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There’s national pride in national precincts

By R D Wood

In 2011-12 alone, governments around Australia earned $5.5bn from gambling losses whereas $15bn ended up in ‘not-for-profit’ sports clubs and the private sector. A lot of that money came in some relationship to sport, be that at local sports clubs in NSW or through gambling on professional codes. In that same period they only spent $1.8bn on sports stadiums.[1] It is important to have hallowed grounds we can all enjoy, but the infrastructure money spent on sportgrounds needs to come from clean sources and at a time when the economy needs stimulation. The budget crisis facing Western Australia for example, could have been avoided if there was long-term planning for life after the construction phase of the mining boom. This is not even to discuss the value of mining in the first place let alone the corporate structure that underpins this. But I do think we do need a national flagship program that speaks to who we are as a people. That is why I favour a National Precinct for Indigenous Cultures in Darwin. This would be a place for storytelling, song, dance, material culture, and heritage as well as a football stadium that brings people together. It is a project that could be built when we need to stimulate the economy again.

Northern Australia, and Darwin in particular, will play an increasingly important role in Australia’s development in the future. What that development looks like depends on national planning and on the role of special interests. In the 2015 White Paper on Northern Australia titled ‘Our North, Our Future’ the authors write:

“Many previous efforts to develop the north have floundered through a lack of foresight and the absence of markets in our region for high value goods and services … the Commonwealth Government is putting in place the right policies, at the right time, to unlock the north’s vast potential.”

They go on to state that:

“It is not the Commonwealth Government’s role to direct, or be the principal financier of, development. Developing the north is a partnership between investors (local and international investors who provide capital and know-how) and governments (that create the right investment conditions).”

However, this is quickly followed by a list of investment commitments, which not only demonstrates the hypocrisy of the self-styled infrastructure Prime Minister Tony Abbott who signed off on this paper but also the unavoidable role of government in regional development.

But this bureaucratic and political vision for Northern Australia is mired in a twentieth century idea of the frontier. They see the North essentially as a resource rather than a complex place of natural and cultural significance. In that way, not only does the Commonwealth underestimate the value of the place as place, but they also significantly undermine its autonomy as something other than a place of extraction and exploitation. That Indigenous perspectives are marginalized in favour of mining and farming interest is a symptom of how the North remains a target of a colonial mentality.

By comparison, a National Precinct for Indigenous Cultures is the flagship project for our North. It leapfrogs the easy primary industry that the government has slated due to its special interests, and instead proposes value added economies that will be beneficial to a greater number of Territorians. It is democratic, strategic and imperative for Darwin as well as Australia, and builds on the fine work of art centres, the talent of footballers and the thriving music scene all in a place that is a true melting pot of culture.

Indeed, it appears a fait accompli that stadiums are infrastructure projects that are supported by the community. Museums on the other hand have been more contested. This was especially the case with the National Museum in Canberra, which had its detractors when it first opened. But this opposition was on account of the specific design rather than the concept and as such might not be seen as reason to avoid building important cultural institutions. In that regard, the two recent Smithsonian Museums that have been added to Washington DC Mall – the Museum of the Native American and the Museum of the African American Experience – have developed into financially profitable and internationally significant sites. There is no reason why Darwin cannot follow their example, or the example of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. When coupled with a world-class sports stadium, Darwin can become a magnet for Australians seeking a gateway to the top end as well as attracting the growing middle class of Asia. Indeed, it is this latter demographic that will help Australia develop in the coming century, either through buying our produce as the White Paper is keen to ensure or by visiting our shores.

[1] ‘Are we spending too much on stadiums?’

Skoda Stadium (Sydney Showgrounds) – $20 million Metricon Stadium (Gold Coast) – $144 million Sydney Cricket Ground – $186 million Melbourne Cricket Ground (Southern Stand) – $55 million Simonds Stadium (Geelong) – $29 million Adelaide Oval – $570 million Burswood Stadium (Perth) – $700 million NIB Stadium (Perth) – $82.5 million Bellerive OVal (Tas) – $21 million (applied for) WIN Stadium (NSW) – $29.8 million Penrith Stadium (NSW) – $5 million

See also: ‘AFL the big winner from decade of investment in sporting infrastructure’


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  1. Steve Laing -

    I agree that the lack of forward planning by various state governments around the country is shocking, and whilst everyone loves a new stadium, it is arguable whether they are the best use of resources given they are empty most of the time – hardly the most productive asset. And your comments on how politicians view “the outback” simply as a resource is symptomatic of all too common a perspective amongst that class, where everything boils down to money.

    I really like the idea of a National Precinct for Indigenous Cultures, but I’d also value regional ones given the significant diversity of aboriginal cultures around the country. Darwin could be a perfect location for a winter break for Australians from the southern cities. Not sure how much of a drawcard it would be to a global audience however, and a lack of patronage would be a great pity.

  2. Andreas Bimba

    A National Precinct for Indigenous Culture would be very worthwhile from the point of view of providing worthy employment, providing a better environment to locals through indigenous art and culture, and being of significant interest to local and foreign tourists.

    The federal government could fund such projects as part of a wider economic stimulus and Job Guarantee program at no cost to taxpayers or without loans being incurred as predominately underutilised economic capacity is being used so ‘newly created’ money could be used for funding. We need to break free of our neoliberal fiscally constrained ‘austerity’ mindset and realise we can easily have full employment and a dynamic economy that operates within environmental constraints.

