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World Youth Day wash up

By Max Wallace - posted Thursday, 5 February 2009

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.

The Sun-Herald reported that a spokesman for WYD said it was “misleading” to compare costs of events. He reportedly said: “Host cities start from different levels of readiness and offer different levels of service.”

But Sydney 2008 had the same amount of time to prepare as other cities as the event was held 2002 in Toronto and 2005 in Cologne. In terms of the services the city was to provide, what apart from the use of Randwick racecourse was so different? And how could Toronto host some 500,000 people at a cost of A$89.7 million, as reported by the Sun-Herald, while the estimated Australian cost was $150 million for what turned out to be no more than a total number of 223,000 attendees, less than half than attended Toronto?

So if the numbers were down, how did the expenditure and income stack up?

On September 20-21, 2008, some two months after World Youth Day, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Freedom of Information (FOI) reporter, Matthew Moore, wrote “Before the event the Catholic Church and the State Government financial backer were remarkably reluctant to reveal details of who was paying for what. Now that it is over, not much has changed.”

He recounted a letter to the Herald the day before, written by a general counsel of the Premier’s Department, which stated that the Catholic WYD 2008 organisation had requested that details of funding and liabilities be subject to a number of exemptions under FOI. One of them was “not in the public interest”.

Matthew Moore noted that “What a contrast Toronto was. It hosted World Youth Day in 2002 and published audited figures, detailing where every dollar went.” He concluded “It is hard to make the State [NSW] Government appear open and accountable but the Catholic Church is doing a pretty good job.”

In other words, even the normally reticent state government which habitually refuses FOI requests was outshone by the Catholic Church on this occasion in its search for secrecy.

The whole sorry affair was summarised well enough by a report and an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald of November 27, 2008. The two analyses spoke to the NSW Auditor-General’s report on WYD. The Auditor-General had found WYD had exceeded its original state budget of $20 million by six times for a total cost to NSW of $120 million. This does not include the Federal Government’s contribution of $20 million. The Church itself, depending on differing reports, provided only $10 million or $15 million. Compensation for the use of Randwick Racecourse finally amounted to $41 million. So the total cost was in excess of $150 million.

The Auditor-General called for a more thorough analysis but in the Parliament the Minister for State Development refused to commit the government to a full assessment of WYD. The Herald editorial concluded it was unlikely the economic benefits of WYD were achieved as the numbers were so down, the event discouraged other tourists from Sydney and “only 21 per cent of the pilgrims used paid accommodation”.

But we don’t know for sure because neither the government nor the church is willing to be totally frank about the whole affair. It is arguable that if WYD had generated a profit there would be no such reluctance.

WYD cost taxpayers considerably more than it did in Toronto and Cologne and the final balance remains opaque. Meanwhile, public hospitals in NSW are told to cut back seriously strained resources and public schools have to fight for funding from the government table. But the church was given what was in effect a blank cheque.

Cardinal Pell was cited in The Australian on May 27, 2001 saying “the separation of church and state in Australia is a blessing and we should preserve it”.

In the United States the outright gift of vast sums of taxpayers’ money to a church is held to be a breach of separation of church and state and therefore unconstitutional.

So how can Australian federal and state governments give tens of millions of dollars to a church when there is a separation of church and state? The answer is there is no constitutional separation of church and state in Australia. In 1981 the High Court interpreted s.116 of the Federal Constitution to mean there is no separation. A High Court challenge to WYD funding came to nothing. There is no section in the NSW Constitution separating church and state. Cardinal Pell was wrong.

Accordingly, there is no problem for a government to give any amount of taxpayers’ money to a church in the future. Strictly speaking, the constitutional monarchy that is Australia, unlike the republic of the United States, is not a fully realised democracy. It is a soft theocracy where church and government purposes coincide to garnish taxpayers’ money and resources where governments perceive it will afford an electoral advantage, both structurally through tax exemptions, and functionally through grants, given there is no constitutional bar. WYD 2008 was just one more, expensive example.

But there was another cost of WYD which went unnoticed. By staging the event in Sydney, the church added significantly to greenhouse gases generated by the majority of the 110,000 visitors who flew vast distances to participate. Had WYD been held in North America or Europe the greenhouse gas footprint would not have been so large.

In April 2008, three months before WYD, the Pope announced seven new sins. Number four was “polluting the environment”.

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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