The Sydney Opera House's complicated history with gambling

by Bernard Lagan / 06 November, 2018
Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House.

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The backlash against gambling in Australia embraces Sydney’s iconic Opera House, but there's more to the story.

Much the same as an elegant aunt, the Opera House has been a soothing backdrop to the lives of many in Sydney for as long as they can remember – its white-sailed roof, set against the glistening blue ocean, a reliably uplifting landmark.

We tend to be less troubled by the history of people and things most familiar to us until they’re threatened or gone. Or, until their stories are so vividly told as to cause us to pause, newly grateful for their existence.

Both happened to the opera house last month. Days after Sydney writer Helen Pitt released her biographical tour-de-force of the building, The House, a tin-eared New South Wales Government decided it was fine to allow the organisers of an obscure – but apparently the world’s richest – horse race to spruik their event in lights beamed onto the Opera House’s roof of 1,556,006 white tiles.

When Louise Herron, a former corporate lawyer and now the public servant in charge of the Opera House, baulked on the grounds that a gambling promotion might offend the building’s World Heritage listing – a status accorded in New Zealand to the Te Wāhipounamu (Fiordland, Westland, Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Aspiring) and Tongariro national parks and the subantarctic islands – she was abused on air by top-rating radio shock jock and dandy, Alan Jones. He told her “… who the hell do you think you are, you don’t own the Opera House, we own it … you manage it.” He said she should be sacked.

Our latest Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, a former marketing man, airily enthused: “Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has? Frankly, I thought it was a no-brainer. I can’t work out what all the fuss is about.”

As it turned out, many – about 80% of Sydney residents, according to a Sydney Morning Herald poll – disagreed. It took less than four days for more than 230,000 to sign a petition in opposition. Several thousand even felt strongly enough to mass at the Opera House on the night of the, by then, toned-down promotion to express their displeasure by shining their own disruptive lights on the building.

Jones would, belatedly, apologise, and the race promoters said they wouldn’t use the Opera House again. Red faces all round, really.

This certainly isn’t the first time the Opera House has been used for promotional purposes. Its sails have been billboards for the Wallabies rugby team and for Samsung’s phones.

So, why the angst about a horse race? Aside from the fury Jones caused with his intemperate comments, the protest can also be seen as an outcry against the hold gambling has on Australia. It’s the world’s looser capital, racking up gambling losses close to $20 billion a year. Australia has 20% of the world’s fast-play gambling machines and Sydney’s second casino – to be owned by James Packer – is rising as another totem to idleness on a prime Sydney harbourside frontage.

But it was about more. We feel ownership of our places of national beauty, but often powerless when governments – so often in cahoots with the make-a-buck boys – commandeer them. Would ads for a horse race ever be projected onto the Taj Mahal? The Tower of London? The Lincoln Memorial?

Some of those pushing for the ads pointed out that the Sydney Opera House was largely funded by gamblers. It is true that a lottery, which ran for 30 years until 1986, paid it off. And that makes the Opera House even less of a toy for governments. It is truly owned by the people – they paid for it and they spoke up for it.

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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