Life

The stadium planned for central Hobart’s last remaining tract of waterfront land represents a costly capitulation to the AFL and it’s unclear how the associated public funding will deliver the promised ‘urban renewal’. By Gabriella Coslovich.

Hobart’s unwanted stadium

A Stop the Stadium rally in Hobart in May.
A Stop the Stadium rally in Hobart in May.
Credit: AAP Image / Loic Le Guilly

In a depressingly accurate case of life imitating art, a costly new stadium is being inflicted upon Tasmanians whether they like it or not, just as occurs in an early episode of the brilliant and all-too-prescient comedy series Utopia.

Tasmania finds itself in this uncanny state of affairs following a series of chummy meetings between the AFL’s chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, and Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff. Last June, McLachlan swanned into Hobart and declared that if Tasmania wanted an AFL team of its own, it would have to build a new stadium. “This team needs and will have a new stadium if you want a licence, and I think Tasmanians would expect that,” McLachlan pronounced, like a man used to getting his way.

No one had asked, actually, what Tasmanians expected or wanted. It’s the AFL that expects and wants a new stadium, and it’s dictating exactly where that stadium will go: central Hobart’s last remaining tract of prime waterfront land, Macquarie Point. Inexplicably, Rockliff is cheering on this unsporting land grab. It might be funny if it weren’t true.

Macquarie Point, a semi-abandoned industrial area, was to be developed into something special for the city. A master plan was devised by a team from the Museum of Old and New Art, the privately funded art museum that put Hobart on the map as a global destination for art. MONA’s vision for the site was created in consultation with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and had at its core a truth and reconciliation art park. Community feedback to the vision was overwhelmingly positive.

Instead, Macquarie Point has fallen prey to political populism and the national obsession with stadium building – it will host a new $715 million, 23,000-seat, roofed stadium. That’s the pay-off for Tasmania being given, at long last, an AFL licence. Some have called this blackmail.

Polls have their limitations, of course, but it’s telling that various surveys have found most Tasmanians are against the proposal – including, ironically, a poll conducted by Hobart’s Murdoch-owned newspaper The Mercury, which is waging an increasingly shrill pro-stadium campaign. Tasmanians want an AFL team, but they overwhelmingly do not want it at the cost of Macquarie Point, and not when housing, health, education, roads and public transport desperately need attention. The issue has become so divisive it helped whittle Tasmania’s Liberal government to a minority and might send it to an early election.

But none of this has stopped the Tasmanian government from adopting the AFL’s mantra – “no new stadium, no team”. Anyone who dares suggest the state deserves a team without needing to build a new stadium – especially as Hobart already has one that seats 19,500 people and hosts AFL games – is denounced as a traitor who will kill Tasmania’s chances to compete. The fact the AFL launched this ambit claim is conveniently ignored.

It’s mind-boggling stuff, but wackier still is the federal government’s decision to bankroll the AFL-imposed stadium with $240 million. The Tasmanian government will stump up $460 million (and many millions more to set up a new club). In short, public money will pay practically all of the $715 million stadium bill, and that’s not taking into account the inevitable cost blowouts. Tasmanian Treasurer Michael Ferguson has already signalled further money may be required from the federal government for the stadium build – the AFL is magnanimously providing $15 million and not a cent more. It has, however, imposed penalties of $4.5 million a year if the stadium build falls behind schedule.

That a Labor prime minister is backing Australia’s last remaining state Liberal government, even though Tasmania’s own Labor Party is against the project, adds another ludicrous dimension to the story.

Anthony Albanese framed his $240 million handout in terms of “urban renewal” – this is the kind of language used the world over to justify taxpayers’ money being poured into the construction of multimillion-dollar stadiums for wealthy sporting organisations. More often than not, “urban renewal” is just spin. One need only look at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium, which these days goes by the name of its latest corporate sponsor, Marvel.

