Labor banking on stadium success

25/01/2018 - 11:05


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Mark McGowan will hope to bask in the warm afterglow of ongoing public approval of the new stadium at Burswood.

Labor banking on stadium success
Labor could be the political beneficiary of Colin Barnett’s bold move to build Perth’s new stadium. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Mark McGowan will be hoping the early favourable reception given to the new 60,000-seat Optus Stadium on the Burswood Peninsula can be sustained during the AFL season starting in March.

Major public construction projects have the potential to significantly influence the mood of the electorate. When they go well, the impact can be extremely positive (and vice versa).

The premier will be hoping history will repeat.

The completion of the long-awaited Narrows Bridge over the Swan River in 1959 was a significant planning achievement at the time. Liberal premier David Brand, elected earlier that year, remained in office until 1971, assisted by the boom years associated with the opening up of the Pilbara as an iron ore province

All the initial reports on the stadium – named Optus Stadium in a 10-year deal worth a reported $50 million – have been positive. Certainly the venue will take the comfort of patrons at Western Australian sporting and other events to a new level.

In fact, its construction should provide a blueprint for future major public sector projects, given it is ‘mission accomplished’ in terms of its readiness for the coming AFL season.

The cost of the stadium and associated transport services has been rounded out at $1.5 billion. That is a steep increase on the $1 billion tag then Liberal premier Colin Barnett plucked out of the air when he announced in 2011 that the stadium would be built at Burswood.

It was a bold move by Mr Barnett, who estimated that the stadium itself would cost $700 million and the associated rail and bus infrastructure a further $300 million. The alternative sites under consideration at the time – in Subiaco and East Perth – were already well served by public transport and were much cheaper options.

The choice of venue led to suggestions that a deal had been done between the government and James Packer’s Crown Casino, which would welcome the thousands of potential patrons attracted to the new facility each week.

However, Mr Barnett had history on his side. The Burswood Peninsula was first earmarked as the site for major sporting facilities in the landmark 1955 Stephenson-Hepburn Report, which set the blueprint for the development of the metropolitan area.

Remembering that the site was a long-term rubbish tip, the report noted: “When the reclamation of that part of Burswood Island south of the railway is completed, it could be developed as an admirable centre well served by both regional highways and railway.

“It is therefore suggested that the future use of this area should be a comprehensive sports centre, including a major oval with provision for the eventual accommodation of 80,000-100,000 spectators.”

No-one could accuse the authors, planners Gordon Stephenson and Alistair Hepburn, of thinking small.

Which is not to deny the new stadium presents some challenges, and they are mainly linked with transport and the absence of parking facilities. Weeknight functions will be a special case, especially if they require an early start to fit in with television commitments for the big Sydney and Melbourne markets.

Naturally, public transport is already heavily committed to satisfy peak hour requirements. Allocating additional trains and buses to carry the thousands of fans heading to Burswood will present a big planning challenge.

That’s why Transport Minister Rita Saffioti has pondered the wisdom of setting a 40,000-seat cap for weeknight events, at least until the pedestrian bridge over the Swan River – expected to be used by 14,500 patrons per event – is completed.

While the stadium’s construction has been a spectacular success, the history of the bridge project presents a blueprint for failure. The planning process was started in good time, but the decision to have the steel spans prefabricated offshore was a disaster. The bridge is both late and heavily over budget.

The new May completion date can’t come soon enough for the government, the AFL, football fans, and Ms Saffioti.

The stadium is undoubtedly a showpiece and will help give tourism, and the Labor government, a shot in the arm. Whether Mr McGowan can capitalise on that and go on to emulate Sir David’s record term in office is another matter.

But it is an irony that won’t be lost on Mr Barnett as he contemplates life after politics.


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