As people gathered to defend the Opera House on October 9, the mood was chilled — just like Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised. However the clear message from the 1000 plus people who came out on that balmy evening was purposeful: the NSW state government had stepped over the line.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision to use Australia’s most famous public building to promote gambling, overriding the advice of its CEO and its heritage order, may well turn out to be her swan song. A poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald showed 8 out of 10 people in NSW opposed her decision.
“Bye bye, Gladys” was one of the more popular chants, along with “Whose house? Our house!”
This outpouring of anger about the Everest promotion was about a lot more than gambling: it was about corporate power riding roughshod over the community. It was also about people being fed up with the major parties bowing to those corporate interests.
As Waleed Aly put it on The Project, the anger is “about the political system which is meant to be about you, being gamed to keep you shut out”.
People are fed up with being gamed: public space is disappearing, public transport is getting worse, public housing is almost non-existent, rentals are skyrocketing and wages have stagnated. Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer.
Aly pointed out that by flogging off public spaces such as Melbourne’s Federation Square (part of which is being ripped up to make way for an Apple store) and Sydney’s Opera House to the highest bidder, “You tear up the fabric of the city”.
Fairfax columnists Helen Pitt and Jenny Noyes nailed it on October 9, saying many “were driven from annoyed to seething” by 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones' contemptuous treatment of Opera House CEO Louise Herron on air the previous Friday.
Jones’ contempt and misogyny reached such heights that even conservative columnists Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine were critical. They probably sensed that Jones’ had tested the public too much on this issue.
The October 9 protest itself was largely self-organised. A Facebook event initiated on the weekend by someone who thought a few friends could organise a small light show grew and grew. The event went viral, just like Mike Woodcock’s Change.org petition calling for the Opera House and its CEO to be defended from the likes of Jones. The petition gathered more than 300,000 signatures by the time of the protest.
The Chaser did their own light show in the early hours of October 9, advertising Jones’ mobile underneath the words “Advertise here”.
As pressure mounted, Racing NSW announced it would conduct the ballot draw in secret and stop betting during the day. It also changed the time of its modified illuminations from 8pm to 7.39pm, in a bid to scuttle the protest. But Opera House insiders let protest organisers know.
The Daily Telegraph ran report after report of “violent” protesters and supposed “death threats” against unnamed targets, but none of this propaganda dissuaded people from showing up. As the crowd grew outside the eastern side of the Opera House, the guerrilla lampies were working their magic from the other side of Circular Quay. When the ad finally came on, the chant changed to “Not a fucking billboard”, and “Worst Vivid ever”, in reference to Sydney's annual light show.
In the end, even the police riot squad were pretty chilled, as were Opera House security staff. Insiders say that everyone working inside was supporting the protest. Kitchen staff from the Bennelong restaurant even gathered at their windows to give the protesters a standing ovation. The Opera House bar even offered discounted drinks to protesters afterwards.
We have had a victory with Racing NSW now admitting it wants to put the Everest Opera House debacle behind it. And Berejeklian’s days are numbered.
But whether those aspiring to form government in NSW have clocked the anger remains to be seen. What is clear is that there is a growing alienation from politics as usual and those who want to put an end to the gaming have to work together to make that happen.