After more than 20 years and countless campaigns, the Save Albert Park group is still trying to save Albert Park.
IT’S a Monday evening at the 3CR studios in Collingwood, and Save Albert Park’s radio show has just begun.
When the rousing theme song – “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Misérables – ends, host Barbara Clinton introduces the guests. Owing to circumstances, there’s been a sudden change in programming: she had to bump a public parks expert from New York.
“Tonight we’re devoting our programme to the state government re-signing the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Albert Park for a further 5 years,” Clinton says.
“Firstly, I’d like to ask Peter Goad, was this a surprise to us at Save Albert Park? What was your immediate reaction?”
“Well, Barbara, we’ve been protesting against this event now for 20 years,” Goad, the group’s president, replies. “I’m not really surprised to hear they’ve re-signed, but of course it’s still a blow. We are perennial optimists. We think that eventually something has got to go right.”
The group has hosted a half-hour weekly radio spot since the mid-1990s. Today is a particularly dark day: Premier Denis Napthine graced the pages of the Herald-Sun waving a chequered flag. The event will continue in the park until 2020, at least. The Premier described the race as a “key pillar of Victoria’s major sporting events strategy” and congratulated Grand Prix Corporation chairman Ron Walker for “getting the best deal for Victoria”. As usual, the government would not reveal how much it paid for the contract.
On the radio show, Peter Logan – a former Port Phillip councillor and the group’s media spokesperson – ridicules the idea that the race offers value for money. “To use Joe Hockey’s phrase, the Grand Prix is a leaner, not a lifter,” he says. “It’s getting a multi-million dollar subsidy every year.”
Save Albert Park is a story of extraordinary community activism and persistence against overwhelming opposition.
The group held its first official meeting in February 1994, in the Albert Park library. Peter Logan was among the 50-odd people there, outraged both at the impending loss of their park to commerce, and that the deal had been done in secret, without any consultation. They hoped to stop it before it began. “We were a bit shell-shocked. We weren’t sure how to go about it,” he says.
Before long, they figured it out. A newspaper article the following year referred to the group as “one of the strongest campaign organisations ever built up in Australia”. Its organisational chart contained 18 specialist subgroups, including a legal group boasting about 40 lawyers, two QCs and a former County Court judge.
Goad now says that at its peak, the group’s membership was about 3000, but plunged when the Labor Party embraced the race. Now, they have about 300-400 households, or 1000 people. Two-thirds are from further afield than the neighbouring suburbs, he’s quick to affirm. Since 1996, every Port Phillip council has opposed the race, but it has never just been a case of the NIMBYs.
Although its numbers are diminished, Save Albert Park endures. As well as its radio show, the group runs weekly working bees at the park and produces a monthly newsletter. Volunteers staff the South Melbourne office each weekday morning.
The state member for Albert Park, Labor’s Martin Foley, meets with them 3 or 4 times a year. Despite his party’s support for the race, Foley admires the activists.
“This community is all the better for Save Albert Park,” he says. “They’re locals giving up so much of their time and energy for a very noble pursuit: protecting open space for parks.
“Because their activism comes from the very best of intentions and is not party-political, the community can trust them. That means a great deal – it’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to sustain their efforts for so long.”
Peter and Rosemary Goad meet me at their office the morning after the radio show. It’s a modest nook in South Melbourne Town Hall, adjacent to the quarters occupied by fellow travellers, the Friends of the ABC.
High on a bookcase, entirely forgotten, sits a delightfully provocative sculpture: a golden fist in middle-finger salute. “I can’t remember where it came from – we’ve had it so long,” explains Rosemary.
The couple, who live in Middle Park, were recruited to the cause by Logan in early 1994. They met him at a Save Albert Park stall at the South Melbourne market.
Goad pulls a wealth of documents from his shoulder bag. Both sides of politics have endeavoured to keep their dealings with the Australian Grand Prix Corporation secret. Save Albert Park has done its best to draw out the evidence.
He produces a well-thumbed copy of the 2007 report by the Victorian Auditor-General, which questioned the “brand value” benefits for the city and found the Grand Prix amounted to a net cost to the state of $6.7 million. An updated analysis using the same methodology – this time commissioned by Save Albert Park – estimated a net cost of over $60 million in 2012, accounting for traffic congestion, noise and loss of access to the park.
The corporation’s annual report for 2013 showed the government gave it a $58 million subsidy. It also reveals that it spends nearly $30 million to install and remove the race’s infrastructure every year. “Ridiculous!” Rosemary exclaims. “It’s just busywork.”
The group’s objective remains the same as ever: to remove the race from the park. Instead, it could be held at Avalon, Goad says, where a purpose-built track could be a year-round boost for the Geelong economy, rather than months of traffic snarls and inaccessible parkland for Melbourne.
He closes his eyes in concentration when he makes an important point, which is often. He has been president for over a decade. He formulates his arguments – clear, rational, well-founded – again and again but nothing gives. Still the cars go round.
What’s it like defending reason in the face of two-decades of unreason?
