On one point, there is no dispute: Macquarie Point on Hobart’s waterfront presents a one-time opportunity for something truly special to be created, that will reap social and economic benefits for all Tasmanians, now and for generations to come. The imperative to maximise this opportunity is embraced by all sides of government, private investors, and traditional custodians of the land alike. So why do many who have an interest in or have been involved with the development associate ‘Mac Point’ with disappointment, frustration and turmoil instead of enthusiasm, innovation and achievement?
For the 90,000 or so Tasmanians who are members of interstate AFL teams, countless unofficial fans of the game, and those that would like to be able to see Ed Sheeran perform without having to board a plane, the idea of building a stadium at Macquarie Point sparks a ground-swell of anticipation and excitement. The proposal is not just for a stadium but, as the Government’s strategic business case puts it, “something out of the ordinary that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world … A Stadium of the Future”. The Tasmanian Government has committed $375 million to the project. All that is needed to make this vision a reality is for the Australian Government to chip in a meagre $240 million: a green light on the money, and work can commence.
Except work to develop the site has already commenced. Multiple times over.
Back in June 2012, the Australian Government granted Tasmania $50 million to remediate Macquarie Point. The then Minister for Infrastructure and current Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, said in his media release that the grant was the result of a long period of negotiations and discussion. It’s “a decision that will transform a community for decades into the future,” he said. “A project that will boost Hobart’s liveability, sustainability and the Tasmanian economy.”
Semi-retired public servant, Peter Sheldon-Collins, was an integral player in securing the $50 million and progressing the early stages of the project. Thinking back on that time, his voice grows warm and sentimental. “We put a lot of work into it,” he said. “Firstly, the dollars were mostly focused on remediating the site, but also to redevelop it as an urban renewal project. It would have included residential, commercial, retail, civic property development and public open space. That’s where the whole thing started.”
The mission was clear. Clear, but not exactly straightforward. First, decontaminate 9.3 hectares of reclaimed land. Second, as noted in the Macquarie Point Development Corporation Bill fact sheet, redevelop the site as a vibrant and active mixed-use area, that encourages innercity living, delivers sustainable social and economic benefits to Hobart, and meets sound planning, urban design and environmental principles.
Sheldon-Collins lists the sources of contamination with the familiarity of someone who has spent many hours dealing with them. Since European settlement these include a barracks and drill yard, railyards, fuel delivery and distribution network, and gasworks. “Underneath the building called the Searoad Shed was the first thing we tackled. There was a deep pool of oil that had been spilt over many years that we had to extract out of the ground,” he said.
Work on a development plan also progressed. “We needed to get the planning scheme amended because it was zoned as industrial use at the time,” said Sheldon-Collins. The newly established Macquarie Point Development Corporation (‘the Corporation’) undertook broad public consultation, including engagement with the Aboriginal community, to identify ideas and options. An architect was also commissioned to design a plan that considered the local geography, remembered the past, including the experiences of the muwinina people who were the original inhabitants of the area, and enabled a modern precinct to be created. After this comprehensive process, the Macquarie Point Masterplan: New Territory from Old Ground was finalised, endorsed by the Hobart City Council and submitted to the Planning Commission. “It was a fully-fledged mixed-use development,” he said.
It was that masterplan that attracted Daniel Robinson to the project. Living on the mainland at the time, Robinson jumped at the opportunity to return to his home state to be the General Manager of Development within the Corporation. “There was a clear, well-developed master plan. It had been consulted with quite extensively by the public and signed off by the Minister,” he said. “You get the feeling that it’s ‘off you go and get it done’.”
“There were some key risks identified as part of that plan that needed to be addressed. The first one was the contamination of the site and the second big elephant in the room is the fact that there’s a sewerage treatment facility on the site,” said Robinson. “But both of those risks, which were probably the main issues to the project even going ahead, had been mitigated. There had been an approved process of decontamination of the site and a memorandum of understanding (MOU) had been put in place with the State Government, the Corporation and TasWater to relocate the wastewater treatment facility.”
At some point, around the time real money needed to be spent to progress the relocation of the facility, commitment to the project waned, said Robinson. Then, the State Government announced a new vision for Macquarie Point. “And the old plan that had been previously endorsed, that had been taken through a fairly rigorous public notification period just kind of got scrapped,” he said.
