Atlas F1 From the Banking to the Barricades:
Protest Movements and F1

  by Mark Glendenning, Australia

Part One: Save Albert Park

Ask a Melbournian to tell you about Save Albert Park (SAP), and you'll probably get one of two responses. The first goes something like: "oh yeah, they're those guys that do nothing but sit around in a tent all day." The second is: "Save Albert Park? Are those guys still protesting?" The former is hugely inaccurate, and the answer to the second is pretty straightforward: Yes. SAP are very much alive, and are still highly active.

The marina at Albert ParkSAP formed five years ago to protest against plans to stage the Grand Prix at Albert Park Lake. Understanding their ideology and intentions requires a little background information on the circumstances that saw the Australian Grand Prix pull up its pegs in Adelaide and move 600km east to Melbourne.

Negotiations for the relocation of the race, conducted between Bernie Ecclestone, Jeff Kennett, who was the Victorian State Premier at the time, and Ron Walker, a friend of Kennett's who heads the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, were an immaculately kept secret. Melbournians were certainly surprised by the announcement that the sound of F1 engines were to split their air from 1996 onwards; to say that the Adelaide race organisers, who were under the impression that the extension of their contract to hold the race was a mere formality, felt the same would be a colossal understatement.

The secrecy that surrounded the negotiations to bring the Grand Prix to Melbourne meant that there was no public consultation regarding the matter whatsoever. This presented a problem - Albert Park is public parkland used for a variety of recreational purposes; the fact that the race weekend would see access to the park restricted to those who had purchased tickets, coupled with the disruption caused by the installation and removal of the non-permanent parts of race infrastructure (such as grandstands) in the weeks before and after the race, caused considerable uproar amongst certain sections of the population.

The problem was compounded by the location of Albert Park itself. The park is only 3km from Melbourne's center, and it lies within a fairly affluent part of the city. The area features a large population of doctors, lawyers, academics, and other well-to-do, white-collar types who were less than impressed to suddenly find a Grand Prix on their doorstep. In this regard, it's hard not to be sympathetic toward them. If you have ever attended a Grand Prix, one of the first things that probably struck you was the noise. A Formula One car is very, very loud. To suddenly find that you live less than 500m from an active Grand Prix circuit would probably represent the realisation of a dream for many of you who are reading this, but if you had no interest in F1 whatsoever then it would be a fairly difficult situation to come to terms with.

A series of public rallies were staged to protest the plans, and it was one of these occasions that saw the foundation of what was to become SAP. According to the group's literature, their primary objective is to remove the Grand Prix from Albert Park and restore the area as public parkland. In reality, the scope of their aims has become a little broader. As the group has developed, the issues that they have taken on range from those with a tenuous connection with the race being held at Albert Park (such as that of tobacco sponsorship), to those with no real connection at all (e.g. State political issues).

That SAP have broadened the scope of their interests to such a great extent has positive and negative consequences for both themselves and the race's supporters. On one hand, it could be argued that such a diversification of interests could result in a dilution of the efforts being concentrated upon removing the race from Albert Park. Given that the nature of Melbourne's contract to hold the race is apparently conditional upon the Grand Prix being run at Albert Park, this is obviously a good thing for those who descend upon the circuit around the lake every March.

It also exposes the group to the risk of undermining their own credibility in the eyes of the casual observer, who may be prompted to think, 'well, if SAP is devoted to ending the Grand Prix in Albert Park, then why are they protesting about privatisation of State assets?' On the other hand, SAP would (and indeed have) argue that the Grand Prix at Albert Park was essentially a microcosmic representation of the political atmosphere within the state of Victoria as a whole. Whether they still believe that this is the case now that there has been a change in government remains to be seen.

Attacking such a broad range of issues also plays one other particularly crucial role for SAP. It ensures their continued existence. With the Grand Prix being an annual event, it would be difficult to sustain the interest of members during the periods when the race was far away, which in turn would interfere with the group's momentum. Come March, it would be far easier to mobilize a group of people who have been relatively active throughout the year, rather than trying to round up all those who had protested the year before and then disappeared into the woodwork. Coupled with a fairly liberal sprinkling of propaganda in each of the group's monthly newsletters, the act of addressing a number of issues promotes a sense of continuity, cohesion, and unity within the group that is undoubtedly a major factor in the group's resilience.

