The NSW State Government’s announcement over the weekend to fund a renovation of the Sydney Opera House to the tune of $1 billion is either just a furphy or an ill-conceived waste of tax-payers money.

Revealed in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, the article stated “Treasury officials indicated two weeks ago that the Government was willing to provide the money needed for the restoration.”

A spokesperson for the Premier told the paper that “it will be a joint funding proposal between the state and the feds.” But already, the Federal Government is backing away from the project with the Prime Minister saying yesterday he was “sceptical”.

He’s not the only one. The NSW government is already in the red so it would be timely to ask them where they intend getting any of that $1 billion from. As The Australian has reported this morning, it would require $64-70 million each year for a total of seven years.

I reckon the political media spinners are just having a laugh and this is just some type of half-cocked leak; tell the media they want to fix the Opera House, please a few arts benefactors then watch it get howled down in the public sphere. Or even better, get the Prime Minister to say he’s sceptical about the project. It’s a win-win situation and you don’t have to spend a single cent.

Hypothetically, if it is an honest attempt by the government to completely gut the Opera House and rebuild it, then it’s one of the most ambitious plans ever taken on by a State Government since Joern Utzon’s vision was first conceived. It is also one of the most wasteful.

Everyone knows the problems with the Opera House need to be rectified. Quite simply, there isn’t enough space to house a proper orchestra and the floor needs to be dropped some 18 metres.

However, Premier Nathan Rees told the Daily Telegraph on Saturday that he believes that “… funding for the arts generally hasn’t been as high a priority as I believe it should have been for a city of international stature.”

He’s not wrong about that. As I wrote in Crikey last year, NSW continues to lag behind its counterparts in arts expenditure — most particularly Victoria — and the organisations who have suffered the most have been community based groups and regional arts organisations.

The saddest part of this is that only two months ago the State Government through their funding agency, Arts NSW, signed off on the death of four major regional music festivals — the Bellingen Jazz Festival, the Tyalgum Festival, the Bangalow Festival and the Camden Haven Music Festival.

To give this some perspective, the Bellingen Jazz Festival last year received $11,000. Similar amounts were cut from these other festivals.

At the time, director of the Camden Haven Music Festival Alvena Ferguson said, “…while the Sydney Festival, which engages mainly overseas performers, received in excess of $4 million, many regional events such as ours, which contribute so much to the economic and cultural life of country communities, have not been supported.”

No doubt Mrs Ferguson will be breathless at the weekend’s announcement.

The howling down has already started, particularly on the blogosphere (my site included) and through Facebook and Twitter communities.

Arts activist Marcus Westbury responded to the announcement on his blog asking, “Is this the best we can do with a billion dollars? Even putting aside the obvious case for spending the money on schools, hospitals, public transport and the rest of the state’s clapped out infrastructure … there are so many far more productive and urgent things that could be done with just a fraction of this money in the arts.”

With $1 billion the State Government could revolutionise the way arts and music are created and consumed for generations to come, stretching from the Murray to the Tweed.

Certainly a longer term approach to fixing the Opera House is appropriate, but at a time when household income is dropping and a recession is about to take hold, wouldn’t this money be better spent on community, regional and grassroots arts and music programmes to advance creative excellence and expose that excellence to everyone?

Peter Fray

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