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Issue #1847      November 7, 2018

Opera House eruption

Power of the gambling lobby

The recent public storm over the Sydney Opera House revealed many things, including the astounding arrogance of right-wing radio presenter Alan Jones, who verbally attacked Opera House director Louise Herron for refusing to accept use of the building to publicise the Everest horse race. Two of Jones’ business partners are owners of horses that were in the race.

During the shocking interview Jones demanded to know who Ms Herron thought she was and declared the Opera House wasn’t hers, but “ours”. He threatened to ring the NSW Premier to have her sacked, arguing that the race was a big tourist attraction and would be good for the state economy, and that anyone who opposed its promotion was in effect acting against the public interest.

The subservience of the NSW coalition government was revealed when the state Premier ordered Ms Herron to proceed with the advertising plan which involved projecting images associated with the event onto the building’s sails.

The response also showed the tremendous latent power of public opinion. The on-line petition protesting against the advertising proposal had more than 300,000 signatures by the time of the event, and there were so many protesters intent on disrupting it by shining torches onto the sails that they could barely fit onto the Opera House concourse.

An event which was supposed to rake in hundreds of millions in profits had instead become an object of public hatred. Its promoters, Racing NSW, nervously announced shortly afterwards that it would abandon any future plans for using the Opera House for advertising.

But the battle revealed many more issues other than whether the Opera House should be used to advertise a horse race.

Privatising public space

The Australian Institute of Architects denounced the commercial exploitation of “one of the greatest buildings of the 20th Century”. One of the Everest promoters attempted to excuse the Opera House fiasco by declaring that the only reason they wanted the building was because they originally opted for the Harbour Bridge, but it wasn’t available!

The Opera House and the Bridge are Sydney’s most iconic structures and are internationally famous. But to Racing NSW and other sporting organisations the cultural significance of those places doesn’t entitle them to dignity and respect, it just constitutes a great business opportunity.

Prime Minister Morrison agrees with them. He described the Opera House as “Sydney’s biggest billboard” and opposition to the screening proposal as “precious” and “unctuous”. He added “I can’t work out what all the fuss is about”.

The NSW coalition government, which is absolutely aligned with the interests of big business, takes such matters one step further. It treats some culturally significant institutions, like the Ultimo Powerhouse Museum building, as commodities which should be in the hands of the private sector.

Some opponents of the Opera House proposal pointed out that other comparable institutions such as Covent Garden and La Scala in Milan are not used – or abused – in that way.

Yet 13 years ago the Trevi fountain in Rome was used as an advertising space for Vodaphone mobile phones, and commercial advertising is now invading cities all over the world. In Australia the corporate world would dearly love to overturn the prohibition of advertising on the ABC.

Kurt Iveson, associate professor of urban geography at Sydney University commented that advertising appears not just on billboards but also on “bus stops, newsstands, street signs, houses, buses, trains, trams, electricity poles, train station platforms, the back of toilet doors, escalators, in lifts, stencilled onto footpaths ... ”.

Iveson notes that the revenue coming from outdoor advertising weakens the commitment of governments to serve the interest of the public rather than the private sector.

He said: “It’s imperative that we figure out how to recapture our public realm for the public good before it’s too late. We must not only defend the sails of the Opera House against this corporate incursion. We must start insisting our public realm is publicly funded for the public good and demand that politicians place limits on the amount of space set aside for advertising in our urban environments.”

The gambling epidemic

Horse racing is dominated by the parasitic gambling industry. Advertising proponents claim that a precedent for the Everest/Opera House deal has already been set by use of the building to promote cricket and football matches. But those events should also be the subject of Opera House advertising prohibitions. Sport is now really big business, and gambling is rife in all major sporting codes.

Ads for Beteasy, Ladbrokes and Sportsbet now infest commercial TV broadcasts made before major sporting matches. Last year horse racing gambling losses jumped 6.9 percent to a massive $3.31 billion, a national record. Jones supports registered clubs, and poker machines in clubs and casinos cost Australian families $14 billion last year.

The NSW government is about to sign a four-year agreement with Clubs NSW, which Tim Costello, director of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, describes as “a ruthless lobbying machine dedicated to protecting its billion a year in pokies revenue.” The agreement is likely to grant clubs low poker machine taxes, no limits to poker machine numbers, machines that accept $7,000 in cash at one time and exemptions to smoking bans in gambling areas.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and other organs of the Murdoch media empire campaigned in support of the Opera House proposal. That empire profited by about $2 billion when it sold its UK gambling firm Sky Betting and Gaming. Murdoch newspapers and pay TV firms receive more gambling revenue than any other media group in Australia, and the betting comparison sites Punters.com.au and Odds.com.au are Murdoch outfits.

And Alan Jones is employed by Murdoch broadcaster Sky.

Some Victorian sporting clubs are dumping their poker machine licences. Gambling advertising should also be dumped, as it has been in Italy. Gambling should be severely restricted and poker machines and gambling areas in pubs and clubs should be labelled with information about gambling’s shockingly harmful effects.

But to do that we would really have to look beyond the current major parties and elect a strong coalition with steel-like determination. It’s not worth gambling on our future.

Next article – MUA-AWU’s Offshore Alliance

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