Who Cares How Much World Youth Day Cost? It was Awesome!

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The mystery surrounding the cost of World Youth Day got a bit more mysterious last week.

When I say "cost" I mean the actual, definite, real, total cost — not the budgeted, revise-budgeted, excluded, defrayed, written-down estimates that are waved around whenever someone asks what is actually a pretty relevant question. Remember, NSW is not a state with lots of money. It’s a place with less than no money.

So anyway, when Labor’s newly appointed Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally sat down to face a budget estimates committee hearing at NSW Parliament, World Youth Day was not on the agenda.

Commencing at 2:00pm, it took an inordinately long time for Greens MLC Sylvia Hale to query the final cost of July’s World Youth Day. Why was that?

Keneally, for those who haven’t been following this rising star of NSW politics, was the official government spokesperson for WYD 2008, but that wasn’t really relevant at this hearing. Budget estimate committee meetings traditionally look at government expenditure with everyone sworn under oath, so if it had been on the agenda, it’d be reasonable to expect some big numbers to emerge.

But the main purpose of this hearing was to quiz Keneally over some of the Govenment’s other money mysteries, especially her department’s behaviour over developer donations. The NSW Government may be short on financial capital, but it’s embarrassingly rich in financial intrigue.

Keneally was well supported by a bevy of bureaucrats and fellow Labor MPs on the committee, including Lynda Voltz, (whose website, much like NSW, is under stalled construction) and Tony "The Juice" Catanzariti.

The transcript released of the meeting indicates the majority of the discussion was occupied by the possible influence and significance of developers’ donations to the NSW Labor Party. Of most interest was the role played by former planning minister, Frank Sartor and how the new NSW Planning Minister intended to manage the portfolio.

But, right at the end of the proceedings, after a few hours of grilling the Minister for Planning and her staff, the Chair asked if Government members of the committee had any questions.

The ALP’s Tony Catanzariti obliged. "Sure do," he said. "Minister, can you advise the committee of the success of World Youth Day, Government services delivered and the Sydney community’s response to the event?"

To which a committee member, the Greens MLC Sylvia Hale, added, "And the budget thereof." (Whereupon Catanzariti said to Hale, "It is a better question than you have asked all day," presumably referring to his own query.)

Now remember that this meeting is not about World Youth Day. To the casual observer, this diversion would appear to be a pretty audacious move by a Government keen to use even non-opportunities like this to sing its own praises in an attempt to put a warm gloss over a day of hard questions on developer donations (an issue that has plagued it and has been covered by many outlets including this piece on newmatilda.com). The casual observer would be right.

But despite this interruption to the Government’s feel-good WYD reverie, Keneally was magnanimous: "I can talk about the budget thereof, Ms Hale."

The Minister proceeded to do a pretty good job re-enacting the WYD event. Not only did she describe the Kumbaya in the CBD, teenagers dancing, and a welcoming Sydney but also the large amount of Government resources that were thrown into the running WYD.

"I thank Mr Catanzariti for the question," riffed Keneally. "I am delighted to outline the success of that wonderful event to the committee. What an event World Youth Day 2008 proved to be. It gives me great pleasure to inform you, just in case Mr Catanzariti was not in town, that the event ran incredibly smoothly and the international and domestic visitors were able to enjoy a magnificent experience in Sydney."

"The pilgrims brought so much joy and goodwill to Sydney and Sydneysiders welcomed them with open arms. Sydney’s overwhelming support of the event was boosted by the lovely nature of the visitors and the stunning production staged by the event organiser, WYD 2008."

In contrast with the murky business of developer donations, here was a subject to warm hearts and fill the air at the hearing with some retrospective rapture.

The Minister then started to roll out some numbers from World Youth Day (which lasted a week), including extra rail and bus services, fire safety inspections.

But Hale wasn’t deafened by the sound of angels singing — she wanted to know more. "The Parliament was initially told that it would cost $20 million," she said. "There must have been an escalation."

Kenneally then replied, "If Ms Sylvia Hale wanted to ask me a question about that she had several hours within which to do so."

(Actually, no, she didn’t. If she’d brought it up rather than the ALP’s committee member Catanzariti, she would have been rebuked, because this hearing was not about that. But anyway, back to the sweet sounds of angelsong…)

"Every time I travelled around the city," continued Keneally, "or walked to events I was struck by the generosity, the friendliness and the happiness in our city — not just from the pilgrims who were here to celebrate the occasion but also from Sydneysiders who welcomed them with open arms."

Surely at that point there can’t have been a dry eye in the room. But, no doubt aware that a cancerous doubt lurks in the breast of those who would sully the pristine beauty of the Government’s achievement with questions about money, the Minister went on:

"This demonstration of goodwill and acceptance made the World Youth Day celebrations an enjoyable experience both for participants and for Sydneysiders going about their daily business.

"The joy it brought to our city during the event had a positive effect on everyone, making the city all the more beautiful. Planning for the event by World Youth Day 2008 and the Government agencies was a tremendous effort. I look forward to Sydney playing host to many future events."

Transcripts from the hearing don’t record the rising sound of ecstatic sobbing and the soft speaking in tongues that must by now have been audible from several parts of the room.

