In December 2003 The Catholic Weekly reported Australia’s Catholic bishops had agreed to make a bid for Sydney to host World Youth Day for 2008. Cardinal George Pell would oversee “the preparation of a bid to the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome”. It was estimated that as many as 150,000 young people from around the world would attend. The Weekly reported that in Toronto in 2002 about 500,000, many from overseas, but mostly Canadians, attended. In 2005 WYD had been held in Cologne, Germany, where about 400,000 attended.
While it is titled World Youth Day (WYD) it is directed overwhelmingly to Catholic youth and the “Day” is in fact a week. It ran from July 15 to 20, 2008. The likely motivation for WYD to be in Sydney was to arrest the significant decline of young Australians identifying with Catholicism.
On April 9, 2006 Catholic member of federal parliament, Malcolm Turnbull, who had converted to the Catholic faith not long before taking up a seat in parliament, reported on his website that he was asked by the Prime Minister, John Howard, “to travel to the Holy See … to represent the Australian Government and mark the start of events leading up to World Youth Day in 2008 in Sydney, with his Eminence Cardinal Pell and New South Wales [state] Premier Morris Iemma …”
On the website there was a photo of Malcolm Turnbull, now Leader of the Opposition, who was later to reveal his support for a woman’s right to choose, sitting alongside Cardinal Pell. So the supporter of a woman’s right to choose, and a leading opponent of abortion in Australia, sat side by side, to announce federal government funding of $20 million for World Youth Day, a major event for the promotion of Catholic values.
On November 15, 2006, the NSW Parliament debated the World Youth Day Bill allowing state resources for the occasion.
The Catholic Liberal MLC, David Clarke, said “It is expected to pump over $100 million into the NSW economy”. He said, “And what a great event it will be, with 500,000 expected to attend, including 125,000 from overseas”.
It was mooted that NSW would match the Federal government’s $20 million.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, what were the profits, what were the costs, how many attended, both from within Australia, and from overseas?
According to the official WYD website, the total number of registered pilgrims was 223,000, including 110,000 from overseas.
So it seems the total number of 500,000 of attendees suggested by both the Catholic Weekly in 2003 and David Clarke in 2006, was a significant overestimation.
So how much did the event cost Australian taxpayers and how much income was generated?
By June 2008, a month before WYD, it was estimated the total cost to taxpayers had blown out to $150 million. The Sun-Herald, on June 22, 2008, reported “NSW taxpayers could be hit for a bill four times that footed by Canadians and Germans when they hosted World Youth Day”. It was estimated the state government’s contribution was then $108.5 million including $22.5 million for “funding related to Randwick racecourse”. This latter expense was to compensate the Australian Jockey Club and horse trainers for the weeks that Randwick would be required in preparation for the Pope’s final Mass.
Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.