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The Games, The Scandals

Expatriate Kiwi and former Fred Dagg, John Clark, couldn't have dreamed up something this cunning and knavish in his Olympics satire "The Games". The Sydney Olympics Organisation (SOCOG) secretly withdrew 800,000 prime tickets after the public ballot had closed and diverted them to an exclusive premium ticket scheme for the rich, SOCOG this week admitted to an upper house Parliamentary enquiry.

An already dodgy scheme just got a whole lot worse. Worse still, SOCOG's President AND Olympics Minister, Michael Knight, claims there was no Board policy governing the premium ticket scheme and has so far failed to provide records of any Board discussions on the matter.

There are also suggestions that some Board members may have helped their mates get access to the premium tickets.

SOCOG's credibility was already severely damaged. Now it's shredded.
The latest revelation follows a series of blunders. The common threads are SOCOG's arrogance and disdain for the Australian public.

It reinforces the perception SOCOG is a secretive, centralist organisation run by NSW ALP and Olympic cronies for the benefit of an elite group of mates.
The Premier will be having second thoughts about the wisdom of having one of his Ministers at the head of SOCOG. This was an issue the Opposition tried but failed to get off the ground in the March election.

The Board member appointed by PM Howard says real power lies in the hands of a small four person clique, with the rest of the Board keeping itself informed of SOCOG decisions via the media.

Back to the ticket scandal. SOCOG made much of the idea its public ballot would give every Australian an equal chance to go to the Olympics. Leading sports personalities said so. The ballot was all about Aussie egalitarianism and the principle that everyone should have a fair go.

The marketing worked a treat and Australians forked out $340m, in advance, for Olympics tickets. But then, it now turns out, SOCOG took out all but a handful of the best seats and set aside for the rich.

It turned out the punters only had a 2% chance of getting seats at premium events. Thousands missed out completely, while others got their second or third choices. But the tickets were non-refundable and even those who missed out completely didn't get their money back straightaway.

It was a total stuff up. The public was outraged.

Enter the powerful Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) at the end of October. The ACCC has no parallel in NZ. It is a mixture of Treasury (being one of the driest government organisations over here) and the Consumer Affairs Ministry.

The ACCC basically accused SOCOG of deceptive and misleading conduct, which is a serious offence under consumer protection law.

Although it tried to suggest it wasn't bound by Commonwealth trade practices law because it is a State government agency, the NSW Premier intervened and SOCOG was forced to offer refunds to those who did not get their first choice. It has also promised to take seats out of the Premium Scheme and put them back into a second round ballot.

As a result the NSW Upper House kicked off an enquiry, while Knight set up an internal enquiry.

So now there is a massive finger pointing exercise as the more powerful mates dob in less powerful mates.

The sense the SOCOG CEO, Sandy Holloway, was being set up for a fall was so strong that last week Knight gave an impromptu speech to SOCOG staff to reassure them the knives weren't really out - it would not a be a "Knight of Knives" as the press quipped.

But the tickets shambles is just the latest in a series. Here are some other examples that have been revealed so far.

THE MARCHING BANDS FIASCO

SOCOG last year invited thousands of US teenage marching bands to perform at the opening ceremony, without telling the public. When this was revealed this year, the Australian public expressed outrage that this "unaustralian" activity would be a centrepiece at the opening ceremony. SOCOG duly relented and canned the bands. The bands retaliated and sued SOCOG. After a messy few weeks SOCOG came to some sort of settlement. In the meantime, SOCOG Directors dobbed in SOCOG's top lawyer saying she should have warned of the litigation risk. But the risk was so obvious, the whole exchange just suggested the lawyer had first been gagged and then hung out to dry.

THE SUCK MURDOCH EPISODE

Fox Studios objected that the Olympics road cycling course would block access to its new Moore Park complex (which incidentally opened last weekend). Fox could hardly complain since it had been given the parkland on which the complex was being built, but SOCOG sought to accommodate the Murdoch clan by replacing the leafy coastal course with a course around a Western Sydney wasteland. The cycling teams were also appalled as they'd spent time and money training on the original course. They threatened to sue. SOCOG backed down and changed the course back. But to keep Murdoch happy they built a whole new road across the park to minimise problems for Fox Studios.

THE SACK OF BONDI

SOCOG decided that volleyball had to be by the beach and had to be at Bondi for the US TV cameras. Bondi residents and other beach lovers, on the other hand, weren't thrilled at the prospect of a large building splitting the entire beach in two for most of next year. They were also disappointed that SOCOG was simply imposing its solution without consultation. There were protests and opposition. SOCOG's response was to modify the structure slightly, shorten building time and buy off the local council.

SOCOG is merely a highly visible exemplar of an operating style that permeates public life and many institutions in Australia. This was what the public decisively voted down when it killed the Keating Turnbull republic in last weekend's referendum.


Simon Orme made narrow escapes from both the New Zealand Treasury and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now lives in Sydney, working as a strategic consultant.

Email: simonorme@hotmail.com

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