Sport

Having bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games on an impulsive whim, Daniel Andrews was on a course that says a lot about politics in Victoria. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Daniel Andrews’ Commonwealth Games debacle

Premier Daniel Andrews speaking at an outdoor press conference.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announces the $380 million settlement.
Credit: AAP Image / Joel Carret

The typical political leader is a casting director whose only client is themself. Clinically optimistic about their talent as an actor, neither a deficit of charisma nor the improbability of the role will prevent our leaders from playing the heroic lead or the cameo, as convenience suits. They may play a gunslinger, a benevolent god or a weeping empath. They may wish to be seen as powerfully directing events, or it may be preferable to assume the role of disappointed victim of fate.

In the past week, the Victorian premier has cast himself as the uncompromising negotiator in a hostage thriller starring the Commonwealth Games Federation and two related bodies. Naturally aggrieved by the late withdrawal of Victoria as host of the 2026 games, the CGF sought reparations. In July, Victoria sent its finest lawyers to London to thrash out a compensation sum for the breached contract. Last Friday, the parties resolved one. “I can confirm a final settlement,” Daniel Andrews said, “of $380 million and not a dollar more.”

This was like the man who offers three pouches of silver for some magic beans, and then boasts to his wife about how he’d talked them down from four. Andrews had slyly cast himself as the scrupulous broker who understood a shakedown when he saw one, and goddamn if he was gonna give another inch. Three hundred and eighty million of the Victorian people’s money – and not a dollar more.

Of course, Andrews was casting himself here for the movie that he wished it was and not the expensive farce that was actually being made. This isn’t Captain Phillips but The Hangover, and the point isn’t whether compensation was owed – it evidently was – but that it was Andrews’ harebrained scheme in the first place. One that would now require the full talents of his scriptwriters to salvage.

Let’s rewind briefly. Andrews’ argument for withdrawing from the Games goes like this: it was a good idea at the time, until it wasn’t. They’d budgeted in good faith for a certain amount of money, but events – federal and international – had mugged them. Putin’s war, China’s contractions, successive interest rate hikes – each had conspired to triple the expense. There was now little benefit, and a bloody lot of cost, and the premier would be damned if he was not going to do the right thing and pull the pin; awkward press conferences were immaterial to a man set on doing the right thing.

This is what’s known in politics as a “narrative”, and what coppers might call a practised alibi. The decision to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games was Victoria’s. Critically, the decision to host these Games in an unprecedented, uniquely expensive and logistically fraught way – decentralised over five regional “hubs” – was also Victoria’s. Not only did this idea seem frighteningly ambitious to the CGF, The Saturday Paper understands it also seemed like a terrible idea to members of Andrews’ cabinet – whose objections, evidently, were ineffectual.

The proposition – so proudly celebrated by the premier at the time – made a lot of people close to him very nervous, and well before the reasons cited by Andrews for inflated costs became relevant. The idea made little economic or logistical sense, but it did make a lot of political sense to a premier anxious to win re-election that year, to ingratiate himself with marginal regional electorates, and to declare Victoria open after one of the world’s most severe lockdowns. “It’s a great honour to have Victoria chosen as the host venue for the 2026 Commonwealth Games,” he said last year. “We can’t wait to welcome the world to all of our state.”

We know this because the business case, which ostensibly girded the original decision and which Andrews promised to release when he announced the withdrawal last month, has finally been made public. It’s an insensibly long 178 pages, but buried within the fluff is a “worst case scenario” that would see a return of only 70 cents for every dollar invested, and at best a return of $1.60, an optimistic figure. The report also flagged the following two “high risks”: “lack of time to undertake due diligence prior to signing the Heads of Agreement creates a commercial or delivery risk to the Victorian Government” and a “lack of time to prepare for 2026 CG impact cost, quality and benefits realisation”.

Despite this, media reporting about this grotesquely bloated document suggests it makes the costs of hosting the Games quite obvious – the implication being the government ignored early warnings.

The report does no such thing. Sure, buried within the many thousands of platitudinous, aggressively narcotising words are financial estimates that should have been alarming. But the many thousands of words around those estimates are passionately devoted to ignoring the consequences of them.

No, best not to consider those worst-case scenarios of substantial loss. Nor spend any time with the ramifications of a bid that’s at “high risk” of “commercial or delivery” failure. Better to justify what’s already been decided, and then to dubiously declare the power of a regional games to reduce carbon emissions, improve relations with India, grow pride, reduce inequality, bridge the gulf between First Australians and the rest. You can find each of these claims within the business case, and more. The report is a barely readable act of cheerleading, and it climaxes with the following recommendation: “Given CGF’s urgent need to confirm the host of the 2026 Games and its willingness to be flexible with future delivery models, there is an opportunity for the Victorian Government to create an event that delivers a unique set of benefits that align with its broader policy priorities.”

In an ideal world of precise and uncompromised policy advice, shorn of sycophancy, rent-seeking and self-justification, the report might’ve been seven or eight pages long, and solely fixed on these risks and numbers. Instead, we have pages and pages of this: “The Games is not just a celebration of athletic performance, a Commonwealth Games celebrates a region and [its] various cultures and brings together communities. In addition to driving tourism, the Games can bring together communities, reduce inequality and drive diversity and inclusion through sport and culture” and “Across Australia, there is increased competition from other Australian destinations for visitor spend with other states investing heavily to develop distinct brands. In order to compete with other states, retain Victoria’s tourism brand and rebuild the regions, Victoria needs to continually invest [in] Victoria’s tourism offering.”

Now, the fact the business case is cheerleading doesn’t let the government off the hook – not least because several parties to this unholy report are, well, parts of the Victorian government itself. That is, Visit Victoria and what was then known as the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, which authored the report in collaboration with several consultancy firms.

Nor does it exonerate the premier or his responsible ministers on account of them almost certainly not having read these 178 pages of numbing pish. But they would have had access to the numbers, the basic accountancy. And the basic accountancy suggested it was dicey.

Stubborn fans of Andrews may swallow his lines about noble pragmatism, or focus on the anachronism of the Commonwealth Games to better dismiss this mess as a triviality. Knock yourselves out. But regarding reports that are written with public money and concern themselves with the considerable expenditure of it, should we not demand their clarity, intelligence and integrity? Should we not demand a system of leadership that incentivises such integrity?

This is not only an expensive failure of governance, but an emblematic one. It suggests a fawning cabinet, a pliant public service and a retinue of fatuous but well-paid consultants – a network willing to uphold a powerful premier’s costly impulsivity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Playing games".

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