What a dark story emerges when the lid is lifted on the NSW Government’s much-vaunted “cultural infrastructure” spending!

Evidence at the hearing on 12 September of the Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, held at Parliament House in Sydney, revealed a Kafkaesque scenario of arts and planning authorities entangled in a web of bad policy and political spin.

It was only in June, after a prolonged tussle in which it attempted to defy an Upper House order, that the Government released a heavily redacted version of the business case for demolishing the Powerhouse Museum in Darling Harbour and moving part of its collection to Parramatta in Western Sydney.

Since then concerned museum professionals have spent many hours of voluntary labour poring over thousands of pages of previously secret documents in an attempt to make sense of them.

A session of the Upper House Inquiry earlier this year, when former Premier Mike Baird was questioned

The 12 September Inquiry hearing took evidence from three of the most highly qualified professionals: Dr Lindsay Sharp, former director both of the Powerhouse and of London’s Science Museum, who has 42 years experience of leading museums in Australia and internationally; Kylie Winkworth, widely considered one of the country’s most distinguished and knowledgeable museum consultants; and Andrew Grant, a transport heritage and engineering consultant who spent 33 years a curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) of which the Powerhouse is a part.

Realities of the Powerhouse move

Here are just some of the conclusions reached by the diligent, normally mild-mannered trio:

Kylie Winkworth testified: “This is a project that breaks every core belief and value that underpins museums: caring for our culture and heritage, the trust of the community, the safe custodianship of the collection and the obligation to preserve the legacy of previous generations… this is essentially a property play masquerading as a museum project.”

Contrary to Create NSW’s own guidelines, said Winkworth, no cultural mapping, museum needs analysis or consideration of alternatives has been undertaken. Despite being cashed up, the Berejiklian Government, which is spending billions on sports stadiums, has given no consideration to building a much-needed Aboriginal cultural centre, a museum of NSW history or an art gallery for Parramatta.

Museum people around the world, she said, are “looking on with incredulity at the attempts of the NSW Government to demolish the Powerhouse… How does this happen in a civilised society, we are asked by museum colleagues across the country and overseas…”

Dr Lindsay Sharp, who two years ago alerted the Inquiry to the likely real cost of moving the Powerhouse (then $1.2 billion as opposed to the $200 million first mooted by the Baird Government), focused this time on two issues: the flood issue at the proposed Parramatta site, and the lack of fiscal discipline in planning.

Dr Lindsay Sharp

He said that the key documents presented to Cabinet for the extended final business case (EFBC) “were so flaccid, inconsistent, mendacious and incompetent no bank or commercial institution would accept them as a basis for funding consideration”.

The Parramatta riverside site, according to predictions by scientists, may well be subject to flood levels 12 to 14 metres above current river levels within decades. “It is the height of folly to build a new museum in a place where such predictable risks are even possible, indeed likely.” The project would “deliver a misshapen, flood-prone, submarine kind of shrunken monster”. (The 2015 Parramatta flood is pictured above.)

Dr Sharp further analysed the figures in the EFBC to show that the project could not meet Treasury’s benchmark benefit-to-cost ratio, which must exceed 1.0 for a project to proceed. It cannot, he said, “get within a bull’s roar of passing the BCR”. Rather, with 50- or 75-storey tower blocks planned for both Ultimo and Parramatta, the project would be a gift to “greedy, corrupt developers or to the rent-seeking so-called business leaders at the big end of either city”.

Asked what he now considered to be the likely cost of the project, he said that given it would be a six- or eight-year construction period, it would be “no less than $1.6 billion and quite possibly up to $1.92 billion”.

He also pointed out that management of the project was now in the hands not of the MAAS board, but of Minister Harwin and the Cultural Infrastructure Program Management Office (CIPMO).

Andrew Grant told the Inquiry that, like the other witnesses, he supported the idea of a new museum at Parramatta but not at the cost of destroying the Powerhouse nor of building on a “bizarrely inappropriate site which, according to Australia’s leading river hydrologist expert, Dr John Macintosh, poses potentially life-threatening risks”.

He had been to see the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who is his local MP. When he told her that the new Parramatta museum should not be called the Powerhouse, he was met with the glib reply: “It’s just a branding exercise.” He added: “In other words, it is not about heritage and culture, it is about marketing and spin.”

Grant drew particular attention to budget cuts that “have led to an alarming depletion of specialist staff at the museum, notably in curatorial, conservation workshop and maintenance positions”.