  3. roma guerin

    ‘Not sure of a global audience’ – why do we do this to ourselves? It was my first thought too Steve, but then I stopped and thought some more. We, please forgive the royal prerogative, have this bad habit of assuming ‘they’ won’t be interested in us, and we need to get over it. We should not be tentative about any educational facility that will broaden our knowledge of Indigenous History for our own population. Then maybe, just maybe, the lot of today’s First Australians will improve, as more people have places to go to fill in all the gaps. If we develop alongside our aboriginal brothers and sisters, we might be able to come up with something to take pride in, instead of having enquiry after enquiry looking into all the problems, and achieving very little. If we can achieve that, then the rest of the world might take an interest. I think that the two museums in Washington were built on the premiss “build it and they will come”. We can do that.

  4. bobrafto

    did you say stimulate the economy? I think the lnp are too busy stimulating welfare recipients at this present moment.

  5. Steve Laing -

    Roma – don’t get me wrong. I think the concept really is a brilliant idea (and I’ve been thinking of something similar for WA). I’m just wondering whether Darwin is at present a little isolated such that it is enough of a drawcard on its own. You may very well be correct and that people would be interested, but as a comparison when I went with my family to New Zealand and visited Rotorua, I went to see the hot springs and a whole bunch of other attractions, however it was the way that the Maori culture was “showcased” there that left the most lasting impression. But the whole town was very much a tourist destination, and I’m not sure you could say the same about Darwin (but I don’t have the numbers, I’m just basing it on a single visits I have made to both destinations).

    Similarly the precinct in DC has so, so many attractions (two visits), that you could easily find stuff to do that you could stay long enough to justify that journey, plus it is fairly near to many other east coast towns/attractions. Has Darwin? Maybe. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if Uluru got more overseas visitors and might be a better location.

    But the very worst thing that could happen is that such a great concept dies on the vine due to lack of visitors – because knowing the way that our politicians work, that unfortunately would be the end of it.

  6. Kyran

    “That Indigenous perspectives are marginalized in favour of mining and farming interest is a symptom of how the North remains a target of a colonial mentality.”
    Our First People, their culture, their history, their knowledge, became a ‘target’ from day one of ‘civilized’ occupation. Their very being was challenged by way of slaughter, slavery, abduction, rapine and disease. When that failed to extinguish their culture, their history, their knowledge, the most vile of weapons was used. The vilification of their culture, their history and their knowledge.
    This may seem a long bow to stretch, but there is a parallel with Ireland.
    Back in the 16-17th century, the Tudors (England) ruled. From that time, it was illegal to speak Gaelic. It was illegal to dance or sing, in any of the traditional senses.
    That was the birth of ‘hedge schools’. School’s (ironically, most often conducted by catholic priests) acting in defiance of the law. School’s dedicated to the preservation of the Gaelic culture, it’s language, it’s dance and it’s song.
    One of the first acts of the Irish Parliament, the Dáil, in the early 1900’s, was to make it compulsory to learn Gaelic. Not just the language, but the dance and the song.
    Gaelic is a ‘dead’ language, other than if you wish to read Gaelic poetry. It doesn’t translate to English well. It loses it’s rhythm and it’s rhyme. Like most of my paltry excursions into ‘foreign’ languages, I only remember the profanities.
    With regard to the dance, heel and toe, hands by your side. I wasn’t too flash with that either. Didn’t stop this silly ‘Riverdance’ thing, or any of it’s derivatives, being a tad successful.
    With regard to the song, the only characteristic I can recall is the change in timing. Many traditional songs flick between 3-4, 4-4 and 5-4 beats, all in the one song.
    Bearing in mind that much of our First People’s history is oral, visual and sensory, and bearing in mind we need their help, is there any chance we can beg their assistance by asking the local mobs (I think we are down to 200) to go to every primary school and teach their language, their dance and their song?
    I understand that the Irish, in the early 1900’s, were the predominant culture in the land they ‘reclaimed’. I understand that our First People have neither that predominance, nor the protection of a government that has any respect for a culture that values anything other than trinkets or aggrandisement.
    It’s a long bow. If we can empower (rather than denigrate) the culture, perhaps? Pardon the digression.
    Thank you, RD Wood. Take care

  7. wam

    It would an advantage to highlight aboriginal cultures in addition to the cultures of Australian Aborigines but there is hundreds of cultural differences in Aboriginal and aboriginal cultures to choose from here and in our part of Asia alone, much more in the rest of the world.

    Darwin was, in a small way, an attracter to cultures by the Arafura games but they were scrapped by the clp.

    The cost of unlocking the pandora’s north requires bipartisan agreements between so many groups that is is practical to sell and let some other country do the work.

    If the diverse of cultures in Arnhem Land could come together and secede development would race into being.

    ps bilbao get about a million visitors. Darwin has about 4000 rooms a real FIFO situation????

  8. Harquebus

    Sports and the arts should not receive any support from governments. It is for distraction and propaganda purposes that they do.

    The Pontiac Silverdome


    Search criteria: abandoned olympic venues


  9. helvityni

    Harquebus, I don’t believe that the governments’ support for sports will ever end. Therefore support for Arts in all fairness ought to increase, I’m confident it’s nowhere as high as what the sports receive…

    What happened to Australian film making, the politicians don’t even mention the Arts anymore. Promising young writers/ painters etc. need support and encouragement…

  10. Rossleigh

    But Harquebus, sport and the arts only get some of the government’s fiat currency which – according to you – is worthless, so they’re in fact getting nothing from the government!

  11. Kaye Lee

    Between 2013-2014, the Australian Government put aside almost $120 million for Australian sport.

    Each submarine is going to cost us over $4 billion to build. Which contributes more to the nation?

  12. Steve Laing -

    Harq – sports and the arts enrich the lives of many whether as an “observer” or participant. Whilst funding such that are already self-supporting (AFL, NFL etc) is patently ludicrous, without funding many community-based arts and sports programs simply become too expensive for many families who will end up being unable to participate.

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