BY GABE MERKEL
Chants of “Not for sale,” “Our house,” and “Turn it off” could be heard from around the Sydney Opera House last Tuesday night, as approximately 3,000 people gathered to protest the projection of advertisements for The Everest horse race onto the building’s iconic sails.
Though the projections only appeared for 20 minutes, the promotion has been wildly unpopular with many Sydneysiders believing it was approved as a result of coercion and bullying.
Radio announcer Alan Jones, who has a number of financial interests in horse racing, used his influence to advocate for Racing NSW Chief Executive Peter V’landys’ advertising plan.
During an on-air interview with Opera House CEO Louise Herron on October 5, the announcer appeared to be doing everything he could to get her to approve the projection.
After being told that the proposal was in violation of Opera House rules, Mr Jones, who has since apologized for his conduct, appeared to become angry and berated the executive. “We own the Opera House; do you get that message…you don’t, you manage it…who do you think you are?”
When Ms Herron informed Ms Jones for the second time that the proposal breached Opera House policy, he told her he would simply go over her head. “Okay, then I’m telling you I will be speaking to Gladys Berejiklian in about five, three minutes, and if you can’t come to the party, Louise, you should lose your job.”
After speaking with Mr Jones on the phone, the Premier, who is up for reelection in March, agreed to bypass Ms Herron and approved the proposal with a few modifications.
Ms Berejiklian defended her decision, “It’s important for us to promote our major events (and) I believe the [promotion] strikes that right balance.”
She did not rule out allowing advertisements on the Opera House in the future, claiming that despite the negative reception from the public she “[doesn’t] want NSW to fall behind”.
Chants of “Goodbye Gladys!” were among the loudest at the protest, as Ms Berejiklian received the brunt of the public criticism. Several protesters had some unflattering things to say about her.
“[Gladys] doesn’t give a shit about anyone but herself…I don’t know a single person in favor of this (pointing at sails), but here we are” said John Kelly.
Georgia King, who was holding a sign that read “Sails not Sales,” added “Gladys is worse than Alan [Jones]. At least he’s up front about being a bully and being manipulative, but she pretends to care about people.”
These opinions, though extreme, are more or less in line with the rest of the public.
According to market research firm Micronex, 82 percent of those polled said they were opposed to Berejiklian’s decision to allow the promotions.
There is also a petition on Change.org named “Defend Our Opera House” with over 310,000 signatures, making it one of the most popular petitions in the website’s history.
The petition, which was scheduled to be handed off to Ms Berejiklian in front of parliament last Tuesday morning, was given to Greens MP Jenny Leong when the NSW Premier did not show up. Ms Leong promised that she would take the petition “as far as we can go” and has not shied away from criticizing the people who pushed the promotion through.
“It was completely disgraceful that the Premier sided with a bully…the negative impact shock jocks and corporate donations are having on our democracy has gone on too long.”
Despite the clouds of controversy (and rain) hovering over the event, The Everest, which took place last Saturday, has been declared by organisers to be a major success.
Over 40,000 punters showed up for the widely publicised event, a more than 20 percent increase from last year’s attendance.
“[The protests] had no impact on the racing enthusiasts” said Jamie Barkeley, the CEO of the Australian Turf Club.
“Ticket sales were consistently above what they were last year.”
Despite extensive news coverage of the protest and petition, some believe the outrage over the Opera House promotion actually benefitted the event.
In an interview with Crikey, Media Analyst Steve Allen was convinced that the public outrage was a net positive for the race, claiming that The Everest “got millions upon millions of dollars of value from that controversy”.
Communications expert Mike Smith also believed the protests helped The Everest, and that “any negatives for them will soon be gone”.
Regardless of any impact the protests may have had on the race, the majority of the political fallout may be yet to come.
Though many government officials remain convinced that it is perfectly acceptable to – in the words of Prime Minster Scott Morrison – use the Opera House as “the biggest billboard Sydney has,” the voters may say otherwise.
According to research conducted by Griffith University and Transparency International, 85% of Australians believe most or all politicians are corrupt. With the state election fast approaching, the politicians who backed the promotion may find Alan Jones’ influence has a nasty bite when it comes time for their constituents to vote.