25 February 2015

Campbell Newman's Boggo Road Bungle

How political interference led to controversy at the Boggo Road heritage prison.
The BRGHS sets out to be an apolitical organisation, especially as our 300-strong membership represents a very broad spectrum of political views. Having said that, the political changes in Queensland make this a good time to look back at political party influences upon the recent management of Boggo Road.

To begin, it would be fair to say that the ALP does not have a proud record with Boggo. The Beattie and Bligh governments chose not to fund the heritage prison and instead sought private sector investment. The BRGHS would have preferred government funding for Boggo, but arguments about a lack of funds due to the GFC and natural disasters were difficult to counter.

It also took their governments 10 years to reach the point where they handed planning for Boggo over to someone else. Outside of this, heritage funding was slashed by over 30% under the Gillard Government.

Even the Greens had little to say about non-Indigenous heritage in their 2015 state election platform, although we were pleased to see the Katter Party mention heritage funding in their post-election list of negotiating demands to the LNP and ALP.However, the blunders made by the Newman Government in relation to Boggo seem worse because they weren’t forced by broader economic circumstances. Simply put, former premier Campbell Newman and his Public Works minister Tim Mander made a series of ‘captain’s calls’ that were unnecessary and ill-judged.

In fact, what happened at Boggo during 2012-15 provide a small-scale example of the kind of behaviour that pundits claim led to the demise of the Newman Government.

First and foremost, in 2012 Newman made a private backroom deal to hand control of Boggo over to a small businessman known to his family - namely Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim of ‘Ghost Tours’. It was done and dusted before anybody else found out about it. Sim made it clear in private meetings and news articles that he was a fan of Newman. An online photo showed him posing happily with the Newman family during the time of the backroom meetings. We wouldn't say they were ‘mates’ as such, but in the wider context of a government often criticised for doing favours for people it knew, it was not a good look.

Ridiculously, the government's stated basis for their decision was a business plan/brochure from Sim claiming that he would create over 50 jobs and raise $2million per year at Boggo (that's around $40,000 per week). We'd be surprised if even 10% of that promise was realised.

Having made an ideological decision to favour the private sector, Premier Newman then virtually ignored representations from BRGHS members for a fair deal by responding with blank statements. Even worse was former Public Works minister Tim Mander breaking his very public promise that our group would have fair access to run tours at Boggo.

After this we saw the government ignoring expert recommendations in 2013 to change the Boggo management, and instead they called a surprise tender process that failed to be fair and equitable.

They continued to blithely dismiss our concerns (in some cases, not even responding at all), and in 2014 even overturned their own ban on allowing prison ‘ghosts hunts’ in the same place where people had died horribly while in the employ or custody of state governments.

Public Works also disengaged from keeping community groups up to date with news about Boggo. The period up to mid-2012 was frustrating because of the planning delays, but we did at least have regular meetings with (or receive emails and phone calls from) Public Works officials. All that stopped under Newman and Mander. Fortunately the Boggo developers have proved to be more consultative.

It is no secret that the Newman Government punished its critics, and we certainly felt that we were punished for openly criticising how the Boggo situation was handled by these politicians. Despite this, the slowly-unfolding planning process for Boggo and the very real prospect of a three-term Newman Government meant that we often had to bite our tongue to protect the long-term interests of our group.

We hope that ALL parties learned a lesson from the spectacular and unexpected demise of the Newman Government.

Coming across like you are making backroom deals with your supporters, sidelining community organisations, and generally running government in an arrogant and non-accountable manner is going lose you public support, no matter how large your majority might be. We expect the minority Palasczczuk Government to be particularly aware of this, and also the LNP when they inevitably return to power one day - maybe under Tim Mander himself. Heritage is not a vote-changer, but pennies make pounds and every community organisation counts. Many among the 300 members of the BRGHS would have viewed Campbell Newman and Tim Mander’s handling of Boggo in a negative light, and enough small pennies like that will add up come election day.

Changes are coming to Boggo, but we will always look back at 2012-15 as the time when Campbell Newman bungled Boggo by gifting it to a supporter in a backroom deal, then let his minister break a promise to us, and then failed to listen to genuine public concerns. And now he is gone and we are still here.

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