Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A stadium of four million suckers

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 26.)

THE LIKELY cost to Auckland ratepayers of the Rugby World Cup has now been put at $103 million and rising. That includes $3 million-plus for the privilege of acquiring the extra three matches transferred from quake-stricken Christchurch. Some bonus.

I’m not sure whether the figure also takes into account the staggering $3.07 million cost of erecting a proposed giant TV screen in Aotea Square – a project the former Auckland City Council approved on the basis of an airy-fairy estimate of $1.65 million.

Isn’t it funny how often that happens? Politicians and officials get sucked in by grandiose projects on the basis of optimistic cost projections, then meekly agree to pay up when the costs blow out, as they invariably do. What the heck – it’s only ratepayers’ money.

Expect to see these shenanigans replicated around the country, albeit on a less spectacular scale than in Auckland, as the Rugby World Cup nears.

In the same week as Auckland’s big-screen blowout was revealed, it was announced that Hamilton ratepayers would have to fork out an extra $410,000 because someone decided the floodlights at Waikato Stadium weren’t up to RWC standard – and all this for just one match, since the other two Hamilton fixtures will be played during the day.

There’s a pattern here. A massive PR blitz has seduced us all into thinking the RWC is such a wondrous event that we should not only swallow the massive bill – never mind that the country’s broke – but also put up with an unconscionable suppression of normal commercial competition on the ground that the interests of the precious sponsors must be protected. (The latest news is that even fund-raising sausage sizzles will be forbidden from the “clean zones” around RWC venues.)

We’re a stadium of four million, all right – four million captive suckers, comprehensively being shafted by an unholy alliance of powerful sports administrators, sycophantic politicians and hard-nosed multinational corporates that probably don’t give a toss about rugby.

* * *

MAY I MAKE a prediction? Celia Wade-Brown will be a one-term mayor of Wellington.

I think of her as the accidental mayor. I can’t believe that anyone outside her immediate circle of fervent Green supporters really expected her to be elected. The citizens of Wellington must have scratched their heads and wondered how it happened.

The obvious explanation is that just enough people were tired of Kerry Prendergast to sway the result. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Wellington wanted Ms Wade-Brown as mayor; merely that she was the least scary – and probably the best organised – of Ms Prendergast’s rivals to whom people could give their protest vote.

My guess is that many of those who cast votes for Ms Wade-Brown never imagined that lots of others would do the same – enough to give her a winning margin of 176.

Ms Wade-Brown seems pleasant enough, and I’m sure she’s well-intentioned; but she gives the impression of being flaky and ineffectual. She may grow into the job, as some initially unpromising people do, but there’s not much sign of it so far. And the events of last week show that opposition to her is hardening around the council table.

And what about super-mayor Len Brown in Auckland? He looks a one-termer too, though for different reasons. He gives the impression of being emotionally brittle. One wonders whether he has the constitution for such a punishing, high-pressure job.

I predict that after a short but spectacular spell in office, the highly strung Mr Brown will explode or burst into flames.

* * *

A MOMENT’S silence, if you please, while we mourn another useful word whose meaning is slowly but surely being eroded by misuse.

“Majority” is a word that relates to numbers. My Chambers Concise Dictionary says it refers to the greatest number or the largest group. Fowler’s Modern English Usage defines it as a superiority in numbers or the greater number. Hence we say that a majority of MPs voted in favour of the Coastal and Marine Bill, or that a newspaper opinion poll showed a majority of respondents didn’t object to John Key using an air force Iroquois to get from a V8 car race to a golf club dinner.

All very simple. Yet I frequently hear people who should know better, such as journalists, using “majority” as if it can be applied to mass, volume or area.

A Radio New Zealand reporter recently suggested that New Zealand could export the majority of its oil, while on television a foreign correspondent informed us that the majority of Libya consists of desert. What’s wrong with that good old-fashioned word “most”, for heaven’s sake?

It’s all very well to say that English is in a constant state of evolutionary flux, but when we blur the usage of a word with a specific function, we rob the language of its greatest virtue – its precision.


Bearhunter said...

Well said on the RWC. And can you perhaps raise in your next column why the media slavishly parrot the official RWC line that it is the "third-largest" sporting event on the planet? There is absolutely no basis for that claim outside the IRB marketing department.

The probligo said...

The greatest, most scary thing of the events in the past 24 hours (connecting here one-term mayors and political ex-leaders) is the rapidly expanding possibility that the RhinoHide will stand for Mayor of Auckland next year.

I have to say that should this come to pass I might even vote for him myself, simply on the basis that he deserves the Sisyphis-like fate of having to push the city up out of the swamp into which he wanted it dumped.

My brain on the other hand would love to see Len carry off another term. My heart knows that best for the job is very long gone... rest well Robbie.

Tepee said...

Rattue's article in the NZ Herald although not particularly well written makes some good points in respect of the cost of the RWC. Like all major sports events requiring vast amounts of public money/state underwriting there are strong incentives for those with a special interest to massively overstate the benefits and ignore the huge downside. This is particularly true of both the RWC and the Olympics in London next year.

Such events are billed as having major benefits for the economy but in reality the costs are always much understated and the benefits hugely overstated. The NZRFU/Govt like to throw around hyperbole about the wonders of the RWC but in reality the poor old tax payer who may or may not have any interest in the event will be nailed.

As for the legacy effects such as infrastructure improvements well you do these if they need doing on the basis of some sensible cost benefit analysis; not on the basis of holding a sporting event. Look at Athens with their trams to nowhere; a fine example of development done for sake of the Olympics at enormous cost and massively under utilised since.

Many have argued that for example the Olympics in London will rejuvenate the East End are equally weak. If you need the Olympics to justify rejuvenating something then it is probably not worth doing. If you want to rejuvenate parts of London, just do it but don't ride on the back of the Olympics to explain the virtues. Even allowing for the grotesque inefficiencies of the public sector building projects, you could improve the East End massively without building a white elephant sports arena at huge cost. If you built 100,000 properties designed as affordable housing you could do so far more cheaply than the cost of building the olympics. In fact you could give them away and still spend less than is being wasted on the 2012 games.

RWC lobbyists will also talk of the social benefits; social benefits for whom? The rugby players maybe; people in and around the stadiums maybe; those who attend the matches possibly but certainly not the vast majority of NZ taxpayers who will be poorer as a result.

Thank God this is the last RWC that NZ will hold. We don't want it back!