Yes, yes. We all know the lie we've sold to the world about Sydney. You know, that one about a gentle city nestled around the world's most beautiful harbour, a town filled with dreamers and high achievers who all pull together for the common good.
But the rest of us know the dirty truth, don't we? This is a city built on knuckles and knives, a metropolis that sprang out of brutality and opportunism. Not for us the genteel manners of other Australian towns. When the rich and powerful of Melbourne disagree, they meet over cocktails and discuss their differences. When the Packers and Murdochs found themselves in a dispute over a printing press, they went at each other with baseball bats.
But even in a capital that leaves the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome for dead, we haven't seen a battle in a while like the one for control of our sporting stadiums. At stake is more than just the outrageous sum of $1.5 billion in state government funds to be allocated in the next few weeks. Power and influence is the main game.
First, the obscenity of it all. Here we have a state government that pulls out all stops to eject hundreds of homeless camped in a public space in the middle of its city because the sight is an embarrassment to those occupants of tinted-windowed cars being chauffeured to Parliament House. Yet it is poised to spend more than a billion dollars of public money on stadiums that will be used once or twice a week?
No business plan can support such expenditure. Every study into the economic outcomes of stadium funding around the world has arrived at the same conclusion – the costs always blow out and the benefits are miserably small.
So why not force the professional sporting codes raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from television rights to pay for their own stadia? Make the companies who love their plush tax havens known as corporate boxes erect their own. Yes, there is a public good in encouraging health and fitness. So let's spend some much needed dollars on all those decrepit suburban and country venues sorely needing help.
Ah, such dreaming. Such naivety. That's not how Sydney works. This week we saw a ludicrous claim from the SCG Trust, which controls the cricket ground, that the other stadium in its charge – the ugly and poorly designed football arena next door – is unsafe. Apparently it is such a security concern that the trust, instead of attending to such urgent needs, instead spent millions on new grandstands in recent years for the cricket ground.
Moore Park is a sporting precinct whose best days are behind it. It's a relic of a time when old Sydney was centred around the central business district, where the poor moved to Paddington because it was affordable. These days it's a nightmare to get into and even harder to escape. A 19th-century innovation like a tram line won't make any difference.
But the SCG Trust has long been an institution for the feared and the favoured. Its trustees form an honour roll for the top end of town. To understand just how they view their world, listen to a former trust chairman, ex-Labor minister Rodney Cavalier. In his book Power Crisis he details the fall of premier Morris Iemma and then notes how Iemma was later appointed to the trust. "Being a trustee is compensation for anyone," he intones sombrely. And you thought being premier was a powerful role. The SCG Trust does not go down without a fight.
Logic says not a cent should be spent on Moore Park. Sydney's heart is in Parramatta and around the Olympic precinct and that is where the money, if it needs to be outlaid, should go. But how about guarding the investment in the public interest? No more outrageous gouging when it comes to admission and food and beverage prices. You know, something in return for the people whose money we are actually spending.
Seventy years before Christ rocked its world, Ancient Rome was shocked by a civil uprising sparked by a sports star fed up with its bread and circuses. Spartacus the gladiator defied the rich and powerful, prompting a two-year civil war.
With more than a billion dollars about to be blown in one of the most extravagant misuses of public funds in a long time, it would be nice to think a Spartacus might make a stand over the coliseums in modern day Sydney. But then we all know our dirty history, don't we.
Spartacus and his followers were nailed to crosses and left to rot along the Appian Way. A not so gentle reminder about where real power lies. And what happens to those who dare challenge it