The devils and the detail of the $715m AFL stadium dividing Tasmania

A plan to build a new ground during a housing crisis has split the community – and could cost the state a football team

Hobart’s Macquarie Point has been a freight railyard, a gas works and a rubbish dump, but for years its aesthetic has been abandoned industrial. Squeezed between a port and an elevated regatta ground, it is noteworthy mainly for its location – just a 10-minute promenade along the waterfront from the restaurants and bars of Salamanca Place, the city’s centrepiece.

It is unlikely many Tasmanians gave Mac Point much thought until it was earmarked for a new purpose – hosting big league football matches.

The AFL demanded a new stadium in return for the state being granted a licence for a long-sought-after team in the national competition. Since then public discussion in Tasmania has struggled to focus on anything else.

The man responsible for the deal with the AFL, the premier, Jeremy Rockliff, started a fight that he apparently didn’t foresee and that quickly spiralled beyond his control.

Two backbench MPs – the previously little-known conservatives Lara Alexander and John Tucker – quit the government and moved to the crossbench, citing a lack of transparency over the stadium deal. It pushed Australia’s last Liberal government into minority and to the precipice of losing power.

Rockliff quickly signed an agreement with the rebel MPs to shore up his immediate survival. In return for them promising confidence and supply, he agreed the stadium would be scrutinised by parliament as a project of state significance – a formal designation he had not previously planned.

But there’s a catch. With Labor, the Greens and most independents opposed to the stadium’s development, there is no guarantee parliament will agree it should be declared a project of state significance – known as a Poss – and progress beyond this stage.

If parliament does agree to the declaration, the Poss assessment process could take two years, and the history of projects that have been through it has been unhappy for proponents. The previous two – a pulp mill and a marina development – did not go ahead.

If Mac Point stadium joined this list of failure, and if the AFL is true to its word, it could yet deny Tasmanians a club. At the moment, the league’s public position is black and white: no new stadium, no team.

Brad Stansfield, a Liberal party stalwart who was chief of staff to the former premier Will Hodgman and the conservative powerbroker Eric Abetz, and is now a partner at the lobbying firm Font PR, made waves by declaring on the company’s podcast that it was his “very strong view” that the 23,000-seat stadium would not go ahead.

“It’s 100% dead,” he later told Guardian Australia. “I can’t see it passing the parliament. On the 1% chance it does pass the parliament, the Poss process has never been successfully used before. There is a reason for that.”

How did it come to this?

Opinion polling in the state is rarely truly independent, but what is available suggests a majority of Tasmanians don’t support a stadium at Mac Point as currently proposed, but overwhelmingly want the state to have AFL and AFLW teams.

The state has historically been an Australian rules football stronghold, having sent hundreds of young stars across Bass Strait to play in the big league. More than 10% of the AFL’s hall of fame legends come from Tasmania.

Macquarie Point in Hobart, the site of the proposed new stadium.
Macquarie Point in Hobart, the site of the proposed new stadium. Photograph: Loic Le Guilly/AAP

The push for a local side kicked off after a Tasmanian state-of-origin side defeated a Victorian team at a jam-packed North Hobart oval in October 1990 (the year, coincidentally, the Victorian Football League became the AFL). In the decades that followed there have been eight attempts, some more serious than others, to win an AFL licence. As they failed the sport was left to wither.

There are now few topline Tasmanian AFL players, the local statewide league is being disbanded as once-powerful clubs struggle for numbers, and the number of children playing the game has slumped. What once were school football grounds now host soccer games. But interest in the national competition remains strong. A 2018 analysis suggested 79% of Tasmanians were AFL fans – the highest proportion in the country.

There was an expectation the announcement that Tasmania would be home to a 19th AFL team – almost certain to be called the Devils – would be a unifying moment, and the plan had tripartisan political support until the middle of last year. But that splintered once the stadium proposal was revealed. Labor supports a team, but not the stadium – a combination not on offer. The Greens reject a team if it comes with a stadium attached.

Opponents have a shopping list of objections, including a lack of detail about the process and design, and what is seen as a lopsided deal with the AFL that requires the state to bear the financial risk if there are overruns.

