The people of the far north coast of NSW learned a valuable lesson recently: never get between the government and an event involving high-powered cars. Something about the smell of petrol induces in politicians a state of manic excitement. Perhaps those who devote their lives to the pursuit of power cannot resist the lure of the rampant piston.
The latest motorsport to get special treatment from drooling pollies is the Repco Rally, due to be staged by Rally Australia in the Tweed and Kyogle shires in September. The event is the Australasian leg of the World Rally, under the aegis of the Paris-based Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
When it was announced last year few people except petrol heads took much notice. The route ran through the heart of the iconic terrain around Mt Warning, which, a couple of months before the rally announcement, was named as a ‘National Landscape’ by Tourism Australia. The Mt Warning caldera is now marketed as “Australia’s Green Cauldron” to travellers from all over the world. Those who feared that motorsport and eco-tourism might be incompatible were anxious to see what the rally organisers’ development applications to the two shire councils would contain.
While these applications were supposedly being prepared, Tweed Shire Council granted the event organisers free office space in its premises and voted its general manager, Mike Rayner, on to the board of the rally, despite his potential conflict of interest. Concerns began to be raised about the rare and endangered species habitat the cars were to traverse at high speed, including portions of national parks and state forests. The residents of Kingscliff, a seaside holiday town, were not pleased to discover that their public foreshore was to be resumed to provide pitstop space for the rally teams.
The route was finally released last month, together with some of the reports required for the long-delayed development applications (which were still not forthcoming). By that time public unease had grown considerably, although criticism of the event could only get a hearing in one of the five newspapers in the area.
The media blitz misfired when a former rally driver, living locally, came out against the event. It did not help that the organisers misquoted their chief environmental scientist, making him sound more positive than he was, and announced offers of cooperation from community landcare and wildlife groups, which were in fact never made.
The race committee chairman, Garry Connelly, blustered, “It’s time this region got positive about this event. There will always be small groups who are philosophically opposed and no number of reports will keep them happy.”
One of the reports making local people unhappy was the socio-economic impact document that claimed the area would benefit by $31m in extra revenue and 2,000 new jobs. The extra revenue seemed unlikely as the WA government, when it gave the rally the flick in 2006, cited as its major reasons lack of economic return and lack of tourism promotion. As for jobs, they certainly won’t be with the rally itself, for despite millions of dollars already granted to the event by the NSW government (actual amount kept secret by the premier’s office), the organisers expect unpaid volunteers to supply the workforce.
On May 28 the public concern manifested in a protest meeting by 300 people outside the Tweed Shire Council chambers in Murwillumbah. Within 24 hours the minister for state development Ian Macdonald had assured the rally organisers that the government would pass special legislation guaranteeing the event for the next ten years, thus circumventing normal planning processes. In his press release the minister expanded the $31m economic benefit to $100m and said he needed to provide certainty the events would proceed despite opposition from local environmental groups.
Rally Australia spokesman Chris Nixon said organisers were nervous about opposition to the rally from people living alternative lifestyles. This nervousness had apparently been communicated to FIA.
“Paris wanted to be assured by the NSW government that there was nothing in the way that would stop the event going ahead,” he said.
The president of FIA is Max Mosley, who was recently in court trying to keep his sado-masochistic escapades out of the press. Premier Nathan Rees evidently jumped to attention when he heard from one of the most powerful men in world sport. We are back to the unhealthy nexus between motor racing and politicians and the nastier corners of international sport.
If the Olympic organisation can be infested with thugs left over from Salazar’s Portuguese fascist junta, then it’s no stretch for the infamous son of Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley to preside over FIA.
With the rally removed from local government supervision, protesters are considering their next move. The trauma expected to native wildlife is not trivial, nor is the effect of copycat driving in the months following the event. Direct action is firming as a likely response to the government’s brutal takeover, in the hope that FIA will not want to continue its scheduled ten-year program after embarrassing images of protest are beamed around the world.
One of the environmentally insensitive strategies proposed by the rally to protect koalas is to swoop helicopters over their trees just before the cars come through, in the hope of frightening them away. It may be the helicopters will end up performing a different function: that of searching for barricade-building human wildlife.