“When Melbourne Docklands was done, the idea was that you put it down there on the water and that will revitalise the waterfront,” Kim Dovey, professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne, tells The Saturday Paper. “Now, you only have to take a quick walk down to Melbourne Docklands and see that the front of the stadium is one of the deadest parts of Melbourne Docklands – and that’s saying something.”

Hobart is simply the latest case study in how a city’s economic, social and design priorities can be sabotaged when powerful sporting organisations start calling the shots and governments fall into line. In the United States, it’s common for major sports teams to threaten to leave a city if their demands for a new or upgraded stadium are not met. It seems the AFL has torn a page from that playbook – should we expect more such claims?

A close look at the deal the Tasmanian government signed with the AFL shows any talk of “urban renewal” for Hobart is fanciful. The contract plainly states the $715 million will go entirely to the Macquarie Point stadium. There’s no mention of the housing, port upgrades or transport connections promised by the prime minister – only “minor road relocation”. The AFL’s incoming chief executive, Andrew Dillon, confirmed as much when he appeared before a Tasmanian parliamentary inquiry set up to investigate the murky process of the deal. On June 16, Dillon told the inquiry it was his understanding all of the $240 million pledged by the federal government would be spent on the stadium.

So who is right?

When The Saturday Paper contacted the prime minister’s media office for clarification, the response was: “The Tasmanian Government will develop a precinct plan for Macquarie Point, including a focus on transport connections and housing around the precinct as well as wharf upgrades at the Port of Hobart.”

Curiously, not once in the six-line response was the word “stadium” used. It’s an “arts, entertainment and sports precinct”, as if this somehow camouflages the fact it’s a stadium being built to order for the AFL – for seven matches a year. Yes, seven.

“There’s barely space for a stadium,” counters award-winning Hobart architect Shamus Mulcahy, who has done the maths and doesn’t credit talk of “urban renewal”.

Small businesses at Macquarie Point, such as the Hobart Brewing Company and Aboriginal-owned social enterprise Nayri Niara, are in limbo, and The Goods Shed, a historic railway shed used as an events venue, is a goner if the stadium goes ahead.

Mulcahy is part of the local group Our Place, which has developed an alternative vision for Macquarie Point that includes 1000 new homes and restores the truth and reconciliation park idea.

Governments often justify the building of stadiums on the grounds they will boost the economy. But in the US, where stadium-mania exceeds our own, study after study has shown the presence of stadiums has a negligible effect on a city’s economy, including on tourism spending and employment. Stadiums, these studies find, are typically poor public investments.

“A lot of cities are very hopeful that these stadia are going to renew their downtown areas or create some kind of economic spark,” says Michael Sam, co-director of the New Zealand Centre for Sport Policy and Politics. “The research generally does not support that … these stadia are not the panacea for economic regeneration.”

Small cities are particularly vulnerable to big stadium projects, says Sam, who has written extensively about the cost overruns and political turmoil surrounding the construction of Dunedin’s controversial Forsyth Barr Stadium.

That doesn’t stop governments touting stadiums as a form of civic enhancement.

“These things play out to a pretty standard script,” Sam says. “It starts out with the economics and, when that argument starts to fail, it becomes a psychic income argument, which is to do with your identity and your place in the world – ‘This is going to put us on the map, we don’t want to be a backwater.’ Those are very, very, standard tropes … what is always absent in these debates is, what else could you do with $715 million? If a $715 million stadium can create pride in the community, what other things could be purchased for $715 million that could give pride in the community?”

An army of tutors to improve Tasmania’s abysmal literacy rates? Proper wages and conditions to keep doctors and nurses in the state’s desperately under-resourced hospitals? The reinstatement of the light rail link between Hobart’s northern suburbs and the centre of town? A nationally significant cultural precinct that includes a truth and reconciliation park?

“Just as an aside,” Sam says, “I watched a show on Netflix called Utopia …”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Grand-standing".

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