There are games and there are games, but for Adelaide, the Commonwealth Games might deliver the biggest jackpot of them all.
Hot property recently was a special presentation to the city council, a 14-page summary of issues to inform the state’s Commonwealth Games Feasibility Study. The study has just been completed. If our state is to cobble together a rationale to beg the federal government for possibly billions to pay for sports, housing and transport infrastructure to make the Adelaide Games feasible, the topic is clearly of vital public interest. This is especially because not all of the money will come from Canberra. Many millions will also have to come from state taxpayers. That will mean determining how the state Treasurer, Rob Lucas, plans to extract those millions from the long- suffering public. Which is probably why on Tuesday 2 July 2019 a city council committee meeting preparing to receive the ‘summary of issues’ presentation emptied the room, locked the doors, and declared the presentation’s contents a secret. One of the legal grounds was that public exposure “would, on balance, be contrary to the public interest”. This prompted a fit by several city councillors, quite reasonably calling for transparency. At the same time, one of them mentioned a requirement for a ‘village’ to be built to house Games participants if Adelaide won. He suggested it could become affordable housing after the event.
Not the first time
This isn’t the first time that Adelaide has considered a bid to bring the Games to town.
One occurred in the 1990s, when Dr Jane Lomax-Smith was a leading figure at the city council. She quickly identified that a Games event would require a fast and vast new subdivision of village housing, and deduced that state politicians believed the Adelaide park lands would be the ideal place for it. In 2006 at a park lands symposium she recalled the political atmosphere of the 90s. “[… The] more insidious argument is: ‘You’re not a good South Australian if you oppose this’,” she said. “I first heard that argument when I was on [city] council more than a decade ago, when the government wanted to have the Commonwealth Games in Adelaide. And a Commonwealth Games needs a village, and a village takes 10,000 to 15,000 houses, and who do you think was the only person who opposed the Commonwealth Games bid, and why do you think that was? They [the facilities] were going to be in the park lands, and I was told I was un-South Australian [to oppose it]. What was so wonderful [not] was that they genuinely believed that a developer would put 12,000 houses in the park lands and they would be temporary. They genuinely believed they’d be pulled down [afterwards].”
It’s apparently ‘our turn’
There’s no public evidence [yet] that the park lands would be the preferred site for a village. But the word is being put about that it’s South Australia’s turn to host the Games, so the matter of where a village might be built is festering quietly in the background. Meanwhile, among those few wise old bureaucrats still left in state administration, the gambit is clear. The idea to bring the Games to Adelaide in 2026 offers a once-a-decade opportunity for poor states like South Australia to act out a charade to get a big extra slice of the federal revenue cake, over and above the GST revenues, by claiming that South Australia offers a unique selling proposition which should prompt a very large windfall of extra money. The PR rationale is that Adelaide already has the inner-city infrastructure – the Adelaide Oval, the Convention Centre, the Entertainment Centre, among other cycling and athletics sports hubs. But the housing requirement would be a sticking point. Several studies have been done. A private study a few years ago suggested that the city’s historic south western residential zones might be the place. A more recent view supports the potential of land at Bowden Village, a high-density government-coordinated residential hub. There’s lots of vacant government dirt, west, behind the newly built, multi-storey apartments already there. That might be the most feasible option, especially as Rob Lucas would have already looked at the village financials and wondered how the expansion concept might continue to be government-supported in these hard times. And we are in hard times, with a 12.7 per cent reduction in new dwelling approvals reported in the year to May 2019. Bowden Urban Village began as a 2012 state Labor vision, a $1 billion subdivision to house 3500 people in 2400 dwellings, across 16.3 hectares of land, bang on the boundary of the Adelaide park lands. There remains plenty of space for new apartments to house the 2026 Games’ 6600 athletes. This might be where billions in federal money could be directed, after Adelaide ‘wins’ the Games lottery.
The facts, the facts
Of course, in the hullabaloo prompted by the city council’s recent secrecy, some awkward facts are not being discussed. News articles that followed the 2 July briefing claimed that the 2018 Games in Brisbane cost $2 billion and didn’t provide anyone local with an enduring income stream. Despite that, the usual state grandstanding about ‘economic benefit’ implied otherwise. These assessments are common when bodies with a finger in the pie seek to justify the spending of massive amounts of public money on one-off sprees. But one that could be tested, if South Australia pulls it off, is further development of Bowden Village that, until the new games charade came into view, may have struggled to be completed by its original timeline given dark clouds ahead. Of course, whether that new Games housing stock ever became ‘affordable housing’ after the event would be subject to another political stoush on another day. Politicians will never admit it, but the business of chasing jackpot funding based on one-off events is just another sport – except it’s played out with paper, pledges and – most importantly for Adelaide – prayers.
Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.