08 February 2013

The 'Fair & Equitable' Failure at Boggo

'A Deed of License has been entered into with Mr Jack Sim to open and operate from the No.2 division Boggo Road Gaol for an initial trial period of four months. The License requires Mr Sim to allow fair and equitable access by other organisations that wish to also use the site.'
Learn how ghost tours and a government department broke a promise to provide fair access to Brisbane's Boggo Road for community groups.
This is what Public Works minister Tim Mander wrote to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society on 7 January 2013, one month after he made similar statements to the press. It is unequivocal. Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim of 'Ghost Tours' was contractually required to provide fair and equitable access to Boggo Road for other groups wanting to offer services there.

This was in fact one of the few conditions of this license we ever heard about. What the rest of this license said remained a veiled secret, because even though Campbell Newman government gifted commercial control of this public asset to a small businessman known to his family (without any tender process or the most basic fact checks), all the Right To Information attempts that we know of to see this license were blocked.

This all came about after the interference of premier Newman led to part of Boggo Road being opened on an interim basis in late 2012. More than halfway through the trial period, with the old prison newly-established as the most expensive heritage tourism site in southeast Queensland and the worst-value heritage gaol experience in the whole of Australia, a 'Schedule of Fees' was finally cobbled together by Mr Sim. Did it provide the required fair and equitable access, and who was to judge? If the judges were the very third-party organisations that this document was designed to provide that fair and equitable access to, then the response from all quarters so far has been a resounding NO.

It is worth recalling this episode as an example of how personal greed harmed community engagement at Boggo Road, and why it should never be allowed to happen again.

There were four big reasons why the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society saw this ‘Schedule of Fees’ as unfair, inequitable and unacceptable, and these were:
  • Exorbitant fees 
  • 'Timeshare' access 
  • The 30-Day Rule 
  • No competition allowed

1. Exorbitant fees
The first problem with the Schedule of Fees was the charge. We knew that the license required that 'The Licensee must ensure that the costs imposed by the Licensee on third parties for making Third Party Bookings are subject to a reasonable, equitable and fair fee structure'. So what did we get? Demands that volunteers and community groups pay $80-$120 before they could take people through a public asset that he neither owned nor paid any rent for. And on what grounds? As was written in his own words in the Schedule of Fees:
'Hire fees for Non-Profit/Non-Commercial Organisation Hirers to operate historical tours at the Gaol are designed to cover operational costs only, and encourage historical activities and experiences associated with Boggo Road.' (my emphasis)
So what were these ‘operational costs’ the $80-$120 was supposed to cover?
  • Rent? He was not paying any at the time. 
  • Staff to open the prison? No, because Boggo would already be open because third parties were expected to run their tours at the same time as Mr Sim ran his own tours. So his staff would be there anyway. 
  • Electricity? Turning on about three dozen light bulbs for two hours would cost about $1. And of course that’s only for a night tour. And, once again, he would be using the gaol and electricity himself at the same time anyway.
So in reality there were no operational costs to even begin to justify the $80-$120 slug to community groups, and by his own reasoning ('Hire fees... are designed to cover operational costs only') we should have been paying about one dollar maximum to use Boggo. Were these fees 'reasonable, equitable and fair' as contractually required?

Of course not. 

2. 'Timeshare' access

Ground plan of Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, Queensland
Another glaring anomaly is that, having shelled out $80-$120 for the privilege of getting into a public asset, we wouldn't even get exclusive access for our customers because, as is stated in the Schedule, tours are to be 'run on half-hour between regular public tours booked by Boggo Road Gaol Pty Ltd.'

So we were asked to run our tours at the exact same time that Sim had other tour groups in there. Bearing in mind that only a small part of Boggo was open and space was very limited, this could have easily led to two completely different tour groups getting in each other’s way. With different pacing and routines, it would have been quite likely the groups end up in the same place at the same time with the different guides having to talk over each other. Noise overlap would be inevitable anyway, and the atmosphere of night tours in particular would have been ruined.

This would have been unfair not only to us and our tour groups, but also to Sim’s customers (who would have been paying twice as much as our customers to begin with).

3. The 30-day rule

Another requirement was that community groups had to book and pay for tours at least 30 days in advance. Now this obviously limited our ability to book tours at shorter notice or do one-offs. It also meant that we had to pre-book and pay for a specific date and time before we could market it and then hope we got enough customers to cover costs.

The question is, why did we have to book 30 days in advance? Normally this requirement would allow the licensee to plan ahead and know when the site is free for other activities, but this is only logical when exclusive access is provided. It made absolutely no sense if we had to run our tours at the same time as his. So there was no logical reason for the 30-day booking requirement, which appeared to be designed purely to limit access and make life difficult for us.

4. No competition allowed
Mr Sim claimed to be keen to promote the tourist industry, but apparently that only meant his business. The Schedule of Fees explicitly stated that no other private businesses could run tours there. So much for the free market, and Minister Mander's statement that 'The License requires Mr Sim to allow fair and equitable access by other organisations that wish to also use the site'.

The production of this Schedule of Fees was also an exercise in incompetence. Not only did Mr Sim inform Public Works that he had sent us a copy of the Schedule of Fees in December when he hadn't, but it took four attempts to cobble together an inherently unfair document. The result was nothing more than an attempt to suppress competition (Mr Sim has always been opposed to people competing with him), and came across as an attempt to squeeze cash from volunteers and community groups.

All this led to the big question. It was a condition of the Deed of License to provide fair and equitable access to Boggo for third parties. Mr Sim clearly failed to provide that fair and equitable access. But would his Deed of License be revoked? The answer was 'no'. It became clear that concept of 'fair' is highly subjective and despite all relevant not-for-profit organisations declaring that 'fair and equitable access' had clearly not been provided, the contractual obligations and political promises meant nothing.

The whole episode turned out to be just another example among many of the Newman government bungled the whole interim opening of Boggo Road.

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