“We are acting for a large number of people who are sympathetic but can’t do anything – they haven’t got the time. It’s just like the people who are protesting against the East-West link, which has no business case and nothing to justify it. They’re doing the [protest] work for me – I’ve got enough to do already,” he says.
“To a degree, we’re the conscience of Victoria. Somebody’s got to do it, because the whole thing is so basically dishonest. You’ve got to be philosophical and not get too emotionally involved. It’s depressing, but what does keep you going is the fact that you’re battling against something you know is wrong.
“And Ron Walker keeps us entertained.”
On the wall is a magnificent green tapestry commemorating the early years of the struggle. It marks key moments in the fight: the 10,000-strong rally in May 1994; “Chainsaw Tuesday”, in December that year, when over 100 trees were cut down around the lake and beyond; and “Flag day” the following year, when the group’s giant 40m by 20m flag was unveiled.
As Goad says, they were “heady days”. Nearly 700 people were arrested for various acts of civil disobedience, from sitting in proscribed zones to locking themselves onto trees marked for felling.
One year, several dozen protestors blocked access to the Grand Prix’s depot during track building. “The Grand Prix Corporation is denying us access to the park, so we are trying to deny them access to their stored equipment,” spokesperson Diana Burleigh said at the time. During the race that year, 60 protesters blocked the VIP entrance gate. Two were dressed as ducks. Four were arrested.
Among the civilly disobedient were many prominent citizens. Carrillo Gantner AO, actor, director and theatre founder, and subsequently, city councillor and Victorian of the Year, was one of them.
“I’m not against the Grand Prix. I am against it being located in Albert Park,” says Gantner, currently the chairperson of the Sidney Myer Fund.
He decided to take a stand when Premier Jeff Kennett introduced the Grand Prix Act, which exempted the event from various other pieces of legislation and removed the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. People whose houses were damaged by track compaction works could no longer sue for compensation.
“That seemed to be a bridge too far, because people have been fighting and dying since the Magna Carta – and probably well before – for the right of appeal to an independent judiciary against a wilful executive,” Gantner says. “So along with a few friends we resolved that it was time to be visible in our protest.”
It was a “fairly unusual group” he says, including as it did, the daughter of a Liberal Premier, Julia Hamer; the son of a state governor, James McCaughey, and a prominent artist, Mirka Mora. They sat where they weren’t supposed to – in the place designated for the pit building – and refused to budge.
“The police were very polite and asked us sweetly to move to the other side of the tape on the ground. To move our arses three feet to the left, basically,” Gantner says. “And we said ‘No thank you, we came down to be arrested’.”
They were never charged. For all the arrests, not a single conviction was recorded.
Gantner was a dues-paying member of Save Albert Park for “some years”, and remains sympathetic. The campaign has endured, he believes, in part because the governments have been “so dishonest and opaque” about costs and crowd numbers.
The initial, prolonged militancy had its place in the broader tumult that finally undermined Jeff Kennett’s premiership. But when even a change of government yielded no progress, their mobilising moment had passed.
“That was our heroic age. We’re now in the stoic phase,” Goad says. “It was so intense it burnt a whole lot of people out. The only way to continue to fight the Grand Prix was to concentrate on the facts and the economics, rather than the demos.”
The group’s other tactical shift has been to volunteer in the park itself. The Goads take me on a tour of their works. Peter navigates their Subaru through the park with a proprietary air, shifting bollards where necessary for ease of vehicular access.
Out of the Grand Prix’s reach, they’ve planted hundreds of trees and installed nearly two-dozen Cyprus pine bench seats. They revegetate and guard over a small patch of bushland, adjacent to the Junction Oval, which contains the Corroboree Tree, a lone River Red gum estimated to be up to 500 years old. The tree bears wounds on its trunk where it was clipped by passing trucks. Save Albert Park successfully campaigned for VicRoads to install a barrier.
It’s one of many small wins around the park. When Lakeside Drive opened as a four-lane, 60 kilometre-per-hour thoroughfare, Save Albert Park documented every accident. The speed limit was reduced and the road narrowed.
“All the things we’ve done!” Rosemary chuckles.
Most famously, the group held a vigil at the park just off Albert Road. It lasted from 1994 until 2005.
In early 2000, Peter Goad was interviewed for an Age article, uncharitably titled “Why on earth do they bother?” By then, the vigil had notched up 1672 days. The journalist concluded her article by asking: when, if ever, will you give up?
Goad answered that he would campaign for “as long as it takes”, and certainly wouldn’t quit within 20 years.
Another long time volunteer, Reg Boyd, answered that he’d give up “when they put me in a box”.
Boyd is seriously ill with cancer, but remains the group’s treasurer. “Reg is indomitable,” Goad says. “His quote was correct.”
This latest extension has deflated Rosemary, however. Her spirits are “dampened, totally dampened”, she concedes. She’s not sure if their fight will continue beyond the terms of this contract: “Age will not allow.”
But Peter literally scoffs at the idea of giving up. “They’re such bastards, you can’t let them get away with it,” he says. “You have to fight it, even if you fail.”