22/08/2006 - 22:00

Unwanted centre of attention

22/08/2006 - 22:00

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State Scene, like most, prefers to be at the head of any queue, especially those slow-moving ones at banks and post offices.

Unwanted centre of attention

State Scene, like most, prefers to be at the head of any queue, especially those slow-moving ones at banks and post offices.

That, of course, isn’t always possible. And the same applies when it comes to keeping abreast of contentious public issues that unexpectedly surface in the written and electronic media.

But that’s also not always possible, either.

When the question of the increasingly unpopular Perth Convention Exhibition Centre resurfaced early this month, the temptation was to immediately comment on this river foreshore monstrosity that’s so despoiling Perth’s skyline.

However, rather than rushing into print, State Scene held back a while to see how others assessed it.

After about a week of letters to editors and radio station callers’ comments, the PCEC debacle subsided.

Even the Briefcase column from WA Business News contributor, Tim Treadgold, came in with a no-holds-barred assessment.

As usual, Briefcase was incisive, beginning with the following paragraph: “So, it’s official. The Perth Convention Exhibition Centre is a white elephant. Hands up anyone who is surprised?”

After describing the ugly structure as a “Soviet-style mausoleum” and debunking it for “having limited windows to showcase Perth’s crowning glory”, Briefcase turned to the fact that it wasn’t just an ugly structure, but also a business.

And, surprise, surprise, its owners are apparently finding it’s not generating anticipated revenues, and are looking to taxpayers to perhaps soften bottom line blows.

Briefcase argued they should simply be told to cop the losses, with no extra taxpayer funds offered for a venture that’s already cost the public too much.

“Sadly,” Briefcase went on, “it’s more likely the second [subsidising] option will be adopted because politicians can never admit their mistakes, or cut their losses.”

That, unfortunately, is the likely course ahead.

Despite taxpayers having already paid $122 million for this white elephant, Labor Premier Alan Carpenter and Treasurer Eric Ripper seem poised to throw more money at it rather than saying no.

Now, by coming at the end of quite a sizeable queue of comments, State Scene is able to consider an overlooked aspect – the seemingly forgotten origin of this politician-created debacle.

How did this amateurish episode – which came so soon after Labor’s failed WA Inc era – arise?

Here it’s important to stress that it’s not all Labor’s doing.

Much, indeed most, of the blame belongs to the Liberals and their many faceless but well-paid boffins, consultants and advisers, which explains why so little criticism is being heard from the Paul Omodei team.

Generally speaking, when governments encounter embarrassments, oppositions promptly fly in with all guns blazing. This time, however, Liberal silence is deafening.

They’ve gone into hush-hush mode because they know it was they who, in the Court-Barnett government’s dying days, set about outlaying a whopping $122 million on a monstrosity.

Cast your minds back to 2000 and you’ll recall the Court-Barnett duo, with Mr Barnett as Liberal deputy and energy minister, selling-off the Dampier-to-Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline.

As State Scene has long contended, this publicly owned asset should never have been sold to the fickle corporate world because WA’s domestic and industrial gas consumers now face a private monopolist, presently Alinta.

The pipeline attracted several bidders with two offering around $1.7 billion.

For reasons never fully explained, Epic Energy rushed in with $2.4 billion, including stamp duty, and Messrs Court and Barnett accepted with glee.

Although some of this money – plus nearly $1 billion from the sale of then government-owned Alinta Gas – was directed to servicing debt, many tens of millions were earmarked to bankroll pet pre-election promises.

In other words, vote buying, what Americans call pork barrelling.

And the PCEC was the biggest of these voter buy-ups.

Also don’t forget that the Perth City Council eventually had to find $45 million to help bankroll the PCEC, for which it received the right to regain the incorporated parking facilities.

This meant council’s ratepayers – primarily heavily rated CBD businesses – unnecessarily outlaid a huge sum to get a car parking facility council already operated on the foreshore.

However, Messrs Court and Barnett were delighted, since there’s nothing politicians like more than having a big pre-election piggy bank or war chest, which is what the pipeline sell-off, in part, became.

As things transpired they were bundled out of office and the Gallop-Ripper Laborites took over. And the next bungle, their decision to proceed with the PCEC, promptly followed.

Many along the terrace predicted Perth wouldn’t sustain a convention centre.

State Scene recalls listening to several, Briefcase evidently among them, who said it would be a monumental WA Inc-style bungle.

One contemporary view was that big international conventions are generally held in hub cities – London, Singapore, Dubai and the like – because airlines can easily cope with 2,000 or so delegates flying in at once and leaving soon after, whereas out-of-the-way Perth is too far off the jet-setting track.

True, the Gallop government was handed a crackpot-jackpot idea.

What that called for was rejecting it, not proceeding with it.

A round of negotiations could have been launched with the owners of facilities at Burswood about a convention project then under discussion, instead of what the Court-Barnett government was foolishly determined to go headlong into.

If such talks came to naught, the next best step was to put the floating $122 million war chest into the bank and wait.

As things transpired it wasn’t long before the Gallop govern-ment decided that the planned Perth-to-Mandurah railway into the CBD and on to Joondalup would cross the Narrows Bridge.

Mr Court had opted to link Mandurah via the Armadale-to-Perth line through Kelmscott, not along Kwinana Freeway and Narrows.

That $122 million could have been brought into play here to help bankroll sinking the Perth-to-Fremantle line’s Horseshoe Bridge to Mitchell Freeway segment thereby, at long last, linking the CBD and Northbridge.

And above the cleared 11 hectares of government-owned railway land, a modest, multi-purpose public facility could have been erected among the public open space and some private developments.

Instead we continue being left with an ugly 19th century railway yard, an eyesore, at the CBD’s very heart, making Perth an international joke, not a convention venue.

Some of the money from the sale of the railway land could have helped finance purchase of the ugly and now mothballed Entertainment Centre, which idly sits on priceless land that could be public open space at Perth’s centre.

What’s therefore now needed is what Briefcase so succinctly recommended – let the owners sell-off their failing investment, otherwise “the eventual losses from the PCEC [to taxpayers] might even outdo the petrochemical plant so volubly championed by Burke, Lawrence and Dowding in an early era.”

And what should accompany the decision not to subside this Court-Barnett government-initiated and taxpayer funded bungle is an open inquiry to determine precisely who was responsible for this debacle, beginning with the harebrained decision to sell the Dampier-to-Bunbury pipeline.

That inquiry should identify all those who advised that the PCEC be built and their hefty payments publicised.

Taxpayers can, of course, be confident this will never happen.

And the reason is that neither the Laborites – who failed to block a silly as well as ugly project – nor the conservatives who initiated it, want to see their washing hung out in full view of the taxpaying public.

Labor and the Liberals simply want this issue out of the media so their jointly-created debacle is put away and hopefully forgotten.

However, State Scene, like Briefcase, suspects millions more taxpayers’ dollars will be outlaid, probably indefinitely, to keep this ugly and little-used white elephant operational.

Why?

Because no state MP has the willpower and elementary wherewithal to objectively evaluate this bungle.

And even if one did have such attributes, they lack the fortitude to publicly say enough is enough of this politician created, bottomless taxpayers’ dollars pit.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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