Croquet clubs, festivals and advancing economic growth in Adelaide

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By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

During a recent visit to my home town of Adelaide, South Australia (SA), I made an arrangement to pick up a friend from a pub on Currie Street to share a cab back to the suburb where she lived and where I was staying. The pub was one where I’ve been a semi-regular, when in town, for over twenty years. We’d agreed that I’d meet her outside and just as I arrived it started pouring with rain. No bother, I thought, I’ll just stand under the pub’s verandah and wait for my friend to come out, simple. Only problem, with South Australia being a nanny state, it wasn’t simple and there was a bother. The bouncer told me I couldn’t stand under the verandah and wait for my friend because it was “against the law”. “But it’s raining”, I said; “doesn’t matter” he replied. I took out my phone and called my friend but she didn’t answer. Fair enough, I could tell from the outside that the pub was crowded and noisy and she probably wouldn’t hear her phone. The bouncer persisted and was getting aggressive, telling me he would have to physically remove me from the premises. What a joke, I thought – being threatened with physical violence for standing under a verandah to avoid the rain and having to choose between getting drenched and copping a beating. Luckily for me, and probably the bouncer and the pub too, my friend came out at that moment and we got in a cab and left.

It’s things like this which, from time to time, I find incredibly irritating when I’m living in Australia. I could list at least a dozen more examples from my life similar to the above; Perth’s probably the Australian capital for nanny-state-ism–  try enjoying a test match at the WACA when you’re treated like a criminal from the moment you walk in! In most parts of the world, these sorts of things just don’t happen, which is why I often say I have greater freedoms living in Communist Vietnam than I do in “freedom-loving” Australia.

Adelaide is Australia’s Festival city. At festival time, or “mad March”, it is bar-none, hands-down, the greatest place on the planet. For the other eleven months of the year, Adelaide is (rightly or wrongly) famously boring. The Adelaide Fringe Festival is the world’s second biggest after Edinburgh, and with great weather, sunsets to die for, delicious cuisine, local beer and wine, lush parks and gardens, and an amazing array of performances and experiences to indulge in, it’s just mind-blowingly brilliant! Many of the best nights of my life were Festival nights.

Nights might include a play, a couple of exhibitions, some funky street performance, stacks of beers, singer-songwriter set, dirty puppet show, freak scene, look! – the building’s lit up, Argentinian BBQ dinner, and dancing in the park before meeting some performers who take you to the artists’ bar where your night kicks into a whole new level of awesomeness as you wax philosophical with talented artists from all over the world. Later, you wind up at a secret comedy showcase with some of the world’s funniest comedians testing some future gags (and of course you get dragged onstage and incorporated into the act, of which you are reminded of for years to come), more dancing, top DJ’s by the river, and disco knee before you eventually wake up the next day in a wooden boat in a lake in a park somewhere; taxi!

Some years ago I lived in Montreal, Canada, another great festival city (if Adelaide’s serious about having a second mad month it should think about emulating Montreal’s amazing jazz festival) and a group of us, mostly Aussie expats, decided to head down to the three day Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago. We rented an awesome apartment in the famous Lake Point Tower and had a complete blast for a few days (although it must be said Chicago is even more of a nanny-state than Adelaide – we were threatened with arrest for swimming in the lake past waist depth, and then again for leaving the festival through the wrong gate).

Attending festivals is something that many cashed up, mostly youngish expats do (and no, ‘by expats’, I don’t just mean white people). I have expat friends that are always off to Coachella or Fuji or SXSW or whatever other festival is going on in large groups sharing accommodation (or tents), and this is typically how many expats catch up with other expat mates who live in different countries. The Adelaide Festivals haven’t quite captured this massive market and it’s a market that the State Government should help the festivals to access because of their big spending ways, the fact that they come in large groups, the hipness they bring, the vibrancy and enthusiasm of their youth and their active use of social media which would turn them into 24/7 advertisements for Adelaide seen by people who work in international companies, the likes of which the Government are actively trying to attract to SA.

This is important because Adelaide, and the state of South Australia, is in a bit of an economic malaise. It’s a low-growth state, industries are shutting down, unemployment is rising and people are leaving. Many highly qualified, Adelaide educated people can’t get a job in Adelaide where the pay matches their skills and experience and, like I have, head elsewhere – this is what we call the ‘brain-drain’.  To solve these problems, South Australia needs to bring more money into the state, and the two best ways to do this are to sell more stuff overseas and attract companies to operate in South Australia, which is known as Foreign Direct Investment (or FDI).

With government support and partnership, the arts and cultural industries, and especially festivals, can play a lead role in generating economic growth and Adelaide is a good example of this. Adelaide’s festivals bring tens of millions of dollars into the state each year. People come from all over the world, stay at hotels, take tours, go to shows, order cartons of wine and buy pretty things. This is well known and documented, but perhaps the real economic benefit that the festivals might have, and which I don’t believe has been adequately tapped, is the potential to attract FDI. However, for this to occur the festivals would need the 100% support of each level of government, and each level of government needs to be equally committed to achieving growth.

Living in Asia on-and-off for the last six years, I’ve learned a thing or two about how states generate economic growth. One thing I’ve noticed is that the governments of high-growth cities and states drive growth ruthlessly and everything is centred on increasing trade and attracting investment. I’ve seen firsthand how economic growth can benefit the bulk of the populace. This ruthlessness sadly includes bulldozing both environmental and built heritage and unfairly displacing people who are often provided inadequate compensation. South Australia, which needs to get out of its low-growth crawl, should seek to emulate some of the less damaging approaches to developing growth that high-growth states have implemented.

Some approaches might include; educating the public on why growth is so necessary (ie, more jobs, better schools and hospitals), having each level of government 100% committed to building growth, developing the abilities of local business to compete, providing support for activities that build growth and creating vibrant places that are attractive for expats to live.

Many people in Adelaide are afraid of growth, so much so that it’s become a bit of a joke on social media (check out Opposing Everything Because I’m From Adelaide on Facebook), but this fear is not entirely without reason. Adelaide is a beautiful city with an exceptional lifestyle and people don’t want to see that ruined by concreting the parklands for parking, nor do they want to see the same destruction that’s occurred in some Asian cities to happen in Adelaide. But whatever people’s feelings are towards growth, until the time the whole global economic system is changed, growth is simply a necessity if we want people in SA to have jobs and enjoy the famous Adelaide lifestyle that we have taken for granted for far too long.

Economic growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of our lifestyle, environment or built heritage, and in fact can enhance these things. In Adelaide, we’ve knocked down enough heritage buildings and destroyed enough of the environment that we’ve learned our lessons better than our high growth neighbours have – we are ahead in these regards and, with some disappointing exceptions, we generally have a better understanding of the benefits, both economically and culturally, of protecting our built and environmental heritage. Adelaide is a boutique city; it can be kept that way and still grow. Keeping our natural and built heritage and wonderful lifestyle will be a part of what actually helps us to grow into the future.

But South Australia cannot grow unless each level of government is 100% committed to building and sustaining growth, and unfortunately this is not the case. To bring this post back to its main theme, how strategic partnerships between festivals and government can help attract FDI, I want to examine a contentious decision made by the Adelaide City Council that seems to fly in the face of all economic logic about building growth, and sadly reflects an antiquated mindset that is all too commonly held by many leaders in South Australia’s political and business sectors.

The decision that has raised so many eyebrows in SA is the recent decision of the Adelaide City Council’s so called ‘Economic and Community Development Committee’ to cripple the operations of the Royal Croquet Club. Now, for people not familiar with the Adelaide festivals, The Royal Croquet Club isn’t a croquet club at all, but is the name of a highly innovative and successful business that operates an outdoor festival venue during mad march.  As adelaidenow.com.au reports:

NEGOTIATIONS between the Royal Croquet Club and Adelaide City Council will begin to ensure the popular Fringe venue returns next year but its hours of operation will be reduced and lockout brought forward.

Other restrictions on the Royal Croquet Club (RCC) include reducing its trading hours to 1am on weekends, banning loud music past 12am, introducing a midnight lockout, mandating public access to part of Victoria Square during the day and making aesthetic improvements to the fencing.

The new restrictions on the Club’s operations were passed by the Economic and Community Development Committee on Tuesday, after the event had attracted criticism about its impact on bricks-and-mortar venues and damaging the Square.

The main reason for the Adelaide City Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee’s decision to cripple the Royal Croquet Club is that some owners of Adelaide pubs, often referred to as ‘bricks-and-mortar venues’, have complained about how the success of the Royal Croquet Club damages their own business for one whole month each year.  As adelaidenow.com.au reported earlier this year:

ADELAIDE’S busy festival season has become one of the “worst” trading periods for city pubs and clubs who blame the growth of temporary Fringe and Festival venues for stealing business.

Thousands of people are converging on the city for the annual festival season but the Australian Hotels Association says many pubs have seen trade slump due to the expansion of venues, such as the Royal Croquet Club, Gluttony and the Garden of Unearthly Delights on public land.

“A lot of them are telling us they have had the flattest February and March for a number of years,” AHA president Ian Horne said.

“The number of people telling us that suggests it isn’t just people trying to spin a yarn.”

Mr Horne said the industry was particularly concerned about the impact of the Royal Croquet Club’s expansion on pubs and clubs across the city.

Let me let you in on a little secret, and I say this with fondness; you’ll never meet a bigger bunch of whingeing bastards in your life than Adelaide’s publicans. Many years ago now I was a professional musician busting my average chops in many of Adelaide’s pubs and I got to know quite a few of the publicans. Not so long ago I renewed acquaintances with a handful of them when I found myself temporarily running a small arts bar in Adelaide’s West End. So over the years I’ve sat down with many of them and talked liquor and business.  I liked most of them a great deal, nice guys capable of delivering some insightful front bar wisdoms, they kept my glass full, my beer chilled and on the house if I was lucky. But!  Those guys sure can whinge! And I empathise with them, they have plenty to whinge about; if the nanny state meddled in my business half as much as it does the hospitality industry I’d be grumpy too.

But let’s be honest, if an Adelaide pub can’t make serious money during mad March, they are doing something terribly wrong. If they aren’t having a bumper month each March, they seriously need to review their business model for that one month each year, and perhaps (God forbid!) consider collaborating with the pop-up venues. These types of collaborations with a business nemesis is quite common the world over, think of Microsoft and Apple, but it is something we usually shy away from in Adelaide.

Unfortunately, ­­­­­­­­whilst this is the way most of the commercial world operates, the Adelaide City Council doesn’t appear to value competition or collaboration in the same way. Instead of letting the market dictate to the bricks and mortar pubs that for one month every year they should do something different to maintain or even build upon their regular income levels, the Adelaide City Council would rather intervene and cripple the innovative competitors that have come along.

This is typical of how the ‘The Establishment’ works in Australia; there are industries The Establishment likes (typically established ones) and those they don’t like (typically new industries) and The Establishment will do their darnedest, through their influence on governments, to limit the growth of the new industries they find most threatening to the established businesses in which they are financially involved. This is largely achieved through influencing the government to introduce regulations which increase expenses and raise the barriers to entry for new entrants into the market, effectively sending out a message “don’t invest here, this is our turf”. This is easy for them to do, they simply start by concocting a public fuss. There are other reasons, such as ideological ones, why governments will try to cripple an industry, and other ways they can do it and I’ll write more about this in a future post. The crippling of growth industries by governments that should instead have their support is a big problem hindering economic development in Australia. Whilst the crippling of the Royal Croquet Club is relatively minor in the larger economic scheme of things, it serves as an example that sends out strong messages to would be innovators in the field and when a few similar decisions are combined, serious problems arise. The problem with The Establishment is that we often don’t know who they are and they haven’t been elected. Perhaps the most troubling current example of their influence is at the Federal level where we see how easily the Abbott Government is controlled like muppets to limit the growth of the renewable energy industry to protect The Establishment’s investments in coal, oil and other old-fashioned, dirty energy sources. Australia should be a world leader in clean energy, but we aren’t.

wind

New Landscapes by Textile Warrior

As the well-known Australian media executive Kim Williams wrote in his recently released book, an excellent read for those interested in the inter relationships between commerce and culture, Rules of Engagement:

There are vast differences between public and private sectors in Australia, and the gap is increasingly widening, so much so they are diverging into almost impossible cultural divides.

Government is so often bound up in its own world consumed with process, insular and cocooned from real-world settings, creating solutions to poorly identified problems. When I consider all the change that I have experienced and I look at what politicians and bureaucrats are often doing in Canberra, I fear that we are living in parallel realities.

At its worst, government seemingly wants to regulate for every eventuality or every issue of public fuss. It is self-evident that legislation is slow to respond to evidence or consumer feedback, and decisions are often driven by knee-jerk reactions and/ or simplistic ideology, pet hates or a concern to get square. Above all, the crushing impact of increased regulation on Australian businesses is not sufficiently taken into account.

…it is at times as if Lewis Carroll rules the day.

For most people, it’s plain to see the Adelaide City Council, under the influence of The Establishment, or perhaps Carroll’s potions, pipes or mushrooms, has made a daft decision, but if you’re not sure, here’s what’s wrong with it:

  • It’s anti-competitive and discourages healthy business competition
  • It discourages Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
  • It discourages innovation
  • It decreases vibrancy in the city
  • It hinders economic growth with an outdated form of protectionism
  • It encourages businesses to blame others for their own lack of innovation
  • It creates more red tape and therefore discourages a successful business providing job growth and other benefits to the state
  • Red tape reduces the productivity of the business
  • It senselessly attacks, via discourse and regulation, the mad March pop-up venue growth industry that generates wealth for South Australia
  • It promotes the idea that innovative pop-up businesses are inferior to ‘bricks-and-mortar’
  • It indicates that the function of the Economic and Community Development Committee is an extractive state institution protecting the interests of an elite few, at a time when economists are espousing the importance of inclusive institutions as a central ingredient to building growth
  • It implements the nanny-state imperatives of reduced hours and access (I’ll say more about this later)
  • It puts jobs at risk
  • It’s bad cultural policy (I’m sure the staff in the City of Adelaide’s arts and culture departments are still face-palming in the corridors)
  • Arguments that the Club damages the park’s lawn sound like something my nana would’ve said as we set up the cricket stumps when we were kids, and just as her lawn was perfect for a game of cricket, what are our grassed public spaces for if not festivals? The lawn at the Adelaide Oval is nice too, maybe AFL matches should be banned?
  • It rewards the outdated and mediocre business thinking that has held South Australia back for decades
  • A few competition and innovation averse whinging publicans might recoup a few dollars in March, but ultimately it’s Adelaide and South Australians who lose out.

Perhaps most worryingly, it is indicative of some old Adelaide mindsets that still prevail; anti-change, anti-competitiveness, anti-innovation, anti-risk, a tendency to blame everyone else for one’s own business failings, a sense of entitlement which tends to rule out any thoughts of collaboration and a lack of global thinking. These are relics of the protectionist days under Sir Thomas Playford, SA’s Premier from 1938 to 1965, but Playford’s days, as good as they may have been for the state, and the protectionism that was in those times largely the international order of the day, are way over. It’s not the 1950’s, and the world doesn’t work that way anymore. But, as Ben Folds once sang in a song called Adelaide:

Here you know the world could turn

Or crash and burn

And you would never know it

When cities want to attract FDI they need to make the city an attractive place to invest and a large part of doing so is making it a place where expats will want to live. Companies wanting to set up a new base will need to bring some of their staff and it is important that their staff like their new surroundings. Adelaide scores reasonably highly on this count, in that it is a beautiful corner of the world and Ben Folds was right when he once sang:

…. the air is clear

there’s better beer

in Adelaide

But we could do much better in terms of building the vibrancy of Adelaide which is a necessary aspect of reversing the brain drain and attracting FDI. Adelaide at festival time is the greatest place on the planet but has a reputation for being boring for the rest of the year, which is why I fully support the current Premier’s suggestion to have a second mad month full of festivals each year, say in September. The only arguments that I’ve heard against the suggestion are ones that say the people of Adelaide won’t be able to afford to go to so many events, but that’s a very inward looking way of seeing the opportunity, and the festivals and their partnerships with government should be about bringing people to Adelaide for holidays and attracting FDI from which every South Australian would benefit from.

An important part of a city’s vibrancy is late night drinking opportunities and let me tell you something I’ve learned through living abroad for many years on four continents; expats are often a boozy bunch of cashed-up partiers prone to blowing their paycheques like there’s no tomorrow. In short, the very kind of people we want to attract to SA. One thing that kills vibrancy and is hated by expats is nanny-state-isms, the absence of which in many high-growth cities is a contributing factor to their popularity as expat and FDI destinations and contributes strongly to their high-growth rates. Companies that set up operations in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) do well because their staff have a great time and meet fabulous people when they party way too late, way too many nights of the week. In Saigon, you’ll never get moved on for standing under a verandah in the rain outside a pub, or be hassled by a bouncer for trying to order your meal from the wrong part of the bar, or be told you’re only allowed to buy two drinks at a time or some other fun-killing nanny-state-ism. Boozy nights out are often organised or paid for by the expat’s workplaces; the Australian Government and associated agencies organise some pretty boozy chin-ups at sundown. A big night out in Saigon kicks the arse out of one in Adelaide on any night of the week!

In the past I’ve taken many foreign guests to festival events in Adelaide that have gone into the very late hours and they’ve loved it! I’m sure they all went home to their home countries and raved about it to their friends. But had they been shunted home by security goons at midnight I’m not sure that they would have enjoyed their evening so much or advertised Adelaide to their friends with the same enthusiasm. Hell, I remember nights we didn’t even leave home to go to the festival before midnight. Vibrant cities attract people to the city to live, work and spend, make people want to live in the city for as long as possible and encourage people to tell others about what a great city it is. If the Government of South Australia and the Adelaide City Council are serious about growth and attracting FDI, they need to continue improving the vibrancy of the city, and they should start by seeking to overturn the bizarre treatment that is being metered out to the Royal Croquet Club by the Adelaide City Council.

Now of course, not all expats are alco’s and not all nationalities have alcohol as a central tenant to their culture and SA doesn’t need vibrancy just to attract companies with staff prone to alcoholism. SA also needs vibrancy to attract people who simply like to go to the theatre or a music performance or an art exhibition. One thing that would be great to see in Adelaide’s festivals in the coming years is more and more performances in languages other than English and more events from non-English speaking companies as part of the government’s partnerships with the festivals in their efforts to attract FDI.

In How music education builds economic growth in South Australia I wrote about the backwardness of reducing government funding towards advanced music courses at colleges and universities in Adelaide which ‘deliver graduates into the workplace with the skills most needed to develop innovation, increase international business competitiveness and build growth in the state’. But why do governments continually make such poor economic and cultural decisions like shutting down growth generating music courses and crippling popular, job building, cultural events? It is because we are largely governed by uncultured politicians and bureaucrats who view the world through the narrow vertical lenses of their own field of specialisation and the organisational and thought silos in which most western democratic governments are firmly structured. I investigate these concepts in more depth in Culture destroys silos. But put simply, I doubt the broader economic ramifications that crippling the Royal Croquet Club would have on the state would have even occurred to many of the the decision makers in the Adelaide City Council, such is their inability to see outside of the silos in which their thoughts are contained.

Throughout history, great arts scenes have often created an environment for business innovation and economic growth; think of the San Francisco arts scene of the late ‘60s and its effect on Silicon Valley, or how artists helped Florence become one of the leading financial centres under the watch of the Medici, a family who well understood how to implement corporate cultural diplomacy.

So it is prudent economic management for governments who are seeking growth to invest in their local arts scene and festivals, and the Adelaide City Council has always been, with notable exceptions like the crippling of the Royal Croquet Club, supportive of the Festivals. I’m sure the arts and culture team at the council are livid with the Economic and Community Development Committee, but these days the economic arguments, no matter how erroneous, often seem to outweigh the cultural ones. Ben Folds could well have been singing about the Adelaide City Council and their under commitment to achieving growth in South Australia when he sang:

I can see their eyes are round

They’re pointed down

They scan the spanning sidewalks

Learning that there is no hurry

Fuss or worry

Because unfortunately there is a hurry, a fuss and a worry and we can’t keep looking down whilst thinking our economic woes will go away if we ignore them. SA’s economic challenges need urgent and committed attention from each level of government if the state is ever going to get out of its low-growth crawl.

It’s these old Adelaide mindsets that are holding back South Australia both culturally and economically, small town thinking as it’s often labelled.  Personally, I think the holders of these old Adelaide mindsets who reside in prominent positions within government or business should get a tap on their shoulder and be told to update their cultural knowledge and global thought processes or move on. Otherwise I think it will be a generational change and we might have to wait a further twenty or thirty years until leaders in Adelaide’s business and corporate worlds have a more international grasp on how the world works and a more solid understanding of modern-day economics. By then it might be too late.

It’s not the role of festivals to build growth or attract FDI, and for all the economic benefits that festivals bring to SA, the financial data produced and put on the front page of the ‘tiser each year doesn’t reflect at all the real value that the festivals bring to SA. The real value of Adelaide’s festivals is their power to inspire and transform people and groups and bring people together to share powerful, life affirming experiences; none of which has anything to do with money. It is each level of government’s responsibility to build growth and attract investment and through supportive partnerships and agreements with Adelaide’s festivals the state can take bigger strides towards desired levels of growth. Governments and the festivals have a mutual interest in building audiences and should continue to work together.

Economically speaking, South Australia needs to both grow and grow up.  Every level of government needs to be 100% committed to supporting activities that build growth in SA. If this doesn’t happen soon, there will be a whole new swath of people walking through the Departure Gates of the Adelaide Airport singing along with Ben Folds:

Pack the bags

And catch a flight

And you can kiss my ass goodbye

Adelaide

Disclaimer: Grant Hall has worked for various government departments at federal and state level in Australia and has worked on many festivals in Adelaide.

photo credit: [Photograph depicting children playing croquet] via photopin (license)

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