$1 billion to renovate the Opera House

Both Marcus Westbury and Nick Pickard lead their blogs with strongly critical posts about recent reports that the NSW government is about to commit to spending $1 billion to renovate Joern Utzon’s iconic Sydney Opera House.

As Westbury writes, “this decision is one that is so staggeringly out of touch with the realities of cultural policy at the moment that it is scary.”

As usual, I find myself in agreement with much of what Marcus writes (more of that below). However, I think there is every reason to be far more optimistic about this decision than the initial outrage from the various unfunded parts of the arts community suggests. It may be that this decision will actually materially advance the cultural policy debate in Australia, by motivating the various forgotten voices in the arts community to finally coalesce into a coherent movement for change.

Westbury writes:

The billion dollars offered up for the opera house renovations is stark reminder of how the norms of one world clash with the realities of the other. For that much larger community of artists outside government run arts centres and organisations this represents more than will be invested in them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years.   

He’s right. The annual ongoing funding budget for the NSW cultural grants program is $22 million – which means this infrastructure commitment would fund around 45 years of NSW’s current arts grants programs. Of course, this is not an apples and oranges comparison, given that one is capex and the other is recurrent. And the NSW government spends $222 million a year on cultural institutions like the Art Gallery of NSW, the State Library, Australian Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, NSW Film and Television Office, and the Sydney Opera House Trust itself. (Figures from the NSW Department of the Arts, Sports and Recreation Annual Report). So this decision needs to be placed in that broader context.

But will this renovation even happen?

To begin with, let’s exert a little political analysis to the debate. The NSW government is not exactly flush with cash. Like all the states, it faces a worsening recession and deteriorating fiscal position. Many of its already-announced infrastructure priorities are dependent on the successful privatisation of NSW’s electricity generation assets, not to mention wads of cash from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth money is in itself no certainty, given that the Building Australia Fund is dependent on future budget surpluses that have now evaporated. Further, state-based bond issues are being squeezed by the expanding need for the feds to issue bonds to cover the suddenly large and looming Commonwealth deficits – as Western Australia has recently discovered.  In short, the global financial crisis has set tight new limits on the scope of state governments to build expensive new  infrastructure projects – a major topic of the recent Queensland election.

Secondly, there is every reason to believe this decision might actually cause a large groundswell of opposition from within the arts community itself. Part of this is the eye-popping figure of $1 billion – or around 6 times the annual budget of the entire Australia Council. But another part of this is the likelihood that any spat about the project may uncover the weakness of the far-from-unified lobbying effort in favour of this decision. Rather than a monolithic lobbying force, the forces of conservatism and vested interest in the Australian arts that drive the current policy paradigm (described by prominent academic Jennifer Craik as “elite nurturing“) are actually quite thin – although generally well represented in parts of the mainstream media.

Cultural policy-making as actually practised in Australian arts ministries is generally far from rigorous, and can often be swayed quite quickly by the whims of the relevant Minister in charge (witness, for instance, the $15 million Victoria Rocks program promised by then-Premier Steve Bracks after a well-timed serve from Claire Bowditch at the ARIA’s.)

It is the relative thinness of the cultural policy debate as currently undertaken in Australia that suggests a decision like this could lead to real opportunities to advance a more progressive vision in the contemporary cultural policy debate.

Cross-posted at my blog.

2 thoughts on “$1 billion to renovate the Opera House

  1. Fair call Ben. I’ve consciously overlooked any discussion about the likelihood of such a scheme ever getting up. I suspect it’s just the latest in a long series of phantom infrastructure announcements from the government of NSW.

    I think both Nick and I have jumped on it because it is such a staggering example of the disparity between the sums involved in supporting the conservative arts and the non existence of resources, or the accompanying voices for the much larger, much more productive group that comprises everyone else.

    Personally, i am happy enough to work day jobs, work unpaid and co-fund my projects from my credit card – as i’ve done with the majority of things i’ve ever been involved with – in an environment of genuine belt tightening and scarce resources. But in an environment where governmennts are writing cheques in the tens, hundreds or thousands of millions then it’s a whole other story.


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