So this started to interest me. Last Saturday, as news of a Powerhouse “backflip” began to proliferate across the headlines – neatly paving the way for Don Harwin’s readmission to Cabinet the following day – I wondered idly what had changed.
Activist groups welcomed the backflip as a huge win for five years of strenuous lobbying. How the Powerhouse Was Saved, crowed one. “A Victory for Cultural Life,” said another. The ABC, the Australian, the SMH and the Age all ran with the backflip headline. “Up and over she goes!” chortled Peter Fitzsimons in The Age. “For it was indeed an enormous backflip, in the pike position, degree of difficulty 2.3…” Even the Daily Mail UK screamed “Gladys Berejiklian in Huge Backflip as NSW Premier saves the Original Powerhouse Museum After Years of Mounting Controversy.”
“The only thing we can say for certain,” said Fitzsimons – who clearly gets paid by the word – “is that the Premier has at least shown she will listen to reason on a move that always seemed to lack logic, which is the good news.”
But is that right? In fact, had anything actually shifted? Or was this just a clever way of looking like you’d changed your mind while actually maintaining business as usual?
After all, the Parramatta Powerhouse was still to be built as designed, a milk crate on stilts. A lesser Powerhouse, including a Fashion Museum, was still to be retained in Ultimo, as had always been proposed.
“Let there be no mistake,” the Premier told Richard Glover the following Monday. “Parramatta Powerhouse will be the signature museum… the leading science and technology museum in NSW…” The Premier sounded surprised when she said the costs of running the Powerhouse “are actually quite significant” and the existing museum was “quite tired…and needs attention.”
The media release from the government did not use the word backflip, or shift, or change. What it said was this:
“The decision means the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (MAAS) will soon boast four centres, including the jewel-in-the-crown Powerhouse at Parramatta, Ultimo Museum, Sydney Observatory and the Museums Discovery Centre at Castle Hill.”
But hang on wait. This had always been the case.
The “Final Business Case Summary: Powerhouse Museum in Western Sydney” from April 2018 said this:
“The Government plans to retain cultural space at Ultimo. It is separately considering the options for the Ultimo site, including the establishment of a Creative Industries Precinct and a plan for a Design and Fashion museum and a Broadway-style lyric theatre.”
In fact the only new information in the Media Release was the decision NOT to sell the Ultimo site for $195m. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that the government had admitted to its intention, now supposedly reversed, to flog public land.
So today, Friday, I called the Premier’s office, who referred me to Don Harwin’s office, where the conversation went something like this.
“So can you tell me exactly what has changed between last week and this week.”
“Well, well, hmm, so, the government is undertaking a business case study to consider retention of the Ultimo site.”
“Study to consider? That doesn’t sound like a decision.”
“The building will be refurbished.”
“The whole of it?”
“With the steam engines?”
“Yes I think so. We’re keeping the VLOs.”
“Very large objects.”
“Yes I think so. And we’re not selling off the site for $195m.”
“Which part of the site was that going to be?”
“I don’t know.”
“So how much of the building will be retained and refurbished?”
“I’ll have to ask the Museum and get back to you.”
“And the Parramatta Museum is exactly as in the EIS?”
“Yes, it’s unchanged.
“With all of the heritage destruction implied?”
“Poor old Willow Grove. And the flood plain issues…”
So, patrons, I may be wrong. But splitting the Museum into four parts, as always proposed, destroying heritage, as always proposed, keeping and refurbishing some part of Ultimo, as always proposed; it doesn’t sound much like a backflip to me. The Minister’s office hasn’t yet got back to me. Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t. Confirm or deny, I’ll keep you posted. Watch this space.