Some argue a stadium should at least wait until other problems – in health and education, but particularly an acute housing and homelessness crisis that has forced people to seek refuge in tents, sheds and cars – are addressed. The charity Shelter Tas says the number of people without a home leapt 45% to 2,350 – one in every 237 Tasmanians – at the last census. And Hobart is Australia’s least affordable state capital for renters, with median rents 11% higher than Melbourne.

Housing was a focus for thousands of opponents who rallied against the stadium outside parliament last month to hear anti-stadium messages from the Greens leader, Cassy O’Connor, the federal MP Andrew Wilkie and author Richard Flanagan. Senator Jacqui Lambie summarised the mood in her message to Rockliff: “Tasmanians have had a bloody gutful over your stadium and you can stick it up your bum!”

Anti-stadium protesters surround the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, on a visit to Hobart in April.
Anti-stadium protesters surround the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, on a visit to Hobart in April. Photograph: Loic Le Guilly/AAP

Kevin Bonham, a Hobart-based electoral analyst, says there is a sense “the wheels are falling off” for the government. A recent poll by EMRS suggested support for the Liberals has slumped six percentage points to 36% – still ahead of the Labor party led by Rebecca White on 31%, but not enough to win a majority of seats at an election that could now come earlier than scheduled.

Bonham says the government has been hurt by a chaotic few months that goes beyond just football. Alexander and Tucker walked away from government at least in part due to disagreements over social issues – they differ with Rockliff on his support for the federal Indigenous voice to parliament, a treaty with First Nations people and a proposed ban on LGBTQ+ “conversion therapy” – and the government has twice lost procedural votes in parliament since they left.

But Bonham says the stadium, and particularly the sense the premier was railroaded by the AFL, is at the centre of the government’s plight. “People got their hopes up that there will be a team and then suddenly discover there’s a big catch. A lot of people are bewildered by that,” he says. “A common criticism is that the deal [with the AFL] is not a good deal. There are people who might accept the stadium, but not on these terms.”

Is a compromise possible?

Rockliff has pledged $375m direct funding and $85m in borrowings against commercial land deals towards a projected $715m cost, with the remainder to come from the federal government ($240m) and the AFL (just $15m, though the league has promised $343m over a decade to develop the team and the sport).

But there are doubts $715m is a realistic estimate to remediate the site and build a stadium that, according to the deal, will be the size of the MCG, have a fixed, transparent roof and be ready-to-go by 2028. The state budget added weight to those doubts, noting the scope of the project was not fully defined and might be subject to the supply constraints and cost escalations being experienced elsewhere.

The government has struggled to make its case, frustrating stadium proponents. Their position is straightforward: the stadium would have economic benefits that would spill across the community, and a club will need better facilities than are currently available to succeed.

The business case for the stadium includes projections that are hard to assess, but suggests construction would create 4,200 jobs and generate $300m in local activity, while having AFL and AFLW teams in Hobart (and playing some games in Launceston) would boost the economy by $120m a year. The expectation is the stadium would need to host 44 events a year, including conferences and concerts, and that its location and facilities would attract tourists and corporate sponsors in a way the existing Bellerive oval – a partly developed suburban ground on the other side of the Derwent River – could never hope to.

Rockliff argues the government’s financial commitment to football is dwarfed by what it spends on social housing, health and education. Despite the limited space on the site, he maintains Mac Point would be more than just a stadium, and include both a long-promised Indigenous truth and reconciliation park and new housing.

Under questioning at an estimates hearing last week, Rockliff said: “It would transform a precinct that would have to be invested in anyway.”

A key question is whether a compromise is possible.

David O’Byrne, a former Labor leader who now sits on the crossbench outside the parliamentary party, is among those critical of how the government has handled the issue, but has called for a path through.

Speaking on SEN radio, he said a team would “be a most amazing unifying thing” for the state, and that you could not easily put a dollar figure on its value.

“I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” he said. “This is a generational moment, and my fear is that if the politics continues to be played [as it is] in both houses of parliament we won’t have a stadium, we won’t have a team, and health and education will still be stuffed.”


Adam Morton

The GuardianTramp

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