mixed agendas competing

Administrators are ready for public uproar. They’ll respond that the swim centre drains city ratepayers of $800,000 annually. Media tacticians advising recently elected Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor will stress that the council is operating a centre facing costly but unfunded new demands for expanded family changing facilities. But they may hesitate in mentioning that it’s also being operated with known health and safety problems, risking difficult-to-defend public liability claims. The centre requires $2.4m immediately to deliver overdue family, safety and facility upgrades. That money could be easily found if the state had the political will. The federal Liberals’ March 2019 $15m offer could have paid for the council’s swim centre upgrade immediately before the federal caretaker period kicked in, with change left over. But it’s tagged ‘for Crows only’. Anyway, the city council simply wants rid of the ageing facility and will happily ignore the broader park lands principles if it can achieve it. The Marshall state government, obsessed with Crow mania, will want to be seen kicking state political goals, anticipating Crows fans’ acknowledgement if the bid succeeds. Locally, it’s all about a long-term, state-focused political strategy, especially as the looming federal election looks likely to see Labor retaining the federal electorate of Adelaide, as well as delivering a new Labor administration in Canberra.

*Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies

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