Then the Minister finally got around to announcing the expected cost of WYD 2008: "I can confidently inform members that the cost of supporting World Youth Day will fall within the budget of $86 million, as previously announced by the Government. The World Youth Day Coordination Authority is projecting a saving [on that figure], but until we have finalised the budgets I am loath to put a number to it. World Youth Day 2008 was certainly a proud moment for all involved".

Thank you, Minister. But how about we take a closer look at that price-tag…

In April 2008, $86 million was revealed as the estimated cost and it covers police, health services, road changes and transport. It does not include the $22.5 million paid to the Australian Jockey Club for the use of Randwick Racecourse during WYD08.

The total cost of the event is actually $139 million with the Catholic Church contributing $10 million and the Rudd Government $20.5 million.

Local councils with operations involving WYD were Sydney City Council and nearby Randwick Council. Randwick Council have declared costs at less than $50,000, and this has been compensated by the World Youth Day Co-ordination Authority (which was set-up in 2006, at a cost of $3 million).

For Sydney Council the resources and costs were more significant. The Council has advised, "The City of Sydney’s support for the World Youth Day events was $1.245 million, which included revenue forgone for hire of banner poles, venues and parks. City staff spent considerable time, over many months providing advice on logistics, planning and event management for WYD, including residential and operational issues."

Sydney Council was re-imbursed by the NSW Government but only for $390,000. This accounted for the cost of temporary road and traffic changes around Hickson Road and Alfred Street; landscaping improvements at Parkham Street to allow for the Pilgrims Walk to Randwick Racecourse; and the cost of repairs to restore Hyde Park to its pre-World Youth Day condition.

Based on the committee meeting transcript and following advice from the Minister’s office, the cost to compensate the Australian Jockey Club for the use of Randwick Racecourse during WYD (estimated at $41 million) is being accounted for elsewhere.

And what did we get for that? (I mean in small-minded, spiritually bankrupt money-grubbing terms, obviously.) NSW Business Chamber of Commerce anticipated bumper trading revenues of $231 million and the NSW Government spent plenty of time reminding sceptics of the potential cash windfall for NSW.

Now, well after the fact, and with the economic measurement tools to not only estimate but confirm the real economic benefit of WYD, the Chamber of Commerce has conveniently chosen to not release any actual figures.

The NSW Department of State and Regional Development did their own projected estimates but — and this raises even more interesting questions — this information is "commercially in confidence" and is not available to the public.

Trade figures for NSW in July are yet to be released by the ABS. State and Regional Development intend to conduct a post-evaluation, but there again, based on the form of this Government, there’s every reason to expect that evaluation will be declared commercial in confidence too. (The public could be forgiven for thinking this classification is just another way of saying "We don’t want you to know".)

Also last week, a similar discussion occurred between Premier Nathan Rees and the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon. This was in estimates for State Development, so with good authority to ask specific questions about WYD. The Greens’ previous FOI requests and calls for papers detailing projected economic benefits were blocked by the Government (supported by votes from the Shooters Party and Christian Democrats).

At this meeting the new Premier said, "I will be honest with you: the initial estimated cost of World Youth Day was, from memory, $20 million, but it blew out to five times that. I am not aware of a study that has been done on the cost benefit of World Youth Day. If that material exists, I am happy to furnish it."

Director-General of the Premiers and Cabinet, Robyn Kruk (who also resigned last week) added, "I understand that a report is being compiled which looks at the full conduct of the World Youth Day event: the costs, the benefits and the impact on business. It will also look at regional impacts. I believe that is in its final stages".

And it appears Premier Rees would like to release the previous report, just not yet: "My preference would be that it be released with the assessment that is being done currently on the costs and/or benefits of the whole exercise."

Having recently been informed by outgoing Treasurer Michael Costa that it is losing $90 million per month, NSW has a $1 billion black hole and is probably going to axe or indefinitely delay vital and already overdue transport infrastructure projects.

So we think it’s worth asking: was the public money spent on World Youth Day well spent? In a month where the US Congress endorses a $US700 billion bailout (with questionable benefits) and Kevin Rudd dumps $10.5 billion on Aussie households, we’ve become indifferent to spending large amounts of government revenue. Beyond the photo-ops for former Premier Morris Iemma, the sunny backdrop of Sydney Harbour, "the joy it brought to our city" and the alleged pilgrim flu, was it really worth it?

For NSW, the recent by-election failures, senior bureaucrats quitting and a new Premier who looks disappointed and/or teary every time he appears in public, perhaps WYD is like last year’s fireworks display or a fancy Neil Perry dish — great while it lasted, cost a bomb but with nothing to show for it now.

Will Nathan Rees endeavour to avoid any more such scenarios? Yesterday in NSW Parliament, Minister for State Development Ian MacDonald refused to release economic modelling on the proposed V8 Supercar competition at Sydney’s Olympic Park. He cited "commercial-in-confidence" concerns.

Back at Kristina Keneally’s estimates hearing, the Opposition Whip Don Harwin‘s closing remarks resonated. "World Youth Day is a lovely note on which to finish".

If only it were election time already, his words would have much more prescience.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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