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Treasurer Andrew Barr returns, like the proverbial dog, to his stadium

Date

Jack Waterford

Katy Gallagher revisits the City to the Lake plan every month or so.

Katy Gallagher revisits the City to the Lake plan every month or so.

One can always tell when our beloved Treasurer and, until recently, Sport Minister, Andrew Barr, is suffering from existential angst or relevance deprivation syndrome. He starts blabbing about a taxpayer-funded monument to himself in the form of a football stadium again. For a mere $600 million, or now, by magically adjustment, a mere $200 million or so, we could have some useless and expensive edifice somewhere around Civic, preferably blotting out something that is actually useful, like the Civic swimming pool.

The Book of Proverbs described this tendency, in a form Paul Keating was wont to repeat, in the following terms: "As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly."

Barr's stadium is a completely unnecessary barnacle on such popular support for the City to the Lake plan as can be mustered. 

It's common enough in politics, particularly in NSW, where politicians on both sides regularly repackage and re-announce old ideas as major initiatives, without ever having done a thing, other than in public relations, to advance the cause since the last time they announced it.

It sometimes reflects chutzpah – and the assumption that voters have a short attention span and unlimited enthusiasm for silly ideas. At other times, it may be a sign that politicians have become fatalistic, or bored, or perhaps suicidal – as I sometimes fear when, every other month or so, Katy Gallagher re-announces her City to the Lake plan as if it were fresh, exciting or something she actually means to do before she retires from politics.

Barr's stadium is a completely unnecessary barnacle on such popular support for the City to the Lake plan as can be mustered. I suspect the city to the lake idea would be more popular if it didnot include a stadium. Willy-nilly, the plan is, I suspect, mostly attractive as a plan or concept, rather than as a thing carried into action. The concept can be lovingly presented in computer-assisted design showing artists' impressions of children riding bicycles, lovers lapping lattes and dogs dodging through the trees. There are little boats on the water, cafes on the water's edge, and ambience by the armful, without the distasteful signs of subcontractors going broke, clandestine meetings of developers and ACT officials, or evidence, yet again, of the mediocrity of those put in charge of the city with the highest standard of living on earth.

I wouldn't necessarily be against the idea of doing something to humanise the lake, not least its West Basin. A good starting point would be to recognise that half of what is wrong with it has been caused by meddling ACT politicians and ACT land managers not up to the task of protecting the look, the feel and the sense of a prime part of the national capital.

The sordid truth is that 90 per cent of the agitation for a city by the lake is not for the foot passage of workers in Civic at lunchtime, but a real estate development scheme by which rich yuppies will have fabulous views while shutting out the rights of other citizens. A short time after it starts – if ever it does – the residents of the ugly edifices created (look at Kingston foreshore if you want a sample) will be petitioning to have dogs in the area declared illegal, the passage of bikes restricted because access will be said to be the private property of the developers, and half the area fenced off, on the same account. Alternatively, given the skill set and sensibilities of the ACT Land Development Agency it will be some sort of Butlins Holiday Centre or Luna Park.

Proceeding with the plan should wait a few years, until Andrew Barr, as Treasurer, has alienated every other single square centimetre of city area land, perhaps for six-pack blocks of flats of the type he – and a supine planning agency – has favoured in Dickson. Infill around, perhaps, in Barr's ultimate vision, of the lake, might be the last solemn act of destruction of the bush city presented to Canberra citizens on a plate. It could seal our fate as the supreme example of a whole community shitting in their own nest, destroying, under ALP management, the land base which was planned and intended as the renewable element of our fortunes, and the triumph of the greed and ugliness of the ALP-trade union-developer nexus.

The stadium, of course, will be the absolute icing on the cake, particularly if it is put, as Barr at present proposes, on the site of the Civic swimming pool. A facility available (at least in theory) for citizens for much of the day and night could be replaced by some great ugly edifice that was of use to members of the public for perhaps an average of once a week, mostly at night. It would have hardly any functions in summer. In winter, each of the two poor rugby codes that so richly reward our loyalty play at least half their games away.

It has been the fate of football stadiums, all around the world, that they are death to any form of commerce within half a mile, one of the reasons why places such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Sydney Cricket Ground, the Olympic Stadium, and any number of other grounds are surrounded by parks (sometimes with extra added car parks, not to mention valet parking for VIPs), or by factories. Stadiums have people milling around only immediately before and after games. Otherwise no one has occasion to shop, to eat, or to drink nearby. Even in Melbourne, where the MCG is famously well located to public transport, the dispersing crowds do not stop nearby for a drink or a feed, but in the city proper.

The extra advantage of the Civic pool is that ACT planning brilliance, and subservience to the Canberra Centre, has already created a dead zone all around. The convention centre and casino, the area which once embraced the Boulevard Cinemas – indeed all of Civic to the east of the old Ainslie Avenue – has been strangled by successive planning master-strokes from Andrew Barr and co. So, why not wreck the pool – the only living thing left – as well?

Barr has recently suggested that the fading fortunes of the Raiders mean "we" should aspire to a smaller stadium, if, apparently still one with a roof against the cold weather in winter. The working model for such a thing would be the Docklands Stadium, which cost, in present day terms about $700 million. Somehow Barr seems to think he can recreate something similar but slightly smaller, with or without a Commonwealth contribution, for a mere $200 million or so.

Apparently the Commonwealth can be conned to kick in on the basis that at some indefinite time in the future, millions of people may flock to Canberra in search of a Commonwealth Games, or some soccer matches, or something. Such an investment would be justified, it is said, on the principle that each and every one of the visitors attracted would spend untold millions in Canberra restaurants, bars and hotels, and, no doubt in the Canberra Centre when it has enveloped the few remaining Civic shops outside its walls.

In the meantime, it seems that Barr wants to junk the Bruce stadium, an admittedly unbeautiful and ageing object that is allegedly too cold except for people such as politicians in boxes. Bruce is well provided with car parking, and any problem in attracting crowds has nothing to do with its location or facilities. As to its being cold, one could put in power plugs and strip heaters everywhere for less than the cost of a "concept plan" for Barr's Civic stadium. Indeed, perhaps he could borrow heaters from the old Sundown and Starlight drive-ins.

So long as the Barr Stadium – like the nearby Catholic cathedral, also imminently to be built in accordance with its lease, I believe – is but a pipe dream, it is harmless enough. But our Treasurer gnaws on this bone so often that I suspect he is serious. That he is really says something about what he has to offer the people of Canberra, apart from high fences around schools and the comprehensive uglification of his home suburb Dickson.

Apart from these few minor objections, of course, it's a marvellous idea, and credit to his aestheticism.

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