He was also concerned about the sell-off and demolition of large parts of the award-winning Ultimo building and the utter inadequacy of the proposed Parramatta building to house much of the collection, including two of its most significant centrepieces, the 1785 Boulton and Watt beam engine and the Catalina flying boat. Valuable exhibits would be “removed from their current spectacular site and context only to be scattered to various locations, perhaps on indefinite loan, while being exposed to substantial unnecessary risk or permanent or even irreparable damage or loss.”

The Minister’s response

Arts Minister Don Harwin

Following the evidence from the three professionals came an appearance by Minister for the Arts Don Harwin, flanked by officials from the Department of Planning and the Cultural Infrastructure Program Management Office (CIPMO).

The session might have been scripted for the ABC’s satirical sitcom The Hollowmen. Harwin was repeatedly asked by Greens MLC David Shoebridge why the business case for the project did not comply with the Treasury’s own guidelines for a capital business case, which specify: “The first option to be considered is the Base Case. That is, what happens if the status quo is maintained.”

Harwin: “Taking as its starting point the Government’s decision to locate the Powerhouse Museum on the site at Parramatta was in fact compliant with the processes that are permitted and there was in fact no such departure in the terms that you have described.”

Shoebridge, quoting the Treasury guidelines again, made two further attempts to get an answer to his question before Harwin flicked the answers to Craig Limkin of CIPMO.

Limkin: “The Treasury guidelines enable us to take as a base case the policy decision that the Government has taken…”

Shoebridge: “Mr Limkin, I can see why the Minister wants you to give that answer. But the document itself, Treasury’s own guidelines, says in black and white, the base case is the status quo…”

Limkin: “As I said, Mr Shoebridge, my job is to give Government options and as part of that options analysis we consulted with our NSW Treasury colleagues and our Infrastructure NSW colleagues and they agreed that the base case should be the Government’s decision to relocate the Powerhouse Museum…”

Shoebridge: “Treasury breached its own guidelines, is that what you are telling us?”

Limkin: “I cannot speak for Treasury, I am sorry, Mr Shoebridge.”

Inquiry chair Robert Borsak MLC, right, with David Shoebridge MLC

Under further questioning the hapless Limkin revealed that the six “independent” reviews of the business case, referred to earlier by the Minister, had in fact all been carried out by … Infrastructure NSW! With the assistance of consultancies from outside the cultural sector. (The rise in government use of overpaid corporate consultants is of course in inverse proportion to the declining employment of appropriately qualified, cost-effective public servants – but more on that at another time.)

Before the Inquiry adjourned Harwin and his officials were asked about the Powerhouse fashion ball scandal, the termination of outgoing director Dolla Merrilees, and the reasons for the new executive post, replacing hers, to report directly to the Minister. Several of the questions were taken on notice, but Harwin refused, on commercial-in-confidence grounds, to give details of development on the Ultimo site or revenue from it. The Inquiry, which has been running for more than two years, has again extended its reporting date, to February 2019.

Implications for Sydney Modern

If one business case for cultural infrastructure has so many holes, how about the other major project in NSW, the AGNSW’s grandiose plan for a $344m Sydney Modern harbourside extension?

Its business case remains shrouded in secrecy but is known to include, as an assumption, a doubling of visitor figures.

The problem is, there’s widespread scepticism about even the current reported figures – claimed to have reached a record 1,591,355 in 2016-7. Art critic John McDonald blogged on 7 September: “Are we honestly expected to believe there was a 24% leap in attendances from 2016-6 to 2016-7? Watch out for flying pigs as you cross the Domain.”

If attendance figures are in doubt, why should we believe the cost projections, especially without transparency and independent review? With a challenging site, including huge World War Two underground oil tanks yet to be remediated, Sydney Modern is an unlikely candidate to break the Berejiklian Government’s duck and bring in a major infrastructure project on budget. Costs are almost bound to blow out.

Underground oil tanks – part of the Sydney Modern site

Not only does the Powerhouse debacle give pause for thought about the process, but an independent review by public service expert Lisa Corbyn has concluded that the way in which state significant projects are assessed is “opaque” and shows “significant variance” in methods of analysis.

The Department of Planning says it has accepted the findings of Corbyn’s report and is implementing changes. The fate of the Sydney Modern Development Application (DA), now sitting with the Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts, should be a test case for this. To leave the decision solely with the Minister would fly in the face of the new recommendations, as well as showing contempt for the huge raft of community objections to the DA lodged earlier this year, At the very least the project should be referred to the Independent Planning Commission, which exists precisely as “a consent authority for state significant development”. But so far the Department has said that no such referral will be made.

Concerned about this? You can write to the Minister via this link or by post to: The Hon. Anthony Roberts MP, GPO Box 5341, Sydney NSW 2001.

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