Probably the greatest misconception surrounding SAP is the idea that they are little more than a ramshackle bunch of silver-haired crusaders who have nothing better to do with their time than complain about a car race. Wrong. SAP has a core membership (i.e. those who play an active role in the group's activities) numbering somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred, and a financial membership that apparently numbers well over one thousand.

They have a large and impressive home base in South Melbourne, which ironically was the original office of the AGPC when the race first moved to Albert Park. The group also has a very sophisticated organisational system, comprising of a clearly defined management structure and a number of 'working groups' that are responsible for specific aspects of SAP's activities, ranging from the Vigil tent to fundraising. The security and efficiency that is borne out of SAP's organisational system is another major reason that the group has survived far beyond the standard shelf life of community-based protest movements.

SAP actions take a variety of forms. The most visible is the 'Vigil' - a tent that they have set up on the edge of Albert Park directly across the road from the AGPC offices. The tent has been manned almost every day since November 1994, and SAP intends to maintain it until the race finally leaves the site. The Vigil is by no means the full extent of the group's activities, however most other direct action is restricted to the lead-up to the race; and to the race weekend itself.

Attempts to interfere with the Grand Prix preparations, or occupy the site once it has been adapted, are virtually a matter of routine. One example of this occurred on the Wednesday prior to the 1999 race, when a handful of SAP members managed to enter the circuit and cuff themselves to the pit wall in front of the Ferrari garage. They then proceeded to conduct an impromptu press conference for the international media, who were present to inspect the pit area.

Some of SAP's other activities have been a little more imaginative. Every year, for example, members cover their rooftops with anti-GP slogans. According to their April 1999 Newsletter, "No-one arriving at the Grand Prix by helicopter can miss them." Sounds like they might be confusing Melbourne with Silverstone, but it's a nice idea anyway. Another occasion saw a number of SAP members obtain tickets to the Fangio Stand (which stands directly opposite the pitlane), where they proceeded to unfurl an enormous anti-GP banner. Unfortunately for them, the Australian Grand Prix has restrictions on the size of banners that may be displayed at the Grand Prix. The protesters were subsequently ejected from the circuit on the grounds that their banner exceeded the maximum permissible dimensions.

Other actions that were threatened by the group prior to the first race at Albert Park in 1996 could potentially have proved more entertaining than the race itself. One particularly famous rumour was the group planned to release hundreds of live rabbits onto the track immediately prior to the race start, while another idea was to 'buzz' the track with ultra-light aircraft. On a slightly different note, one elderly member was quoted in a Melbourne newspaper as saying that he was quite prepared to throw himself in front of an F1 car during the race; an act that presumably would have seen him become the world's first anti-F1 martyr.

Until relatively recently, the future of the Grand Prix at Albert Park was an open question. July 1998 saw Kennett's conservative Liberal Party government extend Melbourne's contract for the race to 2006, but they were noncommittal about the likelihood of hosting the race beyond then. Indications that a change in the climate was on its way first became apparent when John Brumby, the leader of the Labor Party (the main opposition party in Victoria at the time), was replaced by Steve Bracks who, when questioned about the Grand Prix, indicated that Melbourne would honour its commitment to hold the race in Albert Park should his party be elected into government.

This was a surprise for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Labor had originally been vocal opponents of the race in Albert Park. Even more surprising then, were Bracks' comments at the launch of the 2000 Australian Grand Prix on November 17 this year. As was reported in Melbourne newspaper The Herald-Sun the next day, Bracks, who lead Labor to victory over Kennett and the Liberals in October, not only promised to make the details of the Grand Prix contract public, but also declared: "We will keep it (the Grand Prix) where it is and we want to extend the contract past 2006 if we can. We want to keep the Grand Prix in Melbourne."

So at the end of the day, what are SAP's chances of succeeding in their efforts? In all honesty, they'd be slim at best. The race will not remain in Melbourne forever - it's difficult to imagine a '50th anniversary' celebration in 2046 - but its future will be determined by politics, rather than any opposition from community groups; irrespective of how vocal, persistent, or well-organized they may be. At present, the government believes that the benefits of hosting the Grand Prix outweigh the considerable costs. As long as this is the case (and assuming that Bernie doesn't suddenly decide that he's sick of traveling to Melbourne), the race will remain. As soon as the government decides that it has extracted all it can from the race, it will be let go. It's as simple as that.

Next week: Part 2 - Save the Monza Banking.

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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