08/08/2006 - 22:00

There’s a white elephant in the room

08/08/2006 - 22:00


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There’s a white elephant in the room

So, it’s official. The Perth Convention Exhibition Centre is a white elephant. Hands up anyone who is surprised?

Briefcase certainly isn’t, though not because the building itself is appalling, showing all the charm of a Soviet-era mausoleum, and having limited windows to showcase Perth’s crowning glory, the Swan River.

Those criticisms, which have been well reported, are valid, and were being made even at the design stage. Wrong location, wrong shape, wrong outlook; comments like those were aired by the critics five years ago – and completely ignored by the state government, which said it knew best.

As is painfully obvious now, the government did not know best. And there is a very simple reason for that.

The convention centre is not just a building, it’s a business, and no matter how hard any government tries to pretend it understands business, it doesn’t.

Why former premier, Geoff Gallop, championed the centre, or was cheered on by the treasurer, Eric Ripper, and the new premier, Alan Carpenter, is completely beyond comprehension.

They, of all people, should have tattooed on their foreheads these words: “business is a no-go area”.

Briefcase will not be so rude as to explain why this is even more important for a Labor government, but merely point to the lessons of history and the way in which previous Labor leaders such as Brian Burke, Carmen Lawrence and Peter Dowding were badly stung by convincing themselves that they could make business decisions on things such as a petrochemical project.

But, having been sucked into yet another failing business, the government has an obligation to do something about it before it becomes a Rothwells-style disaster.

Mr Ripper, in at least one interview, said the government would not be lending a helping hand. But, in the same breath he used the word “unless”, and gave the clear impression that a rescue was possible if the right plan came up.

In other words, there is one message for the voters (no more money) and another word for the businessmen out there who smell a government in trouble (there might be some cash for the right idea).

Such an approach to a failed convention centre is not unusual. In London, there is an even more spectacularly failed convention centre called the Millennium Dome. It too is on the banks of a river, the Thames, and it too is a charmless creation, though one that looks more like a misplaced tent than a tomb.

As far as Briefcase can see, there are only two possible outcomes for the convention centre – (a) it is sold now at a bargain basement price to a new owner prepared to do something else with it, or (b) the government throws more money into the pot in a vain attempt to prop it up.


Of these two possibilities the best choice is quit now, take the loss, and let someone else turn it into office space for one of the big resource companies. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto or Woodside could certainly make use of it as a headquarters – since 20 per cent of BHP’s assets are in WA it would be a beaut place for global HQ?

Sadly, it is more likely that the second option will be adopted because politicians can never admit their mistakes, or cut their losses.

And if option two is taken, Briefcase predicts that the eventual losses from the convention centre might even outdo the petrochemical plant so volubly championed by Burke, Lawrence and Dowding in an early era.


While Mr Ripper and his crew of cardigan-wearing bean counters come up with a plan for the convention centre, there is an even more deep-seated issue that lies at the heart of the monumental failure we are watching – albeit a failure in slow motion.

In a word, the issue is tourism. More specifically it is the bizarre way in which we believe that this is an industry that needs government support in the form of sponsored advertising campaigns, and direct hand-outs to wood carvers in the South West and basket weavers in Fremantle.

A closer look at tourism will reveal that it is nothing more than a business that must learn to sink, or swim, without government assistance, because once government gets involved, disaster follows.

For proof, consider these examples.

(a) Rottnest is the state government’s number one tourist icon, and one of the government’s most troubled business ventures. Why? Because it is a triple-headed catastrophe combining government, business and tourism.

(b) For years WA taxpayers have endured meaningless drivel from Tourism WA, which revels in conceiving inane promotional ideas and then spending vast amounts of our money promoting them, despite being told by people in business that they are monumentally stupid.

The convention centre itself has Tourism WA’s fingerprints all over it. One of the selling points was that it would attract international visitors. The problem was that no-one had thought about why visitors would come, or if they had it was because they believed their own propaganda, which says Perth is a terrific place to visit.

Unfortunately, and this will come as a shock to the civil servants who run tourism in WA, Perth is a terrific place to live – but not necessarily to visit. It is a working town, and a centre of the global resources industry.

To promote Perth (or WA) as a “place of excitement”, which the tourism chaps did 20 or 30 years ago, or to try hard with today’s “come and see the real thing” is utter nonsense, and its time a few people stood up and said so.


If the failure of the convention centre, and the repeated failures of state tourism promotions is not bad enough, there is one thing worse – a failure to acknowledge the truth in what people say about us. But this is precisely what happened a week before the centre hit the headlines (or was it the skids).

The truth in question was a Roy Morgan Research report that canned Perth as the worst place in Australia for shopping and food. We even scored lower for style than Adelaide and didn’t even rate for culture.

The response from Tourism WA was complete denial. “No image problem” was the response – and what’s really (really) scary is that they probably believe there isn’t a problem, and certainly do not believe that they are the problem.


 “Bureaucracy…the giant power wielded by pygmies”. Honore de Balzac


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