Tax Packer's Casino And Fund The Arts

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Local Labor activists have recoiled in collective shock at the capitulation by the Shadow Cabinet to the James Packer empire, and its support for a new casino to dominate Barangaroo. The scenario seems like something drawn from the excesses of the 1980s: a billionaire Packer throwing around his substantial weight to make Labor leaders approve a gambling den for his international cronies.

What is as stake here is the city’s future: in the coming Asian century Sydney’s identity of a key metropolis of the Pacific Rim risks being transformed from a cultural and economic hub to a stopover for the mega-rich of the USA and China. Rather than respecting the city as a centre in its own right, it will merely be a place to play a hand or two of Texas Hold’em and hand over large amounts of cash of questionable provenance.

The casino must be stopped. But because of the startlingly lax and unaccountable process that the O’Farrell Government is putting in place to deal with Jamie Packer’s "unsolicited proposal", circumventing the development controls and tendering requirements that previous Labor governments had instituted, any challenge to it will have to be strongly fought. As former premier Morris Iemma argued upon hearing of the proposal, a refusal to go to tender on the project and seek out what other players in the market might offer is in breach of the most basic standards of probity and good government.

But there are more problems with the processes around the casino proposal than just the lack of a tender. The licence to print money that a second casino represents is being given away by the government with little recompense to the people of New South Wales. In Sydney, local Labor activists involved in arts and cultural policy have formed a group, the Sydney Arts Alliance (SAA), to fight the handing over of such an important piece of social capital for free.

The SAA has demanded that any development in Barangaroo be subject to the principles of the Sydney Labor policy which the party fought for at the City of Sydney by-election: that for major commercial projects, a "per cent for art" or other similar scheme be implemented to guarantee a proportion of the budget for the project be directed into a fund for community arts and cultural activities. This policy should be applied for any commercial parts of the Barangaroo development, but even more so if the casino element, with all its anti-social effects and power to attract criminality, goes ahead.

Per cent for art schemes like this operate in other Australian states, and in American cities like Chicago, driving resources into the arts sector and local communities. Funding often goes to public art projects in and around the development, to give some aesthetic control of the environment back to the people who live there, and bring life to the public spaces created or modified in the process. In the UK £850 million in lotteries revenue has gone to the National Arts Council for artistic projects across the country from theatre to dance and film, photography, carnival and crafts.

Given the centrality of Barangaroo to the image not only of Sydney, but the entire state and indeed the nation, the artistic and cultural contribution needs to go beyond the immediate area in which it is located. Using the Barangaroo levy to resource regional galleries and community arts projects would be one way of recognising the breadth of the impact of commercial activities on the site across New South Wales.

As Evan Hughes, director of the Ray Hughes Gallery and a member of the SAA has pointed out, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is also facing funding shortfalls because of the O’Farrell government’s attack on the arts, part of a broader Coalition campaign of philistinism led by the Campbell Newman regime. One way of stopping the leading NSW art institution from falling further and further behind those of other states would be to direct resources to it through a levy such as this.

A per cent for art scheme should operate for any development in Barangaroo, even if, in the best case scenario, the casino proposal is rejected. But if a Packer casino does go through then, in recognition of the greater social and cultural damage that it would cause, a higher rate of contribution should be levied against it. Culturally, the creation of a new high-roller room and other measures which glamorise gambling carry an especially powerful charge, legitimating high risk betting and gaming behaviours which might otherwise receive social opprobrium and be discouraged.

In addition, whereas most schemes operate on the basis of a one-off payment, any casino levy should have an additional component that is paid on an annual basis. The effects of having a casino located in the area will be ongoing, the wealth generated by it will also be ongoing, and so the resources that flow from it into community projects as compensation should also not be limited to a single payment at the beginning. Linking the payment to the amount of money flowing through of the casino, such as through a levy of its profits, would be one way of recognising this.

The casino plan has to be fought on several fronts. Asking the public to think about other activities and enterprises, both commercial and non-commercial, that can take the place of the casino and deliver greater benefits to Sydney is, for instance, one conversation that needs to be had. A per cent for art scheme is one of the many weapons that should be deployed in the struggle to ensure that the future of Barangaroo is one determined and decided by the interests of the people of Sydney.

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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