Is this one of Australia’s biggest porkies?

In the history of Australian politics there have been many examples of mendacity, outrageous exaggeration, outright lies and half-truths.

In Victoria, at this time of the year, one example always leaps to mind.

It occurred when the grand prix was moved from Adelaide to Melbourne 22 years ago and the Premier Jeff Kennett promised that it would only be for ‘four days a year’ and that “it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent”.

Yet as the indefatigable Save Albert Park Group says: “Since the first race in 1996 taxpayers have contributed well over a billion dollars with another billion forecast by the end of the contract in 2037. It will never make a profit because this temporary circuit’s set-up/pull-down costs around $45 million annually.”

In fact, the Victorian Government props up the Grand Prix at a cost of around $80 million annually.

The grand prix is also not just for ‘four days’ as it seriously disrupts local sports for up to four months causing clubs to lose potential members, home-ground advantage and revenue.

Needless to say the government refuses to do a robust independent cost-benefit analysis to show if this event gives us value or not. One such study in 2007 showed the GP generated a net economic loss to Victorian taxpayers but in response the government commissioned a confidential economic ‘impact’ study which gave a positive result – mainly because costs were not considered.

The ridiculous claims of benefit were exemplified in an early Grand Prix sponsored study which estimated the benefits at more than a billion dollars. This figure was arrived at by imagining that all the international TV coverage of the race – for its duration – was the equivalent of that TV time valued at normal advertising rates. The embarrassment this caused resulted in the study being buried and forgotten after the Grand Prix admitted the figure was wrong – but only years after the false claim was made.

There are few limits to the dodgy claims. As the Save Albert Park Group has shown: attendance figures were published as fact for ten years – until an investigation in 2006 by the Ombudsman – instigated by SAP found them to be ‘estimated’; attendance numbers have been inflated and the Grand Prix Corporation adds around 18,000 event staff and competitors, plus around 35,000 assumed attendances by free ticket holders (largely school students) to the attendance total; national TV viewing figures continue to be inflated as ratings analysis showed that in 2022 the race attracted 677,000 viewers to Ten and 281,000 to Foxtel  while the Grand Prix claimed 3.1 million viewers.

Sometimes the event does get called on these whoppers. When the Save Albert Park group took the reporting of the numbers to the Press Council the Council determined that when any AGPC attendance numbers are stated, they should be prefaced with the word ‘estimated’ or similar appropriate qualification every time. The Press Council found in two separate findings that, “statements about benefits and attendances had been strongly contested in detailed analyses from other sources.” (Adjudication 1503 – Herald Sun). In a finding against The Age in Adjudication 1552: “The Press Council has concluded that the newspaper was well aware of the questionable accuracy of the attendance figures and the public significance of the issue. But it used words which, whatever its intention, added to the perceived credibility of the figures and made detailed and favourable comparisons with figures from earlier times which were of similarly doubtful accuracy.” 

 The finding against The Age was ironic because it employs about the only mainstream media journalist in Victoria, Greg Baum, who consistently challenges the Grand Prix claims and spin.

Nevertheless, every Premier since Jeff Kennett (including Daniel Andrews) has continued to boast false global TV viewing claims and economic benefit claims made by the Grand Prix.

Some years ago (as reported in the blog previously) a former Victorian Labor Cabinet Minister admitted to the blog that the Government couldn’t take the risk of canning the event because it would create antagonism among petrol heads in the State and cast the Government as supporting inner urban trendies against the views of ‘real’ Victorians.

Given all the issues successive Labor Governments have navigated – and the state of the Opposition – that seems a rather unlikely thing to be enough to precipitate a Labor loss.

By the way each year the RAAF blesses the Grand Prix with a low level fly over culminating in a powerful upward climb deafening residents and adding to the noise pollution that can be heard kilometres away from Albert Park.

The only consolation is that rationality may eventually prevail and the Grand Prix heads off sometime in the future – hopefully before the RAN decides to complement the RAAF by blessing the event with a visit to Port Phillip Bay by one of their new nuclear subs.