Predictably, Sydneysiders woke up on New Year’s Day 2016 with a hangover, but there was an even bigger one among staff of the iconic New South Wales Royal Botanic Gardens.

For the first time in its long history, the 30-hectare harbourside gardens were thrown open to paying guests to view the spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display.

The spot was billed as the best vantage point on offer, and the organisers charged top dollar to 3000 corporate clients and wealthy individuals who wanted to take advantage of a ringside seat and the promise of great food and drinks.

The Botanic Gardens venue, costing $500 per person, promised: “On the night guests will arrive to a glass of French champagne and canapes, then sit down and work their way through a seven course degustation with a superior beverage selection available on the night.”

But disappointed paying guests took to social media to complain about the event, with some demanding a refund, while others threatened legal action.

Forty-eight hours into the new year, the event organisers, NYE Above the Harbour, issued a public apology to “patrons who had issues with service and facilities at this year’s event”. It added:

“All parties involved have been working diligently to view patron feedback and formulate a response. While many patrons enjoyed the event, the organisers greatly regret that a number of patrons complained about event elements.

“The organisers and caterer empathise with patrons and are themselves disappointed with the issues that have arisen.

“They have poured significant time, resources and personal effort into the event’s planning, and are personally affected by the unfavourable outcome of their efforts.”

Sydney Fairfax reporter Patrick Begley was particularly scathing:

“Customers who paid up to $500 to attend a private New Year’s Eve party are demanding refunds, describing a night of hour-long toilet queues, greasy food, alcohol shortages and Justin Bieber music on repeat.”

When Botanic Gardens staff returned to work they were shocked to find lawns and gardens trampled, food garbage strewn everywhere and gardens used as urinals because the specially installed portable toilets could not cope.

NSW government-appointed members of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust who took the decision to allow the event as a money-raising exercise are deeply embarrassed, while the supporters’ organisation is furious that the event was ever sanctioned.

The organising entity was NYE Above the Harbour of Kippax Street, Surry Hills, which was registered on October 1, 2015.

NYE Above the Harbour is wholly owned by Mothership Media Pty Ltd, whose founding director and company secretary is Brent Remington Lean of Coogee. Mothership has a share capital of two $1 shares.

One of its senior executives is Justin Nyker, described as “a festival director, event producer and promoter”. He has been with Mothership since 2002. His profile reads:

“Justin has been working with the entertainment and arts industry for approximately 15 years. He has a rounded skill base where he began working in art galleries during his fine art studies which quickly progressed to the nightclub venue scene.

“Soon he advanced to large scale public events such as NYE Sydney, Mardi Gras, Chinese New Year Festival, the Commonwealth Games and the Channel V Music Bus Tour.”

When Premier Mike Baird’s government threw open the Opera House and Botanic Gardens precinct to private fee-paying guests, Opposition Leader Luke Foley said it was “a cash grab at the expense of families who want to catch a glimpse of Sydney’s world-famous New Year’s Eve entertainment”.

Botanic Gardens supporters are now calling for a complete review of the trust’s fatal attraction to crass commercialism and marketing.

For example, the trust’s “Living Strategic Plan” for 2014-15 included a special commitment to “imagination” and stated: “It’s time to start LIVING the life you imagined … [Henry James].”

And in the past year it has adopted a “strategic goal”, a “vision” and eight “core values”: “relevance, respect, energetic, leadership, sustainability, resilient, collaborative and integrity” — a confusing set of nouns and adjectives, presumably devised by a unit not unlike Rob Sitch’s Nation Building Authority in the ABC’s Utopia comedy series.

As critics point out, there is no mention of gardening, plants, trees or botany.

Peter Fray

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