Armed with phones and torches, more than 1000 protesters gathered outside the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday night to protest and disrupt Racing NSW projections on the Sydney landmark.

When the lights came on at 7.40pm protesters shone lights from torches, phones and laser pointers over the Opera House sails, in an attempt to sabotage the projection, which displayed the barrier draw for the upcoming Everest horse race.

While the barrier draw was brought ahead from the planned time of 8pm to avoid the protest, the lights from demonstrators — and potentially more heavy-duty sources — succeeded in partially obscuring the view of the draw numbers from across the harbour.

Sydney Opera House protest

The projections, which followed days of simmering controversy, were met by a chorus of boos from the crowd, as well as a series of increasingly creative slogans, from “shame on you” and “not for sale” to “worst Vivid ever” and “your graphics look shit”.

Australian rock icon Jimmy Barnes, who was among the demonstrators, told Crikey the decision to allow the projection was “absolutely disgusting behaviour by our government”. “I can’t believe they’d degrade such a great part of Australia to advertise gambling when we have such major gambling issues in this country. To advertise on one of our national treasures is disgusting.”

Sydney couple John and Eszter Fellstner, who learnt of last night’s protest over social media, were saddened by the use of the world heritage-listed building for a gambling promotion. “To use an iconic building like this to get a message out that gambling’s actually OK… how sad,” Eszter Fellstner said.

“What are we going to do, advertise brothels on it next?” her husband added.

The uproar over the projections began last week, when influential radio host Alan Jones launched a blistering attack on Opera House chief executive Louise Herron over her initial opposition to the Racing NSW plan. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian later overruled Herron, and forced the Opera House to allow the projection on the sails. State Labor leader Luke Foley and Prime Minister Scott Morrison both lined up to defend the NSW government’s decision.

Barnes was withering in his critique of Jones’ behaviour, telling Crikey “[Alan Jones] has no respect for people, he has no respect for women especially, and he should be taken off the radio”.

Jones has since expressed regret on air for his statements, saying “I used some words in these programs about the Everest, and the Opera House, and Louise, which in hindsight I now most regret hearing, having heard the impact they’ve clearly had on some people”.

At Tuesday night’s protest, Greens state member for Newtown Jenny Leong slammed the bipartisan political support for the projections. “We have been facing a broken trifecta of a privatising Liberal Premier, a weak opposition Labor Party who refuses to stand up to the big end of town, and a shock jock that thinks that he runs things,” Leong said.

Despite political support, the projections caused significant outcry in the community. An online petition presented to NSW Parliament on Tuesday morning received over 250,000 signatures.

Early on Tuesday morning, another protest organised by ABC’s The Chaser team saw Jones’ mobile number beamed projected onto the Opera House and other buildings in the CBD. Jones later said he received “anonymous phone calls … every minute” following the stunt.

Tuesday’s protest provided yet another hurdle on a difficult day for Racing NSW. Amid concerns about security and integrity, the barrier draw was conducted in secret before the projection, and all betting on the multi-million dollar horse race was suspended from midday.

Peter Fray

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