An act of governmental vandalism


28 April 2018 – updated 29 April

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Arts Minister Don Harwin in Saturday finally announced their plans to demolish the Powerhouse Museum, relocate it to Parramatta and turn its historic Ultimo site over to developers. It will be an act of cultural vandalism without parallel in the modern world – and it’s being carried out in defiance of State Parliament.

In an astonishing breach of the norms of parliamentary democracy, the Government refused to comply with an Upper House order to release the business case for the move from Ultimo in advance of Cabinet’s final decision.

At close of business on Thursday 26 April, the deadline for releasing the business case, the Office of Premier and Cabinet announced that no documents covered by the resolution were held by Government.

This was extraordinary, given that Arts Minister Don Harwin had previously confirmed that the business case was delivered to Government in December 2017 – four months ago. “The government said they received a business case before December, so they must have it or you have to call them liars,” said MLC Robert Borsak, chair of the Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries.

“This was an order of the Parliament,” said David Shoebridge, Greens MLC who moved the resolution, “and the Coalition Government has again sought to avoid scrutiny.”

Inquiry chair Robert Borsak, right, with David Shoebridge – holding government to account

Labor arts spokesperson Walt Secord agreed: “Either this is a massive cover-up, or worse, there is no business case at all.”

No government in Australia has yet got away with refusing a parliamentary order to produce papers. Labor’s Michael Egan, while Treasurer, attempted to do so in 1996 but the case ended up in the High Court where he lost. The decision, by the highest court in the land, affirmed the legal requirement for ministers to be responsible to Parliament, i.e. the people.

Perhaps aware of this, by some extraordinary sleight of hand Minister Harwin found a summary of the business case in time to release it when journalists gathered in Parramatta to hear Saturday’s late morning announcement. Yet the document, published HERE by the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, does not end the obfuscation. It’s entitled “Final Business Case Summary”, and estimates total cost of the Government’s preferred option for the project at $1.179 billion, and net capital cost at $645 million. Yet how the funding gap is to be met remains a secret.

According to today’s report in The Sydney Morning Herald Minister Harwin told journalists: “A masterplan had yet to be started and a final business case was still to be completed setting out the government’s financial investment options at Ultimo.”

So when is a final business case not a final business case? NSW Parliament will sit on 1, 2 and 3 May when, I believe, Cabinet must be called to account.

The funding debacle

Premier Berejiklian and Minister Harwin, who is also the Liberals’ numbers man for marginal seats, pushed the Powerhouse decision through Cabinet last Thursday despite, according to the Premier’s office, not having the “now you see it, now you don’t” business case in front of them. They did so without the slightest regard for their own Parliament, for professional opinion or for the State’s heritage.

A major metropolitan museum is being scrapped with no adequate funding to care for its unique collection of more than half a million objects, in an atmosphere of extreme secrecy surrounding the developer deals involved. It’s a decision taken for perceived electoral advantage in the key swing seats of Western Sydney.

Museums Australia, in a recent statement, said: “We are concerned for the safety and accessibility of the museum collections, and would support more recent proposals for enlarging the cultural infrastructure of the state rather than relocating it.”

The Powerhouse Museum Alliance has issued an excellent Statement on the Future of the institution, warning that “nothing is safe” from the Government’s secret sell-off of public assets.

Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo – prime site for developers

The Coalition Government has been evading accountability to Parliament over the issue for three years. The all-party Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, which has focused on the Powerhouse debacle, has repeatedly tried to ascertain the true cost of the move. It was only evidence to the inquiry from museum professionals in 2016 that brought to light the true cost of transferring the Powerhouse collection. Former Powerhouse director Dr Lindsay Sharp put the expense at $1.5 billion or more, leading to the inquiry’s revelation that the move had not even been costed.

Only then was the business case developed – but crucial parts of it remain secret. Government now claims that the net cost of the move will be $645 million, but architects gave evidence to the Inquiry that the building alone will cost $800 million. So what about the costs of relocating and caring for the collection – let alone the ongoing operational costs? It simply doesn’t add up, unless some deal over Ultimo has already been done.

The Inquiry’s hearings have been postponed until 28 May after former Premier Mike Baird, now an NAB banker, repeatedly made himself unavailable to give evidence about his original 2015 decision to move the museum. We need to know what backroom deals were made with developers that have been kept secret from the public.

The media and the myth of ‘elitism’

In advance of Thursday’s announcement, the Government’s allies ramped up its media campaign, chiefly through a barrage in the pages of the Murdoch press. “New data reveals how the Powerhouse Museum is the domain of the inner city elite”, screamed one Daily Telegraph article by State political editor Anna Caldwell on 25 April. It was nothing but a philistine beat-up – less than 25% of visitors are from the inner city, 75% from elsewhere. School parties and families coming in to central Sydney from regional NSW are in fact disadvantaged by the move – they’re unlikely to make the trip out to Parramatta.

The Western Sydney Business Chamber claims the move is necessary to give the region a first-class cultural facility. But as the Powerhouse Museum Alliance says, for the same money the Government is proposing to spend, it “could create a NSW Smithsonian, a network of new museums in western Sydney and regional NSW, with the Powerhouse as the centrepiece”.

The Daily Telegraph’s own arts correspondent, the respected Elizabeth Fortescue, evidently has her own reservations, posting the following on Facebook: “I would leave the Powerhouse in its admirably central location. And I would give Western Sydney the facility it deserves: a purpose-built, state-of-the-art building where a new permanent collection could be housed, and where touring shows could be staged.  As the new gallery gained its own history and traction, it would shape its own identity and fulfil the needs of its constituency without help from the ‘big end of town’.”

Fate of the two sites

Minister Harwin is making much of the fact that the Ultimo site will still have a “cultural presence”. His plans include retaining a fashion and design centre, and also a new lyric theatre – in other words, a venue for money-making musicals. Sheer coincidence, no doubt, that in the run-up to the decision impresario John Frost gave an interview to the press saying that a new Sydney musical theatre was “desperately needed”

Digital image of the proposed relocated museum

The real question about Ultimo is: Who has the development contract, and when was it agreed?

In Parramatta, meanwhile, the government claims that the new site will have “more” exhibition space than at Ultimo – 18,000 square metres, to be precise. Except that the existing Powerhouse has 20,000 square metres. The future architects will face an almighty challenge to construct a museum fit for purpose on a flood-prone riverbank. And it will have to accommodate a planetarium as well as “bars, cafes, shopping and function spaces”.

There are double standards at work between the Powerhouse and the banker-led board of the Art Gallery of NSW, as museum specialist Kylie Winkworth points out. She writes: “One of the great mysteries in the government’s reckless three-year obsession with evicting the Powerhouse Museum (PHM) from its purpose built facilities is why the Sydney Modern project has not been subject to the same cultural equity imperative. And why haven’t the advocates for the PHM to Parramatta relocation weighed in to ask for Sydney Modern to be built in Parramatta, given the city already has the AGNSW and the MCA, and a gallery is a stated priority in Parramatta Council’s own cultural plan? Parramatta wants to be known as a creative city but the government is sending them an eviscerated small version of the PHM not Sydney Modern.”

Anniversary of ‘Culture Heist’

It’s one year this week since the launch of my book Culture Heist. Thanks to all of you who have read the book and to the hundreds who have sent messages of support and told me their own concerns about the corporatisation of cultural institutions.

If you haven’t yet seen the book, go to our special offer HERE.

State Library launch of ‘Culture Heist’ one year ago