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Centennial Park and the privatisation of public space

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 10 October 2013


Most ex-prime ministers speak platitudes. But Paul Keating has raised issues which should concern us all. He says Sydney's Botanic Gardens will become "a sad and abused fairground" and that they are being sold out in a "mindless quest for promotional funds". We are told that public funding is insufficient, that sponsorships and concerts must be held. Readers in other Australian cities should be watchful that this does not become a harmful trend.

It is not just Sydney Harbour foreshore which is alienated. Far worse is the continuing degradation of Centennial Park. This is a large green space in the eastern suburbs of Paddington, Woollahra and Bondi Junction. It is one of the city's most important remaining green spaces.

Why should we be concerned if the Park is used for commercial purposes? Worryingly, the same familiar arguments are trotted out. There isn't enough public funding to keep the Park going. We are satisfying the community, and so on. Those on the Moore and Centennial Park Trust are the familiar corporate big-wigs and company heavies. (Mere mortals, union representatives and local residents get no mention.) They are supported by a powerful public relations machine. It all sounds much too much like what was done to SBS TV a couple of years ago.

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Take a public asset, announce a wonderful vision, and make it all sound very grand and public-spirited. But bit by bit, corporatize it. A few complaints are made, everything is denied, and on it goes. SBS viewers are now subjected to the usual stuff: loud, annoying ads from salesmen, and more and more down-market programs. Any program seems to suit SBS these days, especially if it's cheap and appeals to popular prejudices ("Housos" is a prime example. Or the seemingly infinite variety of cooking programs). And another public asset goes down the tubes.

In recent times there have been many events held in Centennial Park which raise revenue. There are weddings every week, marathons, "Color Runs" and so on. There is an evening cinema (now being expanded to increase revenue) which enjoys much success. Presumably all this earns vast sums of money which presumably is spent on the Park. However, I haven't seen any published accounts which tell us where the money goes. How much of the money earned by a wild rock concert is spent cleaning up the inevitable mess and damage done to the Park done by drunken and drug-fuelled yobbos?

Where does the alienation of public land end? On Saturday 28th September this year there was a large concert held in the Brazilian Fields in the centre of the park. Some nine thousand people attended, I am told, with much yelling and screaming. I could hear it all loud and clear outside my house, some 2 kilometres away. The pounding bass could soon be heard inside my house, despite noise insulation such as double glazing. The noise increased until after 9pm, when I gave up and went to town to try to find some relief from the relentless noise.

As usual, the Moore and Centennial Park Trust website contains many fine words about "respectful partnerships" with the community. There is a Consultative Committee, unpaid, of course, which meets a few times a year. There is a Draft Plan for people to comment on, if they see any point in doing so

This is the old familiar trick used by corporate giants like mining companies. Make a big show of consultation, then go ahead and do what you wanted to do anyway.

My protests to the trust were dismissed with the usual condescending platitudes. Apparently I didn't complain on some hotline ( which I had not heard about). The '"extraordinary gusts of wind "must have blown the noise in my direction. (It seems strange that the wind blew the noise consistently into my house for six hours.) This recalls the Bart Simpson defence: It wasn't me, I didn't do it, I was miles away.

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The Trust's website tells us that Sir Henry Parkes created a "people's park". It says it was built by unemployed men to create "open space for recreation". But where is the accountability to the people? Traditionally, there was a car-free day once a month. Any person could walk or ride a bike without seeing a car inside the Park. But some months back, business interests complained of the parking problems nearby, and Park management capitulated. Management responds to business complaints. What about complaints from the public at large?

Thousands of ordinary people do use the park every week and enjoy its open space for riding bikes and letting kids play. They ought to object loudly to over- commercialization of the Park in order that a few people can have wild concerts and misbehave. Our wonderful park is precious open space in a Sydney which overall is crowded, noisy and stressful. The Park was not made so concert promoters could make a packet exploiting public land for their own profit.

We must be on our guard against the old ploy in which plausible excuses are offered in order to take away public capital. Private affluence and public squalor (the phrase was coined by J.K. Galbraith) is all too familiar in this brutal world.

Unless we fight hard, public parks like Centennial Park will become increasingly privatised. Noisy concerts will multiply. The "fat cats" on the Trust Board will no doubt rub their hands as profits increase. And we will lose more public space. People in other cities, be warned.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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