‘A Games anywhere is better than no Games’: Victoria’s call could move it to 2027

By Kieran Rooney and Rachel Eddie

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The Commonwealth Games was already facing a time crunch for 2026 before Victoria detonated its multi-city regional event. Now, it could be delayed until 2027 and scaled down as multiple inquiries grapple with how the event spun out of control.

A Senate committee probing the short-lived Games and hundreds of pages of formerly confidential documents published by the Andrews government have laid out the story of how a worthy objective to boost tourism, housing and infrastructure in regional communities became too big to handle.

Commonwealth Games Australia chief executive Craig Phillips speaking at an earlier Senate hearing.Credit: Eamon Gallagher

As Eddie McGuire, Visit Victoria board member and sports and television personality put it in an interview with The Age: “It was, on paper, a good idea, until it wasn’t.”

A simple idea was hampered by “inexplicable” decisions from the government, one disillusioned witness, a security adviser to the Games, explained to senators on Friday.

The inquiry heard confirmation for the first time that Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan, then the minister for delivering the Games, sought $1.3 billion worth of federal funding in a March 2 letter to the federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine King.

That request was still being considered when the Games were cancelled.

Commonwealth Games Australia chief executive Craig Phillips also confirmed the international body in charge of the event may move it into 2027 and scale it down as it searches for a host city to replace Victoria.

But organisers are yet to settle on a substitute model and have not met with the federal government or any other Australian state about hosting.

“We don’t want to rush to a ‘no’,” Phillips told the inquiry on Friday.

“Whatever the solution, a Games anywhere is better than no Games … It may be a scaled-back version of the Games, given the time we have.”

Phillips said organisers would have to dispel the perception that a new host would have to find more than $6 billion, after Premier Daniel Andrews claimed the cost of Victoria’s model had escalated from $2.6 billion to up to $7 billion. The state agreed to a $380 million compensation package with the Commonwealth Games Federation.

Neil Fergus, an adviser to the Commonwealth Games Federation, who sat on the 2026 security working group, gave evidence on Friday that Victoria pursued some “very odd” choices before detonating the event in July.

Money was going to be sunk into an expensive but temporary velodrome for women’s cycling in Bendigo, and hosting women’s cricket in Gippsland was “a very odd one” given it was one of the most sought-after competitions in Birmingham, he said.

“The notion of putting in a temporary [pool] and ripping it up in Armstrong Creek, to me, was somewhat inexplicable,” Fergus said.

Happier times, when work was beginning in Geelong.

“When I raised questions about some of the venues, we were told, ‘well, it’s coming from the Victorian government’.

“I was impressed with the intellect of the people [on the organising committee]. There were some really competent people, but it was also fairly evident that there wasn’t a lot of events experience.”

Victorian Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie said the state government showed arrogance by dismissing concerns Fergus raised about the cost of chosen venues.

The state government defended the experience of the committee, which included the former chief executive of the Men’s ICC T20 World Cup.

“Decisions around the mix of sports and proposed locations for events during the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games were made in partnership with Commonwealth Games Australia and the Commonwealth Games Federation, with focus on the lasting legacy for regional Victoria,” a spokeswoman said.

Victorian Labor is still continuing with $2 billion worth of legacy infrastructure, including an aquatic centre in Armstrong Creek, in Geelong’s south.

Fergus, who has been involved in most Olympic and Commonwealth Games since Sydney 2000, said dispersing villages to spread the benefit was a worthy aim that had been achieved last year in Birmingham.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announcing he was cancelling the 2026 Commonwealth Games..Credit: AAP

“So there was, and that’s not the first time, an intention to spread the benefits. It just needs to be measured,” he said.

McGuire, who sits on the board of the state’s major tourism and events agency, Visit Victoria, said the push for the Commonwealth Games “made a lot of sense” as a lead in to the Brisbane 2032 Olympics when it first emerged.

“The rationale behind having it made total sense. As usual, Victoria was ahead of everybody on it,” he said.

“The decision to go from having an event in Melbourne to the rural areas also makes perfect sense, given the flight to the country that we experienced during COVID.

“But what we also found is there was a lack of infrastructure, and this was a good idea to kill two birds with one stone.”

As Andrews has been at pains to point out, McGuire said material and labour shortages were proving insurmountable for anyone trying to build in Australia.

Premier Daniel Andrews and former major events minister Martin Pakula last year.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

Melbourne’s 2006 Games had raised the bar and Andrews was keen to deliver another event “like no other” to stand out on a global scale.

Once announced, 2026 organisers were inundated with requests from regions that wanted to cash in.

Bass Coast Shire Council was on the cusp of securing a deal with Team Scotland and Wales to host the athletes in the region.

Speaking at a Senate hearing last month, former major events minister Martin Pakula said there was a “great hunger” for the benefits of the Games to be spread and dispersed across the state when first announced.

“I remember very clearly having people come to me and say ‘why not Mildura, why not Shepparton, why not Warrnambool and why not Nagambie’?”

While the government rejects there was a political overlay that defined some decisions for Games locations and venues, convenient changes to the lineup were made in the lead-up to last year’s state election.

Aquatics and gymnastics were moved from a safe Labor seat to a marginal one. Rugby sevens and women’s cricket were proposed for Gippsland, where votes were crucial to maintain two upper house Labor MPs.

Labor was also keen to keep the Coalition out of Shepparton, which was not part of the original three-city model.

With eight hours’ notice of the cancellation in July, a frustrated Commonwealth Games Federation said the state government had decided to “include more sports and an additional regional hub, and changed plans for venues, all of which have added considerable expense, often against the advice of [Games officials].”

Before the Games grew out of control, business case documents show consultants and bureaucrats were under pressure to work under tight deadlines and unable to talk outside of a small group of those who knew the bid was underway.

The Age this week revealed that consultants DHW Ludus, working on the facilities’ assessment in January 2022, had seven days to analyse the needs and capital costs of three sports belatedly added to the lineup.

The Games business case, by lead consultants Ernst & Young, warned the information they had to work with was limited given timing and secrecy provisions.

“Time has not permitted a more robust ‘bottom up’ approach as key elements of Games planning are not yet understood,” the document said.

By July 2023, the government estimated transport and security costs were more than double those predicted in the original document and blamed the invasion of Ukraine, COVID-19 and interest rate rises.

The government has refused to publicly release the workings behind the updated July 2023 costs, which will be provided to the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office. Victoria’s upper house has also launched an inquiry.

This mob of eastern grey kangaroos was being progressively fenced off from the future Commonwealth Games village in Bendigo.Credit: Joe Armao

The government began exploring a “day out” model where many spectators stayed in Melbourne, with additional train services. But three government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said V/Line’s network was still not built for this demand.

“Morwell is a bloody long way away from Bendigo. We’re not going to run a world whereby we’re going to go to rugby sevens in Morwell in the morning and then pop over to watch a bit of netball in the afternoon in Bendigo,” Jeroen Weimar, the government-appointed chief executive of the organising committee said at an event in February.

Spectators would be unable to park at sports events, meaning thousands of buses would be needed within the Games hubs and accommodation centres.

Caravan Industry Victoria chief executive Daniel Sahlberg claimed the government had assumed the industry would provide 10,000 caravans to house Games staff and volunteers free of charge, although the government denies there was ever a formal request.

“Accommodation became a big question mark,” one former government employee said.

“You couldn’t ask a motel in Ballarat to find room for another 100 people, but we were increasingly finding accommodation in surrounding areas [which] just compounded the cost of transport.”

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