World Youth Day continued to attract bad publicity over the weekend, with parish priests bagging it, the event’s official guide to s-x being mocked and George Pell — a man who must awaken every day ruing that it isn’t the fifteenth century — showing how classy the event is by officially launching its taxpayer-subsidised merchandising activities in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

The Official WYD Pilgrim Guide’s views on s-x presumably reflect an awareness even on the part of the sinister old men who run the Catholic Church that bringing together thousands of young people guarantees that they’ll rut like bunnies. Happily, the Church has been made so self-conscious of its censoriousness about s-x that it has to carefully phrase its abstinence warnings in order not to look even more medieval than it already does. So the guide’s big on genital warts, but also declares that the Church REALLY, truly, definitely doesn’t have a problem with s-x. “What you may not know,” declares the guide, “is that the Church is actually really positive about s-x. The Church thinks s-x is great … s-x really is awesome!”

Which, of course, begs the question, how would a bunch of celibates know what s-x is like? The closest the Catholic hierarchy comes to s-x is when they shelter protectors of child molesters in the Vatican.

Catholicism isn’t the only strange belief system featuring in the media at the moment. Apparently Melbourne will get to keep its F1 race a few more years. The World Youth Day is merely one more symptom of the obsession with “major events”, another function of modern politics. The obsession with attracting “major events” first emerged in the 1990s, aided by the success of Brisbane’s Expo in 1988, which not merely attracted vast crowds but was held to have initiated Brisbane’s transformation into a modern capital. Jeff Kennett pursued events enthusiastically as part of a plan to impose attractiveness on Melbourne by force. Labor’s newly-elected Bob Carr, eager to match his Victorian rival, then began a fierce rivalry to attract events — having inherited the Olympics from John Fahey.

In time, particularly in NSW and in Canberra under Kate Carnell, major events became a substitute for effective planning and policy. For Governments focussed on media management rather than genuine and difficult reform, hosting events was a convenient distraction. And they came with their own rituals and emblems. Courtesy of magical multipliers based on heroic assumptions about flow-on benefits, the income from events was calculated in the hundreds of millions, for what was invariably an initial small outlay by governments.

The extent of the commitment of taxpayer funds was kept secret for as long as possible, frequently on the basis that it was commercially confidential. Governments were always willing to suspend normal processes and override the normal rights of citizens to facilitate the needs and wants of event participants. And any critics were howled down as naysayers, killjoys and small-minded types who wanted to prevent their home from becoming “a genuine world city”.

The reality is always a little more prosaic. The commitment of taxpayer funds inevitably rises significantly. The economic benefits turn out to be wildly overstated. Hotel rooms go unoccupied; businesses find themselves unable to open or attract custom due to security measures; attendance numbers are well below expectations and need padding with freebies. Elaborate protective measures turn out to be laughably flawed. And, always, the killer line would be delivered — governments have signed up to lengthy, unbreakable contracts, out-negotiated by the Bernie Ecclestones of the world.

One government saw the light — the new Labor ACT Government, finding a city littered with unused futsal slabs and stadium turf painted green, paid out its V8 Supercar contract rather than waste more money on it.

Other Governments, however, remain more in thrall to the lure of major events than ever. The hopeless Iemma Government, in particular, lurches from one event to another, each time introducing further and more draconian security laws to curb protests, apparently hoping that a brief influx of taxpayer-subsidised visitors will distract citizens from its inability to run a transport, education or health system. Strangely enough, it is things like a decent public transport system, a functioning health system and a strong school system that play a far bigger role in whether a city is an appealing and dynamic place to live — not stunts and events.

At least the Catholic Church now feel self-conscious about its obsession with s-x. If only our state governments could be shamed into admitting their obsession with major events.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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