Robinson is pragmatic about the sequence of events leading to the Government’s changed direction. “The project had stalled. Following that, there were a few issues from a political point of view that started to influence the project,” he said.
He said the proposal converted the development from one paid for through private investment to a project requiring significant public funding. Its design stretched beyond the land owned by the Corporation and did not address the challenges of the site, such as wind tunnelling. “It doesn’t work from an urban design point of view,” said Robinson. “It is very nice without consideration of any of the other factors.”
What followed was a period of transition and turmoil within the Corporation.
Having invested so much energy, passion and commitment to develop and progress the initial masterplan, and then having the Government’s direction change so dramatically, many staff at the Corporation decided to move on. Robinson returned to the mainland. “I still love the state,” he said. “So, yeah, it was disappointing.”
Professor Greg Lehman, Pro Vice Chancellor of Aboriginal Leadership at the University of Tasmania, worked closely with the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on the new proposal for Macquarie Point. Earlier, Lehman had challenged MONA to actively engage with Tasmania’s Aboriginal history. If “MONA is all about confronting the things that nobody wants to talk about … the truths that people are too afraid to utter, then in the Tasmanian context you really have to start with the subject of genocide on the island,” he said.
Lehman said that after the initial masterplan was announced, the Government approached MONA to reset the vision for Macquarie Point. “MONA was a tear-away success in Tasmania at the time and a massive stimulus to the Tasmanian economy, reinventing the idea of what was possible.” Two proposals were prepared: one that met the Government’s brief, and another that was unrestrained by the parameters of the site. This second design became known as the ‘MONA vision’. “It was released to the public, the media got onboard and the public response was really positive,” he said.
The centrepiece of the MONA vision is the Truth and Reconciliation Art Park, which Lehman describes as an ‘antimonument’. Rather than a large concrete structure, it would be a dynamic and interactive space that served not only as a memorial to the horrors experienced by First Nations people in Australia, but also a space where the resilience and survival of contemporary Aboriginal culture could be celebrated, he said.
“What we wanted to do was create an opportunity. The detail of the renders that were part of the launch of the vision were really just placeholders,” said Lehman. “When that second masterplan was eventually legislated and formalised, of course it couldn’t emulate the entire MONA vision because the MONA vision went outside the precinct. But it certainly was formed around the central spine of the Truth and Reconciliation Art Park.”
Work commenced to transform the MONA vision into a design that could become reality. But when the government announced that a stadium would be built on the site, “that all ground to a halt,” Lehman said. “And nothing’s moved since then.” Lehman’s exasperation is palpable. “The precinct wasn’t big enough to host a meaningful presence of a park … as well as the stadium,” he said. “A front lawn to a football stadium is not what we were talking about … it couldn’t be any further away from the vision.”
But Reconciliation Tasmania CEO Mark Redmond is optimistic. He takes confidence from the Scar Tree Walk in Melbourne that allows people to learn the history and cultural significance of the site on which the Melbourne Cricket Ground is built. “In some small way there could be a really good truth telling element to that site if the stadium goes ahead,” he said. “There’s a lot of history there and the opportunity still remains there for that initial story to be told.”
If the Australian Government decides not to contribute to the stadium, next steps for the site are currently unclear. Whatever happens, decontamination is nearing completion, with the current tally on the Corporation’s website showing that 67,000 tonnes of contaminated soil and 2.3 million litres of groundwater have been removed. While the sewerage treatment plant was not relocated as the early MOU had envisioned, Minister for State Development, Construction and Housing, Guy Barnett, announced in July 2022 that the plant will be decommissioned by 2025.
Talking again with Daniel Robinson, he gives a final reflection: “Whether the original plan was perfect or not, and whether people would have liked something slightly different is nearly irrelevant. If it was 80 per cent right, then it would have been a great outcome. Now we’re probably stuck in a situation where whatever gets put there, it’ll probably be so heavily scrutinised that it’ll probably never happen,” he said. And then, with a fresh burst of optimism, “with good process, leadership and commitment at all levels, hopefully something comes out